He is the author of the most comprehensive study ever on nutrition. He discovered an irrefutable link between nutrition and heart disease, diabetes and cancer. He has since converted millions, including Bill Clinton, to a plant-based diet. Meet Dr T. Colin Campbell
Food is a minefield. Socially, culturally and economically, we have made what we eat a lot more than just dinner. It is taste, status, power, profit, religion, ideology, politics.
What we may have forgotten – and the evidence is all around us within our own bodies, in the form of chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer and obesity – is that food is both nutrition and medicine. We have, says Dr T. Colin Campbell, been left to fend for ourselves nutritionally, while under the marketing onslaught of the food and drug industries.
"Having started a research and teaching career in nutrition over 50 years ago, I have seen the passion, the frivolity and the arrogance over and over and over when people talk about their food choices," Dr Campbell wrote recently in 'The Huffington Post'.
"This topic is very, very personal. It's sad because I do not see very much progress over these last four to five decades. Lots of shouting and not much constructive thought."
Dr Campbell is emeritus professor of biochemical medicine at Cornell University in the US. He has been examining the link between food and health for more than 50 years. Almost 10 years ago, he and his son, also a doctor, wrote 'The China Study', which involved correlating health information from 6,500 people in China – 100 people from each of 65 different areas.
Monitoring the long-term diets of the 6,500 people, the father and son doctors then examined mortality rates from dozens of different cancers and other long-term diseases. The results were stark – people who ate a plant-based diet were healthier and far less prone to disease. Those who ate animal-based foods were far more likely to develop 'Western' diseases.
Dr Campbell has always suspected this, having begun his work in the Philippines decades ago, devising healthy, sustainable nutrition for malnourished children. He knows the link between food and health is far, far greater than most of us realise.
"Properly practiced nutrition, as a dietary lifestyle, can do more to create health and save healthcare costs than all the contemporary medical interventions put together," he wrote.
He says that modern science became too obsessed with isolating the benefits of individual nutrients – hence the enormous market for vitamins and supplements – while losing sight of the bigger holistic picture; that good health is about wholefoods, not taking vitamin pills, or isolating food groups; that traditional orthodoxy around nutrition has been too focused on scientific reductionism.
'The China Study' was published by a small Texan publisher, because major publishers wanted Dr Campbell to make his book more commercial by making it mostly about recipes. He refused to dumb down, but even without much marketing, the book went on to sell a million copies.
Its most famous advocate is former US president Bill Clinton. When asked on CNN about his dramatic weight loss, Clinton mentioned Dr Campbell's book. To prevent heart disease and other lifestyle associated illnesses, Clinton had put down the burgers and animal-based junk food which he so famously loved and adopted a plant-based diet. In other words, Clinton went vegan.
Dr Campbell dislikes the terms vegan and vegetarian, because they come with ideological baggage. He is all about the science.
"Nutrition has value beyond what we think we know," he tells me. "It can prevent future disease, it can cure heart disease and diabetes, and reverse and stop others. The effect of what we eat on our bodies is extraordinary. When people eat the right food, their angina pain can go away within a week. It's extraordinary. No drugs come close.
"With cancer, we can turn on and off advancement via our protein intake. It affects cholesterol, hyper tension, body weight. In 10-day studies, the cholesterol of a group of fairly healthy individuals dropped from an average of 196 to 149, just by changing what they ate to plant-based wholefoods.
"Each cell in our body is like a universe – extraordinarily complex, and replicated 100 trillion times within us. We need to acknowledge this complexity. And animal proteins stimulate cell division."
Dr Campbell will be giving his first talk in Ireland this August. "There has been an explosion of interest in the idea," he says. "Yet it is so foreign to so many people – but the contemporary medical institution is becoming more and more interested."
Since discovering the health benefits of avoiding animal protein, Campbell's entire family now follow a plant-based diet. "You can really see the benefits," he says. His latest book, 'Whole: Rethinking The Science Of Nutrition', explains the process in greater detail.
The reason Dr Campbell's idea of a plant-based diet is so foreign to so many people is that we have been told from birth that meat, fish and dairy are essential for good health. The widespread perception of a plant-based diet – that is, veganism – is akin to having special needs. That without meat, fish, cream, butter and cheese, culinary life is not worth living.
Ever come across a vegan restaurant critic? Me neither. It's because they don't exist.
Dr Campbell is not, however, a hippy. He is all about the empirical data.
"I'm not into animal rights," he says, adding that he used to conduct animal experiments. Which makes him that most extraordinary combination of vegan ex-vivisectionist. But still. I wonder if eating a plant-based diet makes for a more peaceful individual and a wider peacefulness, or is that just hippy dippy nonsense?
After all, Dr Campbell is all about the evidence, rather than the vibes. But he says it does. Making burgers involves environmental violence on a vast scale, where natural cover is flattened for grazing, usually in countries that are too poor to object.
On an individual level, people who consume a plant-based diet tend to feel better about themselves because they are healthier, lighter and therefore happier. It's a bit of a no-brainer.
Weirdly, and by complete coincidence, my interview with Dr Campbell – whose books I have not yet read – comes a week after my own transition to a plant-based diet. In my 40s, overweight and starting to ache, and having tried everything else, I was inspired by a handful of friends who had been raised vegan for ideological reasons (hippy mothers) and who, in their 40s, glow with the lightness and good health of a life-long plant-based diet.
I wanted what they had, so decided to make the change. In less than a fortnight I can feel a difference both in my energy levels and tastebuds, although this is by no means a quick fix. This is long-term, focused nutrition. It is food mindfulness. And it's kind of exciting, rediscovering food in middle age, and exploring new ways of cooking and eating.
But this is not about recipes. It's bigger than that.
"I have given close to 500 lectures on the subject, and continue to be astounded about the effects not just on heart disease, cancer and diabetes, but on arthritic pain, muscular pain, general aches and pains – they just go away," says Dr Campbell. "It's remarkable."
His suggestions are straightforward. As well as avoiding meat and fish, he advocates eating wholefoods – that is, unprocessed, unadulterated, intact. Don't fry your food, cut down on refined carbohydrates. And then there's the biggie.
"Number one, eliminate dairy," says Dr Campbell. "We are the only species on the planet which consumes mothers' milk beyond weaning. Human milk is obviously perfect for us, but instead we use cows."
When you think about dairy, it makes no sense. Of course it's a source of enormous deliciousness, but we are flexible creatures and 'delicious' is a movable feast. Nutritionally, consuming as a matter of course milk intended for baby cows is physiologically peculiar, but we don't question it.
Dr Campbell reckons our bodies do question it, however, in the form of chronic disease. Not that he is puritan – beer and wine are plant-based, he says, and are fine in moderation.
"I make as many enemies as friends," he says mildly. "But all I am saying is that we rediscover Hippocrates' main idea from 2,500 years ago – let food be thy medicine, let medicine be thy food."
'The China Study: The Link Between Diet and Disease' by Dr Colin T. Campbell