Friday, June 14, 2013

The Reading List: The China Study

The China Study
The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted And the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, And Long-term Health

by T. Colin Campbell

For a book called The China Study and partially subtitled "The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted," there is remarkably little about the actual China Study in this book.  It's kind of a shame, because the glimpses we get seem pretty interesting.  But allowances have to be made, because a book can only be so long, and room needed to be made for a long introduction about how T. Colin Campbell is very, very right and everyone else is very, very wrong, and for a long back half about how -- and this will shock you, I know -- business entities often disseminate information about nutrition that is not entirely untainted by self-interest.  It turns out that they are even responsible for questionable scientific projects and poor government policies, and T. Colin Campbell has been involved with this and has good war stories.

Dr. Campbell's core message -- his dangerous idea that business, government, the schools, and the health care system don't want you to know -- is that you should be eating more veggies.  And, that Americans eat too much protein.  And, that meat isn't very good for you.  And, that dairy products and eggs aren't that great for you either.

Now in some ways I'm doing Dr. Campbell a disservice, because it is awfully hard to find a book about nutrition that is not plentifully stupid -- they tend to get linked to diet plans, you know -- and that probably means that there are some challenges to writing books about nutrition and shepherding them into publication.  I like that he brings some statistical heat to the party, and is even willing to introduce the concept of standard deviation, as if we had high school diplomas or something.  He documents well.  And he has a spunky anti-reductionist agenda, insisting on looking at nutrition as food instead of chemical components.  For instance, he's going to argue that, when we make the observation that a high-fiber diet is associated with certain health benefits, this shouldn't suggest that we isolate fiber as a nutritional additive or supplement.  Rather, it probably means that many of the foods with high fiber content are good foods to be eating.  And I think he might be on to something there.

Let's do a quick run-through of his radical claims:
(1) Should you be eating more veggies?  Of course.  Everyone above the age of one knows that they should be eating more veggies.  It would be quite impossible to live in our culture and not know, certain as the sun will come up tomorrow, that you should be eating more veggies.  Dr. Campbell thinks that this concept is being obfuscated (it may be, but not with any success) and that everyone would start tucking into more veggies if only they understood nutrition better.  I think Dr. Campbell is whistling Dixie.

(2) Do Americans eat much too much protein?  This, too, I think is common knowledge.  Is it not?  I can't remember ever not knowing this.  The low-carb craze of the mid-aughts is a counterargument, but it was also pretty risible and ran its course in a short season.

(3) Do people realize that meat isn't good for you? I'm pretty sure they do.  I've eaten a minimal-meat diet for getting-on-thirty years (most of my friends believe, not quite correctly, that I am a vegetarian), and this has been despite my best evasive efforts the cause for many, many tedious conversations about meat.  In these conversations, I'm usually presented with an unsolicited list of reasons practical, aesthetic, familial, sociocultural, or pretend-compulsive that the person I'm talking to is not able to abstain from meat.  If people thought the stuff was healthy, they wouldn't spend time justifying the decision to eat it, they'd just let me eat my cookies and get on with it. 

(4) Dairy and eggs.  This is tougher going for me personally, since yogurt and cheese are pretty prevalent in my diet.  Dr. Campbell scores some real hits on eggs, although this part of his argument is based more in logic and inference than in direct evidence.  Against this, I realize that I've given special status to eggs for 23 years based on, um, something somebody told me once in a grocery store checkout line; I should probably give the matter closer study.   Dairy is among Campbell's biggest targets.  Based on research in India, the Philippines, and China, he believes that casein (the main protein in milk) is a catalyst for cancers.  I don't believe, however, that he ever mentions the well-known genetic mutation that gives many people of European descent, including myself, the ability to fully metabolize milk into adulthood, and this strikes me as strange.  It seems reasonable to wonder whether people so affected might process casein differently than those without it.

The China Study is written in such an oafishly polemical style that I almost could not read it.  And yet, having waded through to the farther shore, it is a book that promises to be a little bit life-changing.  Ever since I made it past the insufferable first chapter, I have been eating more veggies, fewer eggs, and less dairy.  Well, actually the veggies part had already been happening, but China Study certainly didn't hurt.  I'm considering getting a personal copy of the book, so I can reread the lucid bits from time to time.

I highly recommend reading Chapters 2 through 12 of The China Study. You miss nothing of importance and much of bluster in the introductory materials and Chapter 1; Chapter 2 is really where the content begins.  The part about the actual China Study is in Chapter 4.  You should read Chapters 13-18 if you are interested in the politics of food, or if you are a college student, or if you haven't been paying attention and want to feel outraged.  They will, however, not give you any additional information about nutrition and health.


Elizabeth said...

I'm sure I remember an entire section devoted to eating raw tomatoes in there - you're taking that to heart, right?

Christine M. said...

I'm going to try Mark Bittman's VB6 plan. Looks pretty doable.

Michael5000 said...

You know, there is a tacqueria that I eat at a couple of times a week with a fabulous fabulous salsa that is mostly raw tomato, but somehow between the onions and cilantro and garlic and chips and of course salt it is delicious. So I'm actually packing in as much raw tomato as could be expected.