The Whole Truth
The Whole TruthJuliet Gellatley looks at a brave and provocative new book, Whole by T. Colin Campbell with Howard Jacobson, that seriously challenges the world of nutrition
T. Colin Campbell knows a thing or two about nutrition! To appreciate the importance of Whole, you have to know Campbell’s background. For over 50 years he’s been at the forefront of nutrition research authoring more than 300 scientific papers. His specialist interest is the impact of diet on our long term health and particularly on cancer. He is Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University, US.
His legacy, the best-selling and brilliant book the China Study, was the culmination of a 20-year partnership he headed between Cornell University, Oxford University and the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine.
This work is recognised as the most comprehensive nutritional study ever conducted on the relationship between diet and our risk of developing disease – and he details the connection between what we eat and heart disease, diabetes and cancer. One clear finding, that as the son of a dairy farmer he had to grapple with, is that animal protein (especially casein from cows’ milk) vigorously promotes cancer.
The results of the China Study led Campbell to champion the whole food (WF) vegan diet as the best diet for human health. He admits to naïveté when the book hit the shelves in 2005 as he hoped the incontrovertible evidence would shake up our way of eating. To a limited extent that happened but the mainstream culture in the US and other Western nations has not embraced plant-based eating. Whole is an attempt to answer the very troubling question: if the evidence for a whole food vegan diet is so convincing, why has so little been done to promote it? Why do so few know about it?
Whole is a passionate appraisal of our crazy healthcare system. It is a plea for change in the way science views and dismisses the impact of diet on health and a call for an end to our love affair with drugs and supplements. It also explores the reason why it is so hard to accept – to even register – the science showing that meat and dairy cause disease and that whole plant foods protect us.
Whole examines the mental prison, or paradigm, in which Western science and medicine operates, which makes it impossible to see the obvious facts that lie outside it. For many reasons, we look for truth only in the smallest details while ignoring the big picture. The fancy word for this obsession with minutiae is reductionism. To reductionists, all other worldviews are unscientific and sloppy; so evidence gathered by non-reductionist means, such as observational studies of how diet impacts on disease, are usually ignored or suppressed.
Campbell gives many examples of how medical and drug industries exploit this paradigm to their own financial ends; how government kowtows and protects Big Pharma; and how, tragically, huge health charities play a major part in misinforming the public about the best ways to reduce chronic diseases.
Campbell shows that then medicinal, pharmaceutical and supplement (yes, supplement!) industries figured out long ago that a nation of healthy vegan eaters would be disastrous to their profits. They make much more money ignoring and discrediting the evidence for a WF vegan diet (which Campbell refers to as a whole food plant-based diet or WFPB) than by embracing it.
If the WF vegan diet were a pill, he argues, its inventor would be the wealthiest person on earth. Since it isn’t a pill, no market forces conspire to advocate for it and no mass media campaign promotes it.
Since it isn’t a pill, and nobody has worked out how to get hugely rich by showing people how to eat it, the truth has been buried by half-truths, unverified claims and downright lies.
Campbell argues that it is ironic that many people who are sceptical of the drug industry, instead bet their lives on nutritional supplements. Annual global sales of dietary supplements have grown fast to $187 billion and about 70 per cent of US adults take them, over half regularly.
Forget apple pie, says Campbell, now nothing is as American as a multivitamin! While the drug industry synthesises the presumed active ingredients from medicinal herbs for prescription drugs, supplement manufacturers aim to extract and bottle the active ingredients in foods. However, just like prescription drugs, the active agents function imperfectly, incompletely and unpredictably when divorced from the plant from which they’re derived or synthesised.
One simple example of the reductionist approach is in the humble apple. We all know the folk wisdom that “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”. Recent science has shown the apple is indeed a health-promoting food. But what is it about an apple that is so beneficial? The average apple is a good source of many nutrients such as vitamins B2, B6, C, K, potassium and fibre. Also it’s got smaller amounts of beta carotene, vitamin E, magnesium, niacin, phosphorus, copper, manganese and many other nutrients. From this long list can we possibly work out what really matters about an apple?
Professor Rui Hai Liu at Cornell University decided to try. He focused on vitamin C and found that vitamin C within a fresh apple has 263 times more antioxidant activity than the same amount of isolated vitamin C. In fact 99 per cent of the antioxidant activity presumed to be from vitamin C in an apple is due to other chemicals which are similar to vitamin C.
Liu found that there is a treasure trove of vitamin C-like compounds in apples. It is now clear there are hundreds, if not thousands of chemicals in apples and other fruits and vegetables, which in turn affect thousands of reactions inside us. Further, those chemicals within the plant influence and ‘help’ each other. The health advantage of a whole apple simply cannot be reproduced in a pill.
The key in Campbell’s argument is that the reductionist mind cannot see the apple as promoting health and leave it at that. If apples are good for us, it can’t be the whole apple, there must be a tiny part of the apple that is responsible for the beneficial effects and the scientists’ job is to extract that ‘thing’ from the apple and work out how much of it people need on a daily basis. The supplement industry then has something to sell.
Scientific studies show us, he states, that not only do most supplements not improve our health but some actually harm us. If this raises your hackles, he also spends much time deflating the drug industry, showing that the side effects from prescription drugs are the third leading cause of death – behind heart disease and cancer – in the US. He eloquently argues that all drugs have multiple effects and none are ‘side effects’ – it is just that BigPharma markets one aspect of the drug that is (hopefully) beneficial.
Campbell also forcefully illustrates how gene technology is not the miracle cure we’ve all been waiting for and the medical establishment hasn’t had any real wins in a long time. Technology has advanced at breakneck pace but technologies that improve health outcomes are hard to find.
While medicine is now much better equipped to save someone’s life after an acute event like a car crash or heart attack than it was 50 years ago, we’re really no better at preventing chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer than we were in the 1950s. Yet we still look for the next medical knight on a white horse to ride to our rescue: the pill, the vaccine, the gene technology…
Campbell argues that what we eat is the primary factor in gene expression and that in the vast majority of cases, good nutrition has a much greater impact on reducing chronic diseases than anything else. At least 80 to 90 per cent of all cancers are related to diet and lifestyle, not to genes, he claims.
Campbell also elegantly exposes how economic forces reinforce and exploit the reductionist paradigm for their own self-interest. He gives examples – many personal and from his highly esteemed career – of the lengths to which establishment bodies and industries go to protect their donations or profits at the expense of our health.
Campbell has tried for years to enact change from the top down but, he says, it simply doesn’t work. The most important step you can take, he maintains (as does Viva! of course), is to change the way you eat – a healthy vegan diet and place responsibility for our health in our own hands. Change will come one person at a time and eventually, policy will shift.
Industry, deprived of the income produced by ill health and our ignorance, will follow. Whole is an inspiring, eloquent, magnificent and eye-opening book, a scientific tour de force with enormous potential for helping change the world.
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