There can be no doubt that T. Colin Campbell’s book ‘The China Study’ is one that has gained considerable prominence amongst nutritionists from all backgrounds, not least because it proclaims itself as ‘the most comprehensive study of nutrition ever conducted’.
Some hold it up as the manifesto which proves the sense of a plant-based, vegan diet (the book posits that such a diet is the optimum one for human beings and will reduce the likelihood of disease); others dismiss it as propaganda which is significantly skewed by the author’s own dietary choices. So what is the truth behind ‘The China Study’?
By far the most nuanced analysis I have found comes from the pen of Denise Minger, blogger at Raw Food SOS. Her most accessible critique (to the layman) can be found in her article The China Study: Fact or Fallacy?, and she has also completed a more thorough, formal, and referenced critique in The China Study: A Formal Analysis or Response. Her blog also outlines an ongoing online dialogue on the subject.
In my opinion, everyone who reads the book should read Ms. Minger’s articles too, before coming to any conclusions; not least because they are far from a hatchet job (her approach proactively notes where Campbell’s conclusions are accurate, as well as where they are less so).
In particular, it’s worth being aware of the facts the next time someone tells you, in all sincerity, that a plant-based diet has been ‘proven’ to be the optimal one for human beings and that consumption of animal proteins will kill you. They will no doubt be firm in their own view of the truth behind ‘The China Study’. Before you respond to them, here’s a useful summary of some key points to be aware of from Denise:
1. The actual China Study data shows that cholesterol isn’t associated with heart disease/stroke, and that animal food intake is *negatively* associated with cardiovascular disease. Here’s an actual quote from one of Campbell’s own papers — “it is the largely vegetarian, inland communities who have the greatest all risk mortalities and morbidities and who have the lowest LDL cholesterols.” (From http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1095643303000163)
2. The China Study showed that wheat flour had the strongest association with heart disease out of any food. Campbell also acknowledged this in at least one of his peer-reviewed papers.
3. In observational studies like the China Study, we can never prove cause and effect — so anything drawn from that data is inconclusive anyway.
4. Campbell’s rat experiments, the focus for a good chunk of the book, are woefully misrepresented. He claims that rats fed diets low in animal protein were protected from cancer after being exposed to a carcinogen, whereas the rats fed higher amounts of animal protein (casein) got cancer. This is sort of true, but the main reason the low-protein rats didn’t get cancer was because they were so malnourished that their livers couldn’t properly detoxify stuff — so instead of getting cancer, they just died.
5. Also, Campbell makes the unfounded leap to say that the effects of isolated casein on rats apply to all forms of animal protein in the human diet. This leap of logic ought to leave anyone scratching their head.
6. Nowhere in the book is there a comparison of a high-quality, whole-foods omnivore diet with a whole-foods vegan diet… largely because there aren’t any studies comparing the two. Rather, he lumps animal foods in with refined/processed foods and blames them collectively for modern diseases.
I doubt I’m alone in thinking that sincere thanks are due to Denise Minger for her efforts in ensuring that we can all take a wider perspective on the truth behind ‘The China Study’.
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