Paleo Diet News: The Truth Behind 'The China Study'

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

‎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’.

Denise Minger & T. Colin Campbell. Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Brian Cormack Carr is a freelance writer and coach whose mission in life is to help YOU do what you were designed for.
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6 Responses to Paleo Diet News: The Truth Behind 'The China Study'

  1. Mandarin Language Lessons December 20, 2011 at 11:26 pm

    I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed your site and this post. You make some very informative points. Keep up the great work!

  2. T January 8, 2012 at 2:22 pm

    Its always easy to look at individual statistics and find what you want in them. Both Denise Minger and T. Colin Campbell do this (but in general T. Colin Campbell looks at the whole picture). However T. Colin Campbell’s opinion I feel is much more justified than Denise Minger (I know writing this on a paleo website is gunna piss a lot of people off….but when all you do is talk amongst each other and agree all the time you never learn anything of substance). He has been in the industry for 45+ years and has spent his entire working career research and studying this topic…..she went vegan for a while as a kid and got sick and then read and studied his book….hardly a comparisson! He has had 350 peer review papers and his book has been widely praised by nobel prize winners, the president of the american cancer institute and many other “top of their game” doctors. She blogs on the internet.

    There have already been many critiques of denise mingers study; even t. colin campbell has written a rebuttal to her blog

    and some other great rebuttals found here At the end of the day, the likes of Dr Caldwell Esselstyn, Dr Dean Ornish and others have had tremendous success with taking heart patients onto a whole foods plant based diet.

    Before people jump on the Minger bandwagon; its worth looking a little bit further

    • Lila Solnick January 8, 2012 at 3:54 pm

      Don’t worry about getting “up our dander” here. Contrary opinions are welcome! In this case I’m going to let the author, Brian, make a more detailed reply.

      In my own research and personal experience, a vegan diet is just not adequate for humans to thrive. Survive, yes, but I and many others, want to thrive, living totally disease and pain free. Nearly every vegan/vegetarian I know has some health issue, some quite severe. They don’t really talk about it. I suspect that they are fine with this price they think they have to pay to not eat animals. And I’m fine with that too. It is their decision.

      Although there has been no research done that I know of, I suspect the reason that Drs Esselstyn, & Ornish have had success with heart patients is that these people were probably eating the SAD diet before. ANY change that includes more veggies and fruits, less or no processed foods or grains, will result in an improvement in health. It is the long term that I wonder about. Do these people remain healthy after 5, 10 years? Do conditions other than heart disease arise? My guess (and that is all it is, I admit) is that these diets cannot be maintained and the dieters stop following them as strictly after a while. But even if that is so, if they do not go back to processed foods, continue to eat fruits and veggies while adding animal protein and fat back in, they will do really well, since that is basically an ancestral diet.

      Thank you for visiting and taking the time to post a comment!

      • T January 8, 2012 at 4:43 pm

        Hey Lila,
        Thanks for your prompt reply. I love it when you find forums where people can discuss their opinions openly without tempers flaring and emotional blindness getting in the way!

        You may be right about the vegan diet being based on surviving and not thriving; but win the long term surviving will come before thriving as it is most likely the only sustainable way of living due to a rising population and environmental concerns. The demand for meat is already having a massive strain on the world and if we carry being slaves to our desire and live off a meat based diet then we will find that future generations may be facing a very grim future. Look at the current state of the fisheries, almost all of which are only the brink of collapse. But sorry, I have completely gone off track, this forum is not about the future but about nutrition. My bad…..I sometimes trail off on tangents!

        What you will see however if you look deep enough is that the cultures today that live primarily on grains, vegetables, legumes and general plant based diets generally have very good health. Look at the likes of japan (maybe not so much anymore thanks to the influence of the western diet), thailand, china and many other asian countries. These people generally have their main dishes based around rice, noodles, fresh vegetables and fruit. If you truly think that grains are bad for us then how come these countries barely have any breast cancer, bowel cancer, heart disease, diabetes, strokes etc. yet live on grains? These cultures have very good health and generally have very long life spans….the average caveman on the other hand generally died very young (in fairness there was not modern medicine back then). But any diet that says lentils are not allowed always makes me view with caution….also the fact that certain paleo communities allow diet soda and small doses of alcohol (This seems a bit convenient when “our ancestors” not being able to source a lite beer on a cold day) makes me question how legitimate the integrity of the diet is.

        As far as the long term health of the patients from Dr Esselstyn and Ornish etc. You should really look into it, the results are pretty amazing. Dr Esselstyn in a study had 18 patients that collectively had 49 forms/experiences of heart disease on their current SAD. After putting them on a whole foods plant based diet they collectively had 0 instances of heart disease and continue to this day (25 years after going whole foods) to never have another problem with their heart again. There are many other proven studies like this; but it definitely pays to vary your source of information (just like I do by coming onto websites like this and read literature from opposite perspective views on diet from my own. That I found truly is the best way to learn).

        Thanks for the chat

  3. ben dover June 10, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    we can agree, animal based any thang promotes bad cholestoral…?

    • Lila Solnick June 11, 2012 at 8:43 pm

      Ben, there is a lot more to the cholesterol story than just saying that there is good and bad cholesterol or that high levels are bad. Eating foods that are high in cholesterol do not translate into high blood cholesterol. Also, high cholesterol is not bad or dangerous as long as the ratio between LDL and HDL is correct. As I said there is a lot more to this story and if you want to learn more about it go to this site: