Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition
By T. Colin Campbell, PhD
BenBella Books, 2013
In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer posted May 1, 2013 at philly.com, T. Colin Campbell (TCC) remarked that his new book Whole is “sort of an explanation of why this evidence [that he presented in The China Study] actually works. . .since that book [The China Study] was published, what we know about this is just truly dramatic.” This sort of wandering ramble typifies the tone of TCC’s recent offering.
From the first to last pages of Whole, that “truly dramatic” promised evidence fails to appear. It is very clear that the book lacks a strong argument for the benefits of a plant-based diet as well as missing much more.
TCC’s whole food plant-based diet, which he considers “the ideal human diet,” avoiding animal products, salt and oils, derives eighty percent of calories from carbohydrates, ten percent from fat, and ten percent from protein.
Whole is simply déjà vu for those who have read The China Study. TCC repeats most of his plant-based rhetoric, with few new twists and turns. The China Study has been thoroughly dissected and debunked by Denise Minger and Chris Masterjohn in previous reviews.
So why has TCC written this new book? So that we may know “the truth.” “Millions of people have read about the China Study,” he says, as he paints himself as a “heretic,” another Copernicus, and a hero “blasting through” the boundaries of the scientific paradigm. The only thing blasting through here is a mighty offgassing of excessive hubris, and a lot of whining and complaining that his research has not achieved mainstream status.
TCC claims that his path to “heresy” started with an “observation” he made in the late 1970s about Filipino children of the “best-fed families” who consumed the most protein but also developed the most liver cancer. However we don’t know much about these children, including what else they were eating.
TCC’s premise that animal protein is carcinogenic is based on a study he found in an old journal about Indian researchers who used aflatoxin (AF), a carcinogen from moldy peanuts, to provoke cancer in rats. By decreasing animal protein (casein) from twenty percent to five percent the researchers completely prevented the AF from causing cancer. He began working on the same theme and his results corroborated the earlier results of the Indian researchers: a doseresponse curve existed for AF and cancer on a twenty percent casein diet, but disappeared on a five percent casein diet.
TCC went on to prove this “heresy” in the laboratory and got a lot of mileage out of the idea. He published several studies based on this concept that high animal protein contributes to cancer growth, and his research was supported by public grants along the way.
Public monies also funded a study he published in 1981 in this same line of research, but TCC does not talk about that in either of his books. This may be because the results of this study cast a negative light on his low-protein paradigm. In the research paper, “Effects of Low Dietary Protein and Dietary Aflatoxin on Hepatic Glutathione Levels in F-344 Rats,” published in Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology (volume 59, pages 196-198), TCC found that low protein diets caused a “marked retardation in growth” in male rats, and “a reduction in liver glutathione within hours of feeding which remained low for the duration of the study.” The aflatoxin caused more cancerous lesions in male rats despite the content of the diet they ate, but the lesions were “more pronounced” in the high-protein group.
Now this can’t be good because glutathione is the master antioxidant in the body, and is the major free radical scavenger in the brain, cleaning up those damaging molecules. It is used in DNA synthesis and repair, enzyme activation, the immune system and the nervous system. While all cells can make glutathione, liver synthesis is essential. We want to “boost glutathione levels” by drinking raw milk and eating good quality animal protein. Had he used whey or raw milk rather than purified casein, he may have found totally different results:
Animal models, usually for colon and mammary tumorigenesis, nearly always show that whey protein is superior to other dietary proteins for suppression of tumour development.
This benefit is attributed to its high content of cystine/cysteine and gammaglutamylcyst( e)ine dipeptides, which are efficient substrates for the synthesis of glutathione. Various experiments showed that tumour prevention by dietary whey protein was accompanied by increased glutathione levels in serum and tissues as well as enhanced splenic lymphocyte proliferation, phagocytosis and natural killer, T helper and cytotoxic T cell activity.
(Parodi PW. A role for milk proteins and their peptides in cancer prevention. Curr Pharm Des.2007;13(8):813-28)
Why is TCC so down on protein? Because plant foods have precious little of it and the whole food plant-based diet he advocates is naturally low in protein, except for soy, a favorite source of vegan protein, which he fails to mention has a GMO connection. Nor does he mention the fact that most of the corn, cotton, some squash, and now the wheat supply in the U.S. is genetically engineered.
TCC also does not mention the obvious fact that vegetables and fruits are regularly sprayed with a series of chemical pesticides and herbicides, nor does he caution his followers that they would be well-served to eat only organic or/and homegrown produce. The “Dirty Dozen,” a list of the most sprayed fruits and vegetables from the Environmental Working Group, list strawberries, pears, grapes, lettuce, pepper, celery, nectarines, potatoes, spinach and others among the most contaminated.
TCC claims that his diet “is the healthiest way of eating that has ever been studied, and far more effective in promoting health and preventing disease than prescription drugs, surgery and supplements.” It sounds like the grandiosity of this statement should be backed by pages of research studies. But alas, not one is cited. It appears be Campbell-speak and wholly based on his opinions.
As he did in The China Study, TCC drags out the same tired evidence in humans, such as the experiments of Esselstyn and Ornish of whom he said “both showed that a plant-based diet, high carbohydrate diet controlled and even reversed advanced heart disease.” Chris Masterjohn has observed that these studies were either poorly conducted, had no control group, or failed to isolate animal foods as a variable.
Esselstyn was a surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic, publishing studies on hyperparathyroidism until much later in his life when he teamed up with TCC to promote the plant-based diet.
Another reason that TCC decided to write this book is to inform people that they have a choice when it comes to medical treatment. He relates this to his wife’s diagnosis of Stage III melanoma and the response of her doctor when TCC wanted to show him some literature related to a 1995 study of melanoma patients at the Gerson Clinic in Mexico. (He mentions that this study is required reading in his courses at Cornell.) In this study, “Five-year survival rates of melanoma patients treated by diet therapy after the manner of Gerson. . . . a mostly plant-based diet remarkably increased survival for those with Stage III and Stage IV.”
Again we find an example of TCC’s cherry picking. What TCC didn’t tell us about the “mostly plant-based diet” used in this study is that around half of the patients in the study were given about a half pound of liver juice daily. After the liver juice was discontinued in 1987 because of a general campylobacter contamination in U.S. cattle at that time, the lactovegetarian diet included “crude liver extract with vitamin B-12 injectable.” Dairy was added after six weeks. Gerson felt that this alternative liver substitute was not as effective as the raw liver juice but helped patients to stay on the program when they returned home. If Campbell really read the study he would know that the diet contained both liver and dairy products.
In the end TCC’s wife decided not to take the treatment but only to continue to eat a plant-based diet and “is still in excellent health.” But wasn’t she eating the plant-based diet prior to the diagnosis?
Campbell rails against statistics, lies and spin doctors, old boys’ networks, as well as cherry pickers. But he himself is a cherry picker and an old boy. Doesn’t he have his own “old boy network,” along with Drs. Esselstyn, Fuhrman and Ornish, who all advocate a plant-based diet?
Benbella Books, the publisher of Whole and The China Study is a “publishing boutique” that publishes thirty or forty books a year that seem to cater to the vegan crowd, not a publisher of serious nutrition work. Recent publications include Jazzy Vegetarian Classics, Food over Medicine (by Pamela Popper, with a distinctly vegan slant) and The China Study Cookbook.
Pamela Popper, ND, is part of Campbell’s teaching team at Cornell, where he offers a certification course on plant-based nutrition. Popper also appears in the film, Forks over Knives, and appears to be the one woman in the midst of the “cabal of old men” espousing veganism.
TCC spends three out of eighteen chapters talking about nutrition and his “heretical path.” In the remaining chapters of the book he rails against reductionism and government, research for profit, nutritional organizations and the media. However, surprisingly, in the midst of repetitive tedium, there are a few good insights into the healthcare system and supplement industry, reductionism in nutritional research, the influence of industry on research, research emphasis on genetics versus nutrition, and other topics.
Some of his most interesting observations in the book take the form of lambasting the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the former American Dietetic Association. He says that “we can’t rely on this ‘so-called’ professional society” after they have been “putting out so much junk information” . . . “they window dress their information to make it look reasonably correct sometimes,” and have Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, Big Pharma, Soy Joy and others on the payroll. Here he is “speaking out for dietitians” and against those who control them, which he considers a “conspiracy.”
TCC also trashes the American Society for Nutrition (ASN) where “the influence of industrial profit is so pervasive within that no attempts to self-regulate can be effective.” TCC was actually a member of this society for many years and even became involved in the leadership of the organization. At this point certain “influential” members attempted to have him expelled, the first time in the existence of the organization.
TCC avers that the American Cancer Association (ACS) is “one of the big obstacles to reducing cancer rates in the country,” and “the world’s wealthiest non-profit,” to which the junk food companies, the pharmaceutical industry and health insurance companies are generous contributors. He feels that the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (MS Society) is in the same boat and that neither the ACS nor the MS Society “say much about nutrition in preventing disease.” These examples appear in Chapter 28, “Blinded by the Light-Bringers” which could be considered a clever title, when compared to other sections of the book.
Some of the comments found in reviews on the website goodreads.com about TCC’s book include this by one perceptive reviewer: “Campbell hypocritically condemns ‘science’ for being single-minded and intolerant when his book is clearly biased, and uses oversimplified metaphors to convince the layman that he holds scientific authority over scientists who subscribe to traditional Western medicine.” It appears that there has been no “rethinking” involved in Whole. With that we give this book an emphatic thumbs down.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2013.