Book Review: “The Future of Nutrition,” by T. Colin Campbell, PhD

Dr. T. Colin Campbell is one of the eminent leaders in nutrition today. He co-authored “The China Study,” a seminal book that helped prove the value of a whole-food, plant-based (WFPB) diet. He also wrote “Whole,” about the importance of emphasizing whole foods over individual nutrients in optimizing human health.

His new book, “The Future of Nutrition,” is another landmark contribution to the field. Its mission is no less than to change how nutritional science is practiced in this country. And with good reason.

The Future is About the Past

Although the book is ostensibly about the future of nutrition, much of it is a historical overview. Campbell sheds light on the many factors that have contributed to our poor understanding of nutrition to date, including:

  • Conflicts of interest between industry, academia, and the government.
  • The short-term focus of researchers, who tend to forget about valid findings from decades ago.
  • The influence of culture and tradition on nutrition beliefs, as with the “cult of meat” that dominates society today.
  • Misguided reductive thinking that focuses on individual nutrients over the complexity of whole food.
  • Physicians receive little to no education in nutrition in medical school.
  • Physicians aren’t reimbursed by insurance for providing nutrition counseling to their patients.

Campbell continues to believe that a WFPB diet is optimal for human health, based on his assessment of the historical and current-day literature.

A How-To on Science More Than Nutrition

This is not a book for the casual reader interested in learning more about how to become a vegan. It is not a how-to or a recipe book (see Campbell’s other books for those topics). His new book is an appeal to society, especially those in power in academia, government, and other institutions in a position to make recommendations to consumers about nutrition.

It is aimed at scientists, researchers, and policymakers. The layman interested in the politics of science and how science is conducted may also be interested, but Campbell’s other books will be more useful for anyone just coming to a WFPB diet and looking for practical nutrition advice.

Nutrition Myths

Information about the WFPB diet is here, even if it’s secondary to the discussion of flawed nutritional science and policy.

In the past, Campbell’s version of the WFPB diet tolerated small amounts of animal protein. Now, he has shifted towards a completely vegan diet as preferred for optimal health. He says that on-going research supports the fact that even small amounts of animal products, including dairy and eggs, are associated with negative health effects including many different cancers and chronic diseases.

A summary of his nutritional tenets are:

  1. Chronic disease risk increases with even small intakes of animal-based protein.
  2. Eating more animal-based foods is associated with eating fewer disease-protective whole plant foods.
  3. Plant-based foods provide all the protein that is needed.
  4. There are numerous biological mechanisms, as discovered in laboratory-animal studies, to explain the damaging effect of eating more animal-based foods and fewer plant-based foods.

Campbell also shatters some myths about nutrition in the course of demonstrating his points about poor science and biased policymakers. I for one consider myself well-read on the subject of nutrition and am a certified holistic nutritionist. Yet I learned some important things that I’m shocked I hadn’t read about before.

You’re Probably Eating Too Much Protein

What percentage of the diet do you think that protein should be? Around 35% This number is is widely established in consumers’ minds and the nutrition literature. Yet Campbell says there is virtually no evidence supporting it: “it was and remains scientifically unjustified, terribly damaging to human health, and thus, frankly unconscionable.” He asserts that evidence supports 10% as a better ratio. Campbell blames the meat industry for influencing the higher number.

Stop Worrying About “High-Quality” Protein

Again the meat industry and those beholden to it are responsible for the idea that meat is a high-quality protein, or of higher “biological value” compared to plant protein. In fact, there is much evidence supporting the opposite: plant protein is superior to animal protein.

Our bodies do not respond the same way to animal and plant protein. For example, numerous studies going back 100 years show that plant protein, unlike animal protein, prevents and reverses kidney disease, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and is anti-cancerous. Which brings me to another idea that you don’t hear much about.

A WFPB Diet is Anti-cancerous

And yes, an animal-protein-based diet is pro-cancerous. I know that sounds overwhelming, as the majority of Americans eat meat every day as their primary source of protein. It flies in the face of the popularity of Atkins, keto and paleo trendy diets. It is also true that the majority of Americans suffer from obesity, chronic disease, and eventually, cancer.

If you are shaking your head with skepticism, that is why the advancement of nutritional education is difficult. People don’t want to believe the evidence. A WFPB diet goes against culture, family traditions, and historical government nutritional recommendations (which are unduly influenced by industry). Suggesting that a vegan diet is best for everyone is as radical to some people today as it was to say the earth is round in the Middle Ages.

Dr. Campbell believes that the near-exclusive focus of researchers on genetic and environmental causes of cancer is preventing us from taking actions via our diets that are within reach of everyone to prevent or slow the progress of cancer.

The science is overwhelmingly in support of a WFPB diet for reduced disease and a longer, healthier life. Dr. Campbell’s courageous anti-establishment thought leadership in this regard is why some experts believe he should receive the Nobel Peace Prize (see the book’s Forward)

Cholesterol and Saturated Fat are Red Herrings

This one rocked my nutrition world. There is abundant evidence supporting the health benefits of reducing bad (LDL) cholesterol and intake of saturated fat? Right? Campbell explains that it is really the impact of animal protein that we should be focused on. LDL cholesterol and saturated fat just happen to be along for the ride in animal foods. Cut out the animal protein and you will automatically cut out a great deal of LDL cholesterol and saturated fat.

Dr. Campbell believes that the conversation about “good fat” and “bad fat” is deeply flawed. He says that saturated fat is relatively inert and unlikely to be a cause of disease. This is why eggs and butter go in and out of favor; the link between saturated fat and poor health isn’t clear; but the link between animal protein and poor health is clear, it’s just unappreciated.

He recommends against the intake of any oil in isolation from its plant of origin; that goes for olive oil and other “good” oils as well. Bereft of their connection with the antioxidants and minerals that help counteract the damaging effect of the isolated oils, they do more harm than good. He does encourage us to eat whole plant foods high in fat like walnuts, nuts, seeds, avocados, etc. Human beings do need fat to be healthy but they need it in the context of whole foods and all the accompanying benefits they bring.

“Wholistic” vs Reductive Thinking

Another central principle of Dr. Campbell’s work is the misguided focus of science on reductivism versus “wholeism.” He spells it with a “w” to distinguish its meaning from the word “holistic” and all its new-agey associations. He wrote an entire book, “Whole,” on the importance of valuing whole foods over individual nutrients.

Every natural food is almost infinitely complex, and the chemicals, interactions and transformations they undergo when ingested are poorly understood. For example, beta-carotene in the diet is cancer-protective, but as a supplement, it can be cancer-promoting. Why? We don’t know exactly, but it is likely that there is something else in the whole food—one or many phytochemicals interacting with the beta-carotene in our bodies—that makes all the difference in the world.

My Quibble with Dr. Campbell

This disdain for reductivism leads Dr. Campbell to recommend against nutritional supplementation outside of diagnosed deficiencies. He urges us to eat a well-rounded WFPB diet to obtain all our nutrients.

In my opinion, this is an ideal-world recommendation that is difficult to live up to in daily life. Dr. Campbell does not acknowledge the poor quality of produce in America today.

Mass farming techniques have depleted the soil of minerals and other nutrients. The use of pesticides and GMO foods has demonstrably harmed the nutritional content of foods (antioxidant content is related to the plant’s need to defend itself).

There is a high incidence of certain nutritional deficiencies among Americans, as with magnesium, vitamin D iodine, vitamin B12 among vegans, and others.

Americans trying to maintain a diet that keeps them from gaining weight will have a hard time eating enough food to get all the nutrients they need. This is where supplementation can play a role in helping keep people healthy. Dr. Campbell’s vision of us relying on a WFPB diet to meet all our nutritional needs is the optimal approach, and we should strive for it. Eating a varied organic diet of fresh produce can help, but that can be an expensive proposition that is unattainable for many of us.

Recommendations to Nutrition Leaders and the Public

Dr. Campbell closes with his recommendations on how to improve the study of nutrition and nutrition education of the public:

  1. Always question the role of institutions—they are subject to conflicts of interest and power imbalances with those they are supposed to serve, and have shown themselves to be unable to police themselves or be policed by the media.
  2. Protect and restore academic freedom—protecting professorial tenure is one important tool.
  3. Rescue science from technology and industry—Dr. Campbell makes a distinction between science, with its goals of observation and knowledge, versus technology and its goals of creating products to solve problems. Only good science can be relied upon to give us objective understanding.
  4. Heal nutrition—Dr. Campbell offers five practical recommendations:
    • Require nutrition education in medical schools.
    • Reimburse physicians for nutritional counseling of patients.
    • Establish a National Institute for Nutrition (to join the current twenty-seven NIH institutes).
    • Transform food subsidy programs to encourage food production in line with nutritional evidence and consumer protection.
    • Create a food and nutrition advisory council that serves the interests of consumers that is financed by an endowment trust outside the influence of industry.

WFPB Diet and COVID-19

In a short final chapter written as the book was preparing for printing, Dr. Campbell addresses COVID-19. He talks about research he personally participated in in China in the 1980’s that established a relationship between diet and the immune system. Specifically, more antibodies and fewer antigens are associated with a plant-based diet. Dr. Campbell does not have direct evidence but strongly believes a WFPB should be protective for COVID-19, especially among the elderly with comorbid conditions like heart disease and other chronic conditions.

I’ll go further and point out that, if everyone in the world were vegan, there would be no COVID-19. It was created in an exotic animal food market, as has been the case with other pandemics. In fact, the first flu virus in human beings started with their eating of ducks; you can learn more about this in Dr. Michael Greger’s excellent book “How to Survive a Pandemic.” The impact of a WFPB diet on the planet could be profoundly positive.

A Closing Word

Dr. Campbell promotes a WFPB diet for mostly health reasons. He barely touches on the environmental or animal welfare concerns that bring many people to a vegan lifestyle. If you don’t agree with the politics or moral tone of some aspects of the vegan movement, Dr. Campbell gives you life-saving, irrefutable reasons to adopt it based on objective science. And he gives science irrefutable reasons to improve the way it is practiced.

Read about “Breathe: The New Science of a Lost Art,” by James Nestor.

Read my review of Jillian Michaels’ latest book, “6 Keys: Unlock Your Genetic Potential for Ageless Strength, Health and Beauty.”

Here is my take on “The Healthy Deviant: A Rule-breaker’s Guide to Being Healthy in an Unhealthy World,” by Pilar Gerasimo.

Vicki Spellman

Vicki Spellman is a certified Holistic Nutritionist (AFPA) and Senior VP at a large healthcare communications firm.

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