There have been many selfless researchers and clinicians who have linked the epidemic of obesity and chronic degenerative diseases in the U.S. (and now worldwide) to the “Western” diet – heavy in dairy, meat, and sugary-salty-oily processed foods, and have urged us to eat more plants. One name is synonymous with plant-based nutrition, however, because his work spawned all the rest. He originally coined the term: “whole food, plant-based diet.” We owe Dr. T. Colin Campbell an enormous debt of gratitude for his prodigious body of work, his intellectual curiosity and dextrous mind, his personal integrity and his commitment to public health above career ambitions.
Over 50 years ago as a young researcher, Dr. Campbell audaciously followed where his lab test results led, and they led to some very inconvenient truths that bucked government's food policy and vested economic interests: In his lab he demonstrated the very strong connections between dietary animal protein and cancer, and was able to turn cancer growth on and off by modulating protein levels and protein type (animal vs plant). However, since ranchers can't raise animals with lower levels of protein and as long as food manufacturers can't process some "low-protein" version of meat – and still call it meat - Dr. Campbell's results were very discomfitting, to say the least.
Campbell's lab was funded for 30 years by NIH grants and his results were published in prestigious peer-reviewed journals, yet the push-back from industry and industry-funded academia was considerable. The data that should have rocked the medical and research worlds and galvanized future research funding scarcely caused a stir. But that was then.
Over his long and rich 50-year research career, the way nutrients actually were metabolized within the body caused Campbell to reevaluate many of the canons of standard research protocols. This involved a veritable paradigm shift regarding the way we currently study nutrition, practice medicine, structure research, and develop drugs. He observed that the standard research model (the “gold standard”), which examined single nutrients acting in isolation along single biological pathways, was simplistic, flawed, and led to erroneous conclusions. Rather, Campbell realized that nutrients work synergistically, boosting one another's biological effects in intricately complex and nuanced ways. This is one reason why nutrient supplementation and even pharmaceuticals can have negative side effects and unintended consequences.
The biological mechanisms entailed in nutrition are extraordinarily complex, but the implications regarding diet for all of us, thankfully, are actually simple: Animal-based foods can cause DNA damage, are inflammatory and create oxidative stress, while whole plant foods, low in fat, high in fiber, anti-oxidants and dense with nutrients, tend to have the opposite effects.
In 2006 Campbell published The China Study, recounting his comprehensive epidemiological Cornell-China-Oxford collaboration that studied rural Chinese counties diet and lifestyle patterns in the 1980s, and summarizing his cancer findings and nutritional insights. It has sold over a million copies worldwide, influenced and motivated a new generation of researchers, policymakers and the public alike. In the years since, hundreds of researchers and clinicians have validated Campbell's research results. The body of work is growing and affirming.
In this 2012 Ted Talk Dr. Campbell describes his research and where it led him. I think you'll enjoy it.
In this month of Thanksgiving, let's give this man the recognition he is due, celebrate how far we have come, and rejoice that the rising tide of suffering from diseases easily preventable by simple (and delicious!) dietary changes may be turning. In fact, it has already begun.