This food is killing us

I’ve found that it takes TWO (not one) friends breathlessly recommending a book to get me to read it.

So six months ago, when a friend spent the better part of a week extolling The China Study (and telling me that humans weren’t meant to consume milk produced by non-humans), I filed it away under “someday.”  And then in December when a colleague told me he was off of meat and dairy because of the book, I gave in.

The China Study is written by Dr. T. Colin Campbell and his son Thomas.  Dr. Campbell is  an emeritus professor of nutrition at Cornell, where he has taught since 1975 and where he holds an endowed chair.  The book’s title is a reference to the China Study, one of the largest and longest (20 years) studies ever on the impact of nutrition on health.  And this obscure book published by an obscure publisher has now sold more than 500,00 copies.

The book is plain-spoken, fact-based, and data-driven.  It cites hundreds of peer reviewed articles and details the effects of diet on nearly every major disease.   And it argues that consuming animal protein (from meat, fish, and diary) is killing us.  Not just by causing heart disease, obesity and Type I diabetes, but cancer too.  And by consuming a “whole foods, plant based diet,” one in which protein consumed from animal products (meat, poultry, fish and dairy) approaches 0% of calories consumed, we can dramatically decrease the risk of contracting all of these diseases.

A streetcart I saw today

The studies that bowled me over focus on cancer.  Dr. Cambpell found that the risk of developing cancer in the presence of powerful carcinogens (specifically aflotoxin) can drop dramatically when people consume….a whole foods, plant-based diet.  And after showing the effects of diet in stopping cancer he details eye-popping results in fighting diabetes, heart disease, obesity, even in people with high risks and existing conditions.  All from changes in diet.

I had always assumed that since I generally eat “healthfully” and in moderation that I’m good to go.  It never occurred to me that I could dramatically reduce my risk of disease by altering my diet.  Sure, on some level i know that that I should be eating more fiber, more dark leafy greens, more vegetables, and less red meat and fat.  But I figured that I’m generally doing OK since I don’t eat fast food or a lot of processed junk.

What really got my attention were Dr. Campbell’s studies that showed the risk of cancer and heart disease drop dramatically (really dramatically!) when people shift from getting 20% of their diet from animal protein to 0-5% (and 20% represents a moderate western diet – the US dietary guidelines say 30% is OK).   The way Dr. Campbell writes, it makes me think that 50 years from now, the way we think about nutrition today will feel like the way people talked about smoking in the 1950s.   His studies show that genetic predisposition and / or carcinogens are like seeds in a garden – they put you at risk, but if you don’t feed them with a high-protein diet (the equivalent of sun and water), cancers and heart disease don’t develop.

Now what?

I have to be honest and say that I don’t know, yet.  I’m not ready to proclaim myself a vegetarian or a vegan today, but I’m taking Dr. Cambpell’s advice and giving it a 30 day trial.  I know I won’t pull off strict rules (the tortilla I had yesterday at lunch apparently has some dairy), but I also know that skipping the turkey sandwich and the gyro for lunch on two consecutive days for a hummus sandwich and a falafel didn’t leave me any worse for the wear.  And I’ve consumed two sweet potatoes this week.

This is a book you want to read, and then you can decide for yourself.  If you like the book, I suspect that you might soon find yourself browsing great website like

Seriously, this is information you want to know.

Reductionism addiction

The apples you buy in the supermarket are about to get a grade.  So are the grapes and the Oreos and the Diet Coke. It’s part of a new effort aimed at helping make it easier to know how to buy healthy foods in American and European supermarkets.

Here we go again.  The too-familiar premise is that food is nothing more than its component parts – the nutrients and the carbohydrates, proteins and fats that make it up.  I’m no expert, so I’ll defer to Michael Pollan, author of “In Defense of Food” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” (worth a read), who recently argued on NPR that the science behind this nutrient reductionism is pretty weak.

More broadly, Michael observes that the human body is capable of thriving with an astoundingly wide array of diets (think Eskimos vs. Mayans vs. Italians). Yet there is just one diet that has consistently proved toxic; one diet that leads to obesity, heart disease, and diabetes; one diet that we as a species cannot adapt to.  You guessed it: the Western Diet.

So we solve for that problem by grading our food.

This kind of reductionism is everywhere, and it’s a poor substitute for intuition, culture, history, and the basic act of coming to your own conclusions.  We know in our gut, in the eighth year of an unprecedented stock market and real estate boom, that something isn’t quite right.  We know in our gut that there’s something fundamentally broken about the amount of money CEOs are getting paid.  We know in our gut that the latest collateralized security might really be risky, AAA rating and analysts’ report be damned.   This is the little voice inside of you that begs to differ.

We don’t need to throw the baby out with the bath water and stop creating metrics and analysis.  But there are times when we need to stand up at the outset and acknowledge that the Emperor has no clothes.  A letter grade to decide which kind of juice is better for me or whether I should buy Milano cookies or Chips Ahoy?  C’mon.  A star rating for charities?  Equally problematic.  An in-or-out screen that rates all large corporations around the world and tells you which collection of 100,000+ people doing a million different activities is and is not ethical?  It’s all mostly meaningless if you don’t make your values system explicit going in (e.g. no liquor, arms, gambling, etc.)

And this is the point.  Measurement and metrics matter, but we’ve put so much faith in the nutritionists and the bankers and the ratings agencies and the charity screeners that we’ve given ourselves and our values and our intuition a pass.  We know deep down that orange juice is more than a collection of sugar, water and vitamin C, but we let ourselves be convinced that fortified Sunny Delight or Countrytime Lemonade is more or less the same thing because the nutritional label tells us so.

So read the label, learn what letter grade your chicken gets and the star rating on the nonprofit you’re thinking about supporting.  But use these only as a way to make sure you’re asking the right questions; don’t be fooled into thinking you’ve just been handed the answer.

Because what makes you think that someone out there knows (or cares) more than you do?

add to : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : add to ma.gnolia : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : TailRank : post to facebook