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‘China Study’ Author T. Colin Campbell Says Low-Carb Health Claims Based On ‘Belief’ And Not Long-Term Science

Posted Nov 02 2009 10:00pm


Low-fat vegetarian “China Study” author Dr. T. Colin Campbell

We’ve all heard the famous saying “keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” And while I attempt to be a friend to virtually everyone I meet regardless of my own personal differences of opinion on any number of issues, it’s almost impossible not to identify certain people whose world view is so opposite to your own that it is radically different in every way as somewhat of an enemy combatant. But in the case of the low-carb community, there is one man who certainly fits within the definition of that term: Dr. T. Colin Campbell .

Just as people who are livin’ la vida low-carb often point to the September 2007 release of Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes as the very best book about healthy high-fat, low-carbohydrate nutrition that articulates the science behind the message we advocate, on the other end of the spectrum is Dr. Campbell’s January 2005 book entitled The China Study which promotes an ultra low-fat, plant-based diet for health. There could not be two more starkly different publications on the subject of healthy living out there than these two and both are considered the masterpiece, the magnum opus, the pièce de résistance so to speak of how people should be eating for the sake of controlling their weight and improving their health by their respective supporters. It’s a strange dichotomy how these two tee-totally opposite messages could simultaneously be given the same kind of dignity and disdain all at the same time.

The vegetarian/vegan community hypes The China Study as the be-all, end-all, there’s-no-sense-in-discussing-anything-further final say on all things related to diet, health, and nutrition. That truly is unfortunate because most low-carbers I know are at least open-minded and pragmatic enough to know that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all diet that is for everyone. This kind of monolithic thinking is displayed almost exclusively by those who herald Dr. Campbell as a hero to their cause. In my upcoming book entitled 21 Life Lessons From Livin’ La Vida Low-Carb, I discuss in Lesson #12 my encounters with the fringe element of the low-fat, vegetarian movement which is sadly much more common than people even realize. It’s such a shame they have to be so exclusionary of the healthy low-carb message.

The reason I’m bringing up Dr. Campbell is because he recently jumped in on the discussion thread I created at Amazon.com a few years back called “What Are Your Criticisms Of The Low-Carb Lifestyle? It’s amazing how that thread has taken on a life of its own over the past three years and it comes in spurts. From enthusiastic defenders of both low-carb and low-fat to a few crazies here and there, it has attracted them all. But imagine my surprise several weeks ago when none other than Dr. T. Colin Campbell himself made an appearance on the thread to articulate his viewpoints.

At first, he simply wrote that he agreed with much of the criticism that had been shared about low-carb diets, but then he began making his own comments about them and why a plant-based, genuine low-fat diet of about 10 percent fat was absolutely necessary for health. Dr. Campbell’s stated reason for getting involved in the discussion was because he “was interested in the beliefs of the bloggers on this site who seem to have overweight issues, some serious” and that he “wanted to learn.” However, he has not attempted to educate himself about why low-carb has been so successful for people as much as he has complained about it even to those of us who have experienced profoundly positive results to our weight and health.

Dr. Campbell has repeatedly said that much of what has been shared about low-carb on the Amazon thread is just based on mindless belief rather than any long-term science. Additionally, he says that the “true low-fat diet” has been unfairly maligned in order to “create bias.” Hmmmm, sounds like EXACTLY what they’ve done to low-carb, Dr. Campbell! When asked about his credentials for speaking on the subject of diet and health, here’s what he wrote:

“I have been an experimental researcher and lecturer in this business for more than 53 years, coming from a dairy farm background when I ate mostly your way–lots of meat, milk and eggs, all grass fed and reasonably organic as people say these days. I then did my doctoral dissertation research at Cornell University to find ways to improve on the production of animal-based protein, the more the better, so to speak. However, while coordinating a nationwide nutrition program in the Philippines feeding malnourished children–with an emphasis on their getting more protein–I stumbled onto an observation that seriously questioned the revered benefits of protein. Excess intake seemed to cause cancer. That led, in turn, to an NIH research grant, among others, that was to last for 27 years to see if this was true. The observation proved to be true in spades. Protein consumed in excess of what a plant based diet provides causes problems, many of which generate early mortality. From there (mostly at Virginia Tech), I was recruited back to Cornell as a tenured full professor in 1975, where I have remained. Along the way, I organized and directed the most comprehensive diet, lifestyle and disease mortality study ever done in the history of medicine, called the “Grand Prix” of all such studies by the NY Times in a cover story, a collaboration with my colleagues in China and at the University of Oxford in England. Also, along the way, I spent about 20 consecutive years as a member of various ‘expert’ panels that provided reports mostly dealing with the development of national and international policy. Eventually I wrote a 2005 book with my son, Tom, “The China Study” that has since become a national bestseller about 4 times over. I also have given about 300 invited lectures, mostly to professional medical schools and health venues and conferences. My work included hundreds of colleagues (dozens of graduate students, mostly PhD) whose contributions led to at least 350 publications, most peer-reviewed.”

WOW! So I guess anyone who holds a differing viewpoint to that of Dr. Campbell’s shouldn’t even bother saying anything since you can’t possibly live up to his lofty standards for speaking on this subject? Think again! While I will agree that his credentials are certainly vast and I have no doubt in my mind he sincerely embraces everything he preaches about people eating a very low-fat, vegetarian diet, Dr. Campbell is certainly not without his own personal biases against low-carb living and especially the late, great Dr. Robert C. Atkins.


Dr. Campbell doesn’t think too highly of Dr. Atkins and his diet

Describing our low-carb hero as a “would-be scientist who has no such training, no such peer review research, but lots of interest in making money off the public,” Dr. Campbell exclaimed that Dr. Atkins only “pretended to be a real doctor” and bragged about doing this to “get away with his nonsense–to the detriment of the public.”

“I’ve seen far too many scams in this business but, in my opinion, his is one of the most tragic,” he exclaimed.

Oh really? For someone who claims to be so objective-minded to the scientific evidence in forming his thoughts, this sure sounds a lot like predetermined dogma than anything I’ve ever seen. Dr. Campbell states he just wants to know why us low-carbers believe this way of eating is so healthy for us.

“How much is personal preferences and how much is based on truly reliable evidence?” he asks.

If you’d like to join this conversation and share your thoughts with Dr. Campbell, then simply CLICK HERE and hop in on the discussion. While there are quite a few low-carbers sharing their viewpoints such as Greg, A. Moore, Fit2Go, and others, it would be great to add a whole lot more from those of us who have seen how livin’ la vida low-carb changed our lives for the better. Feel free to share any scientific evidence along with your own personal stories about how this way of eating has improved your life dramatically.

In the midst of this discussion with Dr. Campbell, he shared in this post his concerns about the high-fat, low-carb nutritional approach that I promote, advocate, and practice running so counter to what he has seen in his study using a plant-based diet. He repeated the same kind of fear-mongering that Dr. Rod Jackson shared with me recently about how people eating low-carb are harming themselves on their way to an early grave.

Here’s what he wrote:

I do not question your personal sincerity in believing in your dietary practices. My problem is not that you actually obtain results that you believe are working for you but whether these experiences will yield long term health. There is overwhelming evidence showing that your long-term health will be seriously compromised. Short-term (a few months, perhaps even a few years) is not the same as a decades long practice that results in disease-free health well into your later years.

I also don’t understand how you are getting these results when virtually all carefully done studies show that virtually 100% of individuals, when consuming a TRUE whole foods plant based diet (10-12% total fat, 10-12% protein and 75-80% carbohydrate), will see their weight and serum levels drop, with the size of the decreases depending on baseline levels. Also, AFTER sufficient time is allowed for adjustment of taste preferences (perhaps 10 to 60 or so days), it is now clear that this whole foods diet can be readily sustained AND HONESTLY ENJOYED for its amazing tastes that are too often eliminated in high salt, high fat foods.

My question to you is: have you actually tried this–and I mean no cheating along the way? If you have and you do not see the benefits that I speak of, then you have a very different type of response worthy of more serious study.

One more point, for all bloggers on this site: please do not confuse your personal preferences with the scientific evidence. Too often people make assertive statements because of what they “believe”. I, for one, am not drawing my conclusions on the basis of what I personally would have wanted to “believe” but on the basis of actually doing the research and having it peer reviewed.

Along the way, I finally had to switch from my earlier diet when I was on the farm milking cows, collecting eggs, fishing in the stream, hunting for game and slaughtering our own animals. I also had to face up to my own earlier research (and my teaching) preferences favoring a diet rich in animal products-the evidence simply didn’t support my personal preferences. Now that I have spent so much time also in developing national food and health policy, lecturing to so many and varied audiences and actually seeing what happens to people-all people-when they try the whole foods, plant based diet, I am amazed that you make the claims that you do.

I don’t mind your saying that my views are wrong but please don’t accuse me of saying this simply because of my personal biases. Been there, done that…and I changed.

Of course, I couldn’t resist the urge to provide my response to Dr. Campbell:

THANKS again, Dr. Campbell. But my basis for making the claims I am regarding the prospects of my long-term health are not just based on some errant belief I just pulled out of thin air. There is a body of scientific evidence backing a high-fat, moderate-protein, low-carbohydrate nutritional approach. It’s true, the decades-long studies have not been released and I am in essence putting myself at risk by not having the hard proof that I won’t be harmed.

But let me tell you the difference between the 2009 Jimmy Moore and the one who was in very bad shape at the age of 32 in 2003. Weighing in at a morbidly obese 410 pounds, wearing size 62-inch waist pants, 5XL shirts, taking prescription medications for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and breathing problems, and just feeling embarrassed about myself for feeling so trapped inside of a body I was ashamed of, I thought I was destined for a life being this way forever.

Yes, I had tried a nearly zero-fat diet in 1999 the year my brother Kevin had a series of three heart attacks in the span of a week that nearly killed him. And, I must say, I was quite successful at losing weight, getting my cholesterol down, and looking (on the outside) like the epitome of health. But it was all a facade because I felt absolutely horrible eating like that with virtually no fat in my menus. I was hungry constantly, irritable, had brain fog all the time, and experienced other similar symptoms which were a normal part of my day on a low-fat diet and it was just not sustainable for me. Needless to say that despite losing 170 pounds in nine months eating that way, I rebelled against doing that for the rest of my life and gained it all back and then some shortly thereafter.

Flash forward to December 2003 when my mother-in-law bought me a copy of DR. ATKINS’ NEW DIET REVOLUTION and I read about this amazing cardiologist who basically was saying the opposite of everything I had ever heard about what healthy living was about. He said eating fat, especially saturated fat, was actually GOOD for you because it became your fuel in the absence of carbohydrate in your diet. He explained about the deleterious effects of consuming too many carbs on blood sugar and insulin which then led to a whole host of metabolic issues such as obesity, hypercholesterolemia, high triglycerides, low-HDL cholesterol, erratic blood sugar swings, and more. I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of any of this stuff before, but it was an eye-opening experience for me when I was 410 pounds and looking for a way to eat that could be sustainable and healthy for the rest of my life.

Looking at the Atkins menus, I was thrilled to see many of my favorite foods listed there, including full-fat cuts of beef, fish, chicken, full-fat cheeses, nuts, cream, butter, and more that are the hallmark of a healthy low-carb lifestyle. And while I wasn’t a big fan of vegetables prior to beginning on Atkins, I quickly realized many of the non-starchy, green leafy ones are quite delicious. Broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, squash, green beans, peppers, kale, and more soon became a regular staple of my low-carb diet and I have grown to love them immensely. Because most fruits are too high in sugar when you are attempting to control insulin levels in the body with a low-carb approach, they are off limits until you have properly learned your individual tolerance for the carbohydrates in them. My carb sensitivity is very strong, so I can’t have more than about 30-35g carbohydrate daily without seeing an impact on my blood sugar and weight. But I still enjoy consuming blueberries, strawberries, and melon from time to time.

Eating this way quite literally changed my life for the better, Dr. Campbell. I lost 30 pounds in the first month on it, 40 more pounds in the second month, a total of 100 pounds in 100 days and a grand total of 180 pounds in one year. In the years that have passed since this happened, I have discovered something even better than weight loss that has happened to me. I’m healthier NOW than I ever was at 410 pounds with my triglycerides consistently below 100, my HDL “good” cholesterol well above 50 for 5+ years, my LDL cholesterol consisting of mostly the large, fluffy, protective particles rather than the small, dense, and dangerous kind, my blood pressure controlled without the use of medications, breathing problems all cleared up, and a recent calcium heart scan score of a big fat ZERO. Oh, and I also had a little bit of fat loss shedding 20 inches off my waist while feeling so energetic that I regularly play competitive sports with people half my age.

None of this would have been possible had it not been for the foresight that the late, great Dr. Robert C. Atkins had in the early 1970s to begin promoting carbohydrate-restriction as a viable way of eating for health and weight control. You could say I’ve become a crusader for this way of eating and how could I not be after experiencing such a radical shift in my own life? While some may believe I only believe people should be eating low-carb, it’s not true. Anyone who has followed my writings at my blog, listened to my podcast show, or been exposed to any of my work online already knows that my basic philosophy for people is to find the proven plan that will work for them, follow it exactly as prescribed by the author of that plan, and then keep doing it for the rest of their life.

If someone chooses a vegetarian, low-fat diet like you discuss, Dr. Campbell, then who am I to stand in their way if that will grant them the health improvements they need? But at the same time, if an individual has evaluated the various plans and realizes that low-carb is the one they need to be doing to attain their weight and health objectives, then why would anyone stand in their way to accomplishing something so noble for themselves? One of the biggest concepts I have come to realize about diet over these past few years is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach that will work for 100% of the people who try it. If that were true, then there wouldn’t be any obesity, disease, or health complications at all in the world since we’d all be doing whatever that miracle panacea discovery was. The reality is we are all different, require a variety of ways to accomplish improved weight and health, and simply need to find what works for us. When you boil it all down, that’s what it comes to.

The bottom line is this: I highly encourage people to do their own research, read Dr. Campbell’s THE CHINA STUDY, read DR. ATKINS’ NEW DIET REVOLUTION, check out nutrition-focused blogs like mine and others who not only share from our personal experiences but also present the actual scientific evidence supporting the claims we make, and soak in all the education you can about what healthy living is all about. I think Dr. Campbell and I can certainly agree that if more people took a vested interest in their own health rather than relying on a doctor to prescribe them a pill for whatever their ailment, we’d be much better off than we are right now. I appreciate the stimulating conversation and certainly hope we have given the people reading all of this something constructive to think about in their own pursuit of optimal long-term health.

That was my take on it. Oh, and if you haven’t heard Dr. T. Colin Campbell speak before, just check out what he thinks about the incredible work of The Weston A. Price Foundation in this YouTube video featuring him during a question and answer session at one of his lectures:

Pompous, arrogant, condescending, and full of poppycock if you ask me! It’s one thing to disagree with a particular point of view because it differs from your own. But to think that you have the one and only pathway to truly healthy living simply because that’s all you’ve studied for the past few decades is turning a blind eye to all the plethora of science that has been coming out in favor of low-carb living in recent years much of which I share in my new book. It’s out there, Dr. Campbell! You just have to be willing to open your eyes to it. If you truly want to “learn” about why people are successful on high-fat, moderate-protein, carbohydrate-restricted diets, then start listening to those of us who have seen improvements in our health and read the latest studies on this remarkable way of eating that is so beloved by me and tens of thousands more who are livin’ la vida low-carb!

What do you make of Dr. T. Colin Campbell and his comments about what he considers the more preferred low-fat, plant-based diet, the questions he raises about Dr. Atkins’ credentials, and his insistence that low-carb diets have not stood the scrutiny of long-term scientific study? As always, your comments are welcomed and encouraged. I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say!

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