T. Colin Campbell says health care ignores benefits of nutrition knowledge

'Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition' is a withering critique of virtually all the major health care institutions

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T. Colin Campbell burst onto the national scene seven years ago with "The China Study," a surprise best-seller that was instrumental in persuading former President Bill Clinton, football star Tony Gonzalez and countless others to embrace plant-based diets.

This summer, Mr. Campbell's long-awaited sequel has finally arrived. "Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition" may not create another wave of vegans, but it could help readers make sense of the seemingly endless stream of competing claims about the health effects of this food or that beverage.


By T. Colin Campbell with Howard Jacobson
BenBella Books ($26.95).

"Whole" is a withering critique of virtually all the major institutions in the health care sector, including the pharmaceutical industry, the scientific community, the National Institutes of Health and patient-advocacy groups like the American Cancer Society. Even the Public Broadcasting System gets taken to the woodshed.

But Mr. Campbell's main objective is not to vilify any individual person, organization or institution. Rather, he excoriates the health care sector for a systemic failure to act in the best interests of a confused and diseased American public. At the root of this failure is the corrupting influence of money.

It could be said that Mr. Campbell isn't breaking much new ground here. After all, Pittsburghers, who have had a front row seat to the machinations of UPMC and Highmark, don't need to be told that business considerations can trump the public's well-being when it comes to health care.

What could shock readers of "Whole," however, is the extent to which money has perverted nutrition research in our nation's universities and laboratories.

Mr. Campbell, offering an insider's view as a former professor of nutritional biochemistry at Cornell University, describes a dismal state of affairs in which the likelihood of obtaining research funding depends on the potential for the study to produce a dietary supplement or pharmaceutical drug.

Despite substantial evidence that meat and other animal products are heavy contributors to heart disease, diabetes and even cancer, very few nutrition researchers have seen fit to study the potential benefits of a plant-based, or vegan, diet.

"You can't patent a recommendation to eat lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains," Mr. Campbell writes in "Whole." "So there's no incentive for industry to invest in such research and no incentive for researchers to study and validate such claims."

Instead, the overwhelming majority of nutrition research focuses on the effects of a single nutrient, a dynamic that Mr. Campbell repeatedly decries as "reductionist." Even a simple apple, to take just one example, contains thousands of antioxidants, all of which work in combination with each other. Given this complexity, what's the point of isolating and studying just one of those antioxidants?

The public is left to sort out how best to get the recommended daily allowance of dozens of different nutrients, from vitamin A to zinc. This confusion opens the door for the vitamin-supplement and pharmaceutical industries, which offer solutions in the form of pills.

What is the result of all this for the health of Americans? We all know the answer.

Co-written with Howard Jacobson, "Whole" builds on some of the ideas that Mr. Campbell introduced in "The China Study," which achieved best-seller status despite the fact that it was a dramatic departure from the typical food-related book. It didn't present a day-by-day diet plan or so much as a single recipe or any charming anecdotes about organic farmers for that matter.

The power of "The China Study" came from Mr. Campbell's credentials as a pre-eminent researcher and from the quality of the scientific evidence that he presented. With data from the largest nutrition study ever conducted, he demonstrated the link between chronic disease and the consumption of animal products in a way no one ever had before.

As a sequel, "Whole" is essentially Mr. Campbell's lament that the health care industry and scientific community still downplay the connection between diet and disease. Each year, the U.S. spends well over $100 billion on searches for elusive cures when a greater emphasis on prevention would spare tens of millions of people from needless suffering.

It's nothing less than a tragedy, in Mr. Campbell's view, and meaningful reform seems highly unlikely.

Cutting through this mess is essential for anyone trying to take control of his or her own health. If nothing else, "Whole" can help us better understand what we're reading, hearing and watching about nutrition, medical research and disease.

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Jeffrey Cohan, a resident of Forest Hills, is the executive director of Jewish Vegetarians of North America. First Published July 29, 2013 4:00 AM


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