The Case for a Whole-Food, Plant-Based Diet: An Interview With T. Colin Campbell
T. Colin Campbell, PhD, has been at the forefront of nutrition education and research for decades. Dr. Campbell studies the links between diet and disease, particularly the causation of cancer, and has conducted original research both in laboratory experiments and in large-scale human studies. He is the coauthor of the best-selling book The China Study: Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, and Long-term Health, and the author of New York Times best seller Whole and The Low-Carb Fraud. Dr. Campbell leads the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.
1440: What does a whole-food, plant-based diet look like?
T. Colin Campbell: Whole means we eat the food whole. Instead of taking a vitamin C supplement or drinking orange juice, eat the orange. We choose vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, and whole grains. Oil in food like nuts, avocado, and coconut are fine when left in the food, but avoid using it if it’s been extracted from the food. In that case it’s calorie-dense and nutrient-poor and is a plant fragment, as opposed to a whole food.
The biggest difference for most people would be to avoid refined and processed food, dairy, and meat. Plant foods provide all the protein we need, absolutely all of it. We have enough evidence to make that argument.
1440: Why should someone consider switching to a whole-food, plant-based diet?
T. Colin Campbell: There are three levels of evidence. First, when we compare the data of different people consuming different diets, we see certain disease rates correspond to the consumption of various foods and nutrients. The data for this way of eating is very positive, but this doesn’t necessarily mean causation.
That’s where the second part comes in and where I spent most of my career: laboratory research where we examine certain nutrients. We have found impressive biologic mechanisms by which they may affect certain diseases, but because of the complexity of biology and the challenges of a reductionist approach to studying nutrients in isolation, we still can’t infer causality.
So, next we try intervention studies.
When we feed people this kind of diet, we see positive health outcomes happen very fast.
For example, we see things like substantial drops in blood cholesterol or changes in blood pressure within days.
1440: Did your start out your career trying to make a case for this way of eating?
T. Colin Campbell: No, in fact I came from exactly the opposite point of view. I was raised on a dairy farm and consumed lots of meat, milk, and eggs.
I came into my career with the idea that the more animal-based food we could consume, the better off we would be.
But at one point I was working with children in the Philippines and the evidence was showing me the opposite. When I came back home I organized a study funded by the National Institutes of Health to try and prove my bias. That lasted three decades and came to be known as the China Study and proved the opposite of what I set out to prove.
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1440: When did you switch to a whole-food, plant-based diet?
T. Colin Campbell: It happened gradually. My wife is a very good cook and was interested in what I was learning. We started making the shift around 1980 and by about 1990 our diet was completely changed. Then we changed our children’s diets too—of course some of them were in their teens when we got around to doing this, but they adapted.
There are now 22 members of our immediate family and they all eat this way.
1440: Making dietary changes seems to be one of the most challenging things for people to do. Do you recommend making a sudden switch or a gradual one?
T. Colin Campbell: We took a long time to make changes because the information just wasn’t there. As new information came along, we incorporated those changes. These days there is a lot of information and a good many reasons to make change, from ethical reasons to health reasons.
I find that if people try it and see what they get, they’ll like how they feel and become more interested in getting healthier and healthier. Results can happen very fast.
I suggest it’s preferable to eventually commit to it 100%. I can’t defend that last 2 or 3% based on science, we don’t quite have that data, but we have indications that the closer we get to 100%, the healthier people become.
Going 100% is really important for people who have serious health problems.
They may not have time to fool around, so going all in and then getting help to change their habits may be the way to go. We do know it can’t hurt you, so what’s to lose?
1440: How much can we rely on our own body’s wisdom in telling us what to eat?
T. Colin Campbell:
Some of our reactions to food are conditioned reactions. You’re conditioned to want more of something (fat, sugar, and salt, especially) or to avoid things that maybe disagree with you.
When you make changes to your diet, these situations tend to dissipate or disappear. Your body adjusts and doesn’t send those signals any longer. Many allergies or sensitivities will go away. Then you can listen to your body and avoid foods that are still offensive.
1440: What is your take on food addiction?
T. Colin Campbell:
Food addiction is one of the biggest things that impedes diet change. Most of us are addicted to a diet high in fat, sugar, and salt.
Those addictions are real. They affect the pleasure centers of the brain and, like addiction to coffee or cigarettes, take a little while to overcome. When you switch to a whole-food, plant-based diet, it may take a couple of months for your taste preferences to change, but the addiction will disappear.
Making a 100% switch can be helpful here. Most people don’t quit smoking by gradually working their way down to two and then one a day; they simply quit so it’s clear what they’re not doing any longer.
T. Colin Campbell will be teaching The China Study in Practice: Nutrition to Protect and Maximize Your Health at 1440 Multiversity on April 20 – 22, 2018 along with Thomas M. Campbell, MD.