Nutrition Is Far More Important Than Many People Realize: Lessons from The China Study
Thomas M. Campbell, MD, is coauthor, with his father T. Colin Campbell, PhD, of The China Study, which has sold over two million copies. He is a board-certified family physician, a specialist in obesity medicine, and the medical director of the Highland Weight Management and Lifestyle Center, as well as the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies. Thomas is also the author of The Campbell Plan and The China Study Solution.
We caught up with him recently to talk about nutrition, dietary trends, and lessons learned from The China Study.
1440: You wrote The Campbell Plan as a practical follow-up to The China Study. Can you share one or two of the findings you distill into practical advice for patients and readers?
Thomas: There’s not a single study that I rely on, but rather a broad collection of research that suggests that nutrition is far more important than many people realize.
How we eat can slow, stop, or reverse atherosclerotic heart disease, prostate cancer, diabetes, weight problems, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, rheumatoid arthritis, and others.
The second thing I’d highlight is a research finding that moderation in a profoundly unhealthy food environment is not a helpful approach.
Moderation is a vague term that means different things to different people. A “moderate” amount usually is an amount that allows people to consume whatever they want to consume. It’s easier and more effective to establish “bright lines” regarding what you want to eat and then stick to your plan.
1440: What is the biggest nutritional concern you hear from patients and readers?
Thomas: One of the biggest concerns tends to be a variety of questions related to “getting enough” of x, y, z. How will I get enough protein without meat? Don’t I need more fat for my brain? Generally, people don’t appreciate that excessive amounts of certain nutrients in America are actually far more threatening for most of us. I’d rather we move beyond that conversation and focus on whole foods and dietary patterns, which is more meaningful in terms of overall health.
1440: What is the most dangerous nutritional trend that you observe in modern life?
I think the variety of low-carb approaches, as a group, are among the most dangerous nutritional trends.
In the extreme, these might be a ketogenic type of diet, and there may be short-term benefits, but I have very serious concerns about long-term effects of diets high in meat and fat.
Even beyond the direct effects on people participating in the diets, these diets have created a pervasive concern that carbohydrates like potatoes, rice, and corn (and even beans!) are something to be avoided because they cause weight gain and diabetes, despite our knowledge that almost all traditional cultures have been trim and avoided diabetes, as well as heart disease and many common cancers, eating diets heavily based on healthy carbohydrates.
We also have good studies showing that high carbohydrate, whole-food diets can actually dramatically reverse diabetes and cause weight loss.
There is a terribly confusing mess of nutrition information in the popular media.
1440: Sugar. Alcohol. Caffeine. If all are enjoyed in moderation, is one of these any more damaging than the others?
Thomas: From a nutritional/health concern, it’s probably true that anything in very small amounts is likely fine, but my concern is more of a behavioral one. In our food environment, where we’re constantly being pulled to consume processed foods, it’s unlikely that someone truly eats perfectly 95 percent of the time and indulges in obviously unhealthy foods 5 percent of the time. I don’t think I’ve ever met that person. People are almost always consuming less healthy foods than they realize in our environment so tilted toward unhealthy food.
From a health point of view, I think alcohol and caffeine in small amounts are okay, but dosing yourself regularly with sugary foods is a recipe for dietary trouble.
1440: What five foods can you not live without?
Thomas: I don’t truly need certain foods every week (that would be an addiction!), but I certainly am a fan of oatmeal, sweet cherries (frozen are great), watermelon, many types of leafy greens, and brown rice (which is popular with me from a practical point of view).