Redefining Nutrition: 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 is the current problem with the way we think of nutrition?
T. Colin Campbell: Most of science is reductionist, meaning we isolate one thing down to the smallest level and then study it. But oftentimes how it acts on its own can be the opposite of how it acts when it’s in a whole food or when it’s ingested into the body.
There are an enormous number of factors that work together—change one of those factors and you get a different outcome.
When you think about this complexity, it suddenly becomes foolish to think we can answer questions like how many grams of this nutrient or that nutrient we should consume. We need to take what I call a wholistic approach.
1440: Are you saying we shouldn’t pay attention to nutrition labels on food products?
T. Colin Campbell: Those labels have much less meaning than we give them. We shouldn’t think in terms of this nutrient or that nutrient.
We know what plants can do, so just eat the plants. Whole food works together with our biology to give us the nutrition we need.
1440: What made you think a wholistic approach to nutrition was superior to the reductionist approach?
T. Colin Campbell: I’ve taken an almost 180-degree turn in the way I look at data. I spent a lot of my early career as a biochemist working on cellular metabolism. A cell is the basic unit of biology, but there is a whole universe in a cell. Its complexity is beyond comprehension. In a thousand years we couldn’t make something as complex as a cell, something that has all these parts moving and working together in a perfect symphony every nanosecond to do its job.
Creating a single cell is like a math problem that’s too big to solve, let alone getting that cell to interact with all the other cells. There are an infinite number of interactions occurring that influence a single cell’s behavior.
To have any chance at understanding how things operate, we have to look at the whole picture.
1440: Is wholism just about whole food?
T. Colin Campbell: One of the most interesting things about this wholistic approach is that it’s represented at all levels of life. If cells can talk to each other and different colonies of cells can communicate (for example, organ to organ), and this is happening in individuals, you can project that the same can happen from individual to individual.
How can we create a symphony among each other, as a society? How can we promote civility? This concept can operate on so many levels, and that’s interesting to me.
1440: What are some other things, besides food, that people can do to enhance their health?
T. Colin Campbell: You’ve heard them all before, but sleep, exercise, and staying hydrated are important. Also, keep a clean mind. Don’t let it be cluttered up with so many details that you’re always stressed, obsessed, and confused.
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1440: Should we ignore most of what we read about nutrition science in the news?
T. Colin Campbell: Science can create very good information for us going forward, but as far as individual consumers are concerned, you don’t have to sit there nervously waiting for the next piece of information to come along before they make decisions.
You can just start eating a whole-food, plant-based diet and you’ll see the changes.
Also, we need to redesign the meaning of nutrition. I think the public is being cheated. The public has very little knowledge and we have to change that because knowledge is power. We’ve got to get knowledge of the benefits of a whole-food, plant-based diet into everyone’s hands.
We’re doing this in a number of ways. We’ve created an online Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate course through Cornell University, my son started the PlantPure Communities Pod Network, a network of independent groups that follow a whole-food, plant-based diet, and we have a lot of free resources on our website to help people be better informed. There are also some wonderful cookbooks out there now for this way of eating. Twenty years ago that wasn’t the case, but now you can easily learn to cook whole foods and make it really tasty.
Thomas M. Campbell, MD and Erin Campbell, MD will be teaching “The China Study in Practice: Go from Good to Great with Plant-Based Foods” at 1440 Multiversity on Jan 4 – 6, 2018.