Monday, March 9, 2009

Good Books: The China Study

In the past couple of years, three books about food have made a big impression on me. One was Michael Pollan's best seller In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. Another was The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter by Peter Singer and Jim Mason. The one that was most surprising however was the unfortunately named The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted by Dr. T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell II.

Because of that title, I would never have picked the book off a shelf ... I live in the US, not in China, and though I like Chinese food it doesn't make up much of my diet. I only paid attention because a friend who had been battling with cancer told me that it is was a "must read".

Dr. Campbell makes a bold claim, "I propose to do nothing less than redefine what we think of as good nutrition. You need to know the truth about food, and why eating the right way can save your life", and delivers!

The book references a wide range of scientific studies to explain the effects of diet on health. Not just "the China study" of the title, but many, many other studies as well. For many specific diseases, the authors explain the available scientific research and what is known about cause and effect within the body. You learn both that such and such has a high correlation to good health, but also how that can be explained by what we know about the workings of the body.

Reading it, you will learn that so much of what is told about good diets via official government guidelines and accepted medical practice is just plain wrong. For example, you learn that drinking milk is on the whole bad for your bones, and that animal-based protein is not necessary and is in fact harmful. It is not the case that science supports those established medical practices and the "food pyramid" guidelines. Rather those mis-guided instructions are due primarily to political considerations, lazy science, and closed mindedness.

Political considerations are not limited to the lobbying power of the big players in the food business. It also includes the limited-vision of the accepted "good guys" such as academia, the medical community, and even health-oriented advocacy groups (e.g. American Heart Association).

Lazy science is reflected both in researchers generally focusing their efforts on just one variable (making the research and analysis easier), but also in consumers (often journalists) of this research extrapolating the results to situations far beyond the limited confines of the original research.

Closed mindedness comes mostly from people assuming that what they know to be true is in fact true. Dr. Campbell relates how this was true even for himself. He grew up on a farm—cows, pigs, chickens, as well as plants—and "knew" that beef was good for you. One of the first projects in his professional career was to find ways of increasing animal-protein intake in the Philippines. A project he firmly believed in. His faith in this view started to waver as he noted his own research showing that the protein-deficiency health issues were greatest amongst the wealthiest Filipinos, who ate the most meat, and least amongst the poorest, who ate the least amount of meat. That was many decades ago. He's learned a lot since then, and written a fantastic book to help the rest of us.

Michael Pollan summed up his book as "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." The China Study will help you understand why this is a good idea.

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