In one of them a passing – and totally intentional image - around the veganism stand showed the author holding a copy of ‘The China Study’. So I froze the frame, copied the title, and downloaded a copy to my kindle with the intention of occupying my hours on another of my frequent carbon aggressions - aka flights (more on that guilt another day!).
The truth is that the book didn’t start as the best read, I found the author spent too much time justifying his knowledge from peers and mainstream attacks he has suffered over his career and his narrative was far from gripping. Unlike other books, like my recent read of Dan Barbers great ‘The Third Plate’ the scientist took too much of a front seat in the authors narrative, referring to this or that fact without mastering the art of telling a story. After some excellent authors in the field, Mr Campbell sounded just a notch too dry. Yet, as much as any good read, his book has had a life changing effect on me beyond much better food literature.
Dr Colin Campbell’s personal journey is as interesting as his scientific conclusions. He was raised in a dairy farm were milk, meat and the likes were staples, very much the foundations of the American way of life and a supposed envy of the rest of a badly nourished world, a perception of privilege and social achievement. So after graduating in vet school, nutrition and biochemistry, his first efforts were directed to south Asian countries in the hope he could somehow translate this meat wealth to less favoured communities.
Over the length of his book, the author reflects on how he came to understand that the problems that affected these people were not based on foundations of their diet but on other circumstances, like lack of food or poor sanitation, which he refers to as “diseases of poverty”. By then he also starts to realize that those higher social classes that can afford a western style meat rich diet replicate our ills in what he calls “disease of affluence”. As the book picks up speed and rhythm he confirms the findings in a unique and probably un-repeatable social experiment in a China that was only then making the first changes towards an industrialized diet. With the help of Chinese scientists, and over decades of work, he studies the effect of diet as he compares them with westerners ‘normal’ values. The results are not only an eye opener but a life changer, he personally evolves from a dairy high protein consumer to a vegan equivalent, a diet he still promotes today engaging some famous adherents like Bill Clinton.
I won’t chew the particulars of the China Study, which I nevertheless recommend, but stop to think about the implications on personal life projects as the likes of Eight Acres – the blog. The bottom line of Mr Campbell –proven by tonnes of quality research- is that all meat and dairy products, no matter their quality and raising, grass fed or even wild, should be avoided. His charts and experiments over such a long period and ample population prove that these –in particular lactose- are known cancer activators. He even goes beyond this to prove in lab tests that he can activate –and deactivate - cancer only by altering the diet in mice. His conclusions shine a light on what we know but seldom acknowledge, those inevitable and common illnesses in communities following a western meat rich diet are unheard of and very uncommon in other parts of the world and not a universal genetic burden. As the advance of processed and industrialized food and farming is becoming universal, we have less and less communities that can prove that the new normal isn’t actually an inevitable normal. The lowest cholesterol levels of North American citizens are much higher than the highest cholesterol levels of those he found in rural China. Mr Campbell’s conclusion is clear, drop meat and dairy altogether. Is an approach to raising and producing good quality meat fundamentally wrong? Do grass raised cows have any place in a healthy diet?
When confronted with these dilemmas in this avalanche of findings of the health fad wave I always fall back on Mr Pollan’s food philosophy. His rules are simple and wise; he grips on no extremes and comes across as a smiling, modest, curious man who doesn’t hide behind any dogma. You seldom encounter an author that lives up to the same personal esteem as you may hold for his ideas, and yet he is the exception that confirms the rule. So, how do Mr Pollan’s ideas compare?
In principle, there could be a good understanding. His famous line, “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” follows the guidelines Mr Campbell seems to advance. Mostly plants!. Yet, in the core of their arguments, there is a fundamental discrepancy. In Mr Pollans view, he sees that human communities evolve a food culture from local staples, and that these, eaten in the way tradition dictates, with the frequency, quantities and combinations, but also the social rules (remember the French paradox), make any food –but the modern industrialised food- healthy. He finds communities have sustained healthy from fat rich diets (Inuit for example) to grains to just about anything the omnivores can get their hands on. And they have done so in amazing ways, where the combination of fermented foods and cooking techniques have rendered the best possible nutrition of the ingredients at hand. That –although we should take advice from the plant based diet rule –includes meat, milk, and dairy.
Mr Campbell on the other hand is quite clear, there is no permissible variety, we must go vegan or bust. He does allow for a maximum 5% meat in the diet, as an occasional treat, but goes on to say it’s much easier to simplify the rule and just go meat-free.
I would also add that Pollan advises that the outcome of our health relies, not only what we eat, but how we eat it and what we do in our daily activity. Thus working hard on the farm, and eating in the love and company of a tight group of friends and/or family can have as much of an impact as the ingredients in the diet seen as individual nutrients. Campbell has no allowance for this, and although he doesn’t outright dismiss it, his studies on stroke and heart healing reduce the paths to one: become a vegan. There is no such thing as healthy dairy or meat. Not even that one on which he was raised in his home rural farm.
As the doctor did, there is no better way of learning than performing the experiment on oneself, even if the results contradict what one believed to know. So since I have read Mr Campbells book I put it to test by trying a vegan diet.
I must say I do this only from a health point of view, I shy away from a political stand that a vegans narrative usually includes, such as animal cruelty. Although I’m all against modern meat raising and factory slaughtering, I can’t help think that even that hunter-gatherer idealist (and unreal both historically and by today’s standards?) paradise would gloat on a roasted animal, as many indigenous tribes do today. I read about Molly the cow, and know there is a world of difference between her good life and a CAFO. Carls Safina’s insight that animals have very similar emotions to humans –one of the prime clues being that evolution only adjusts small tweaks on the material that are at its disposal already- is convincing. Anyone that has lived in close intimacy with animals –dogs, cats, birds, but also farm animals- cannot deny their personality, individuality, or emotions. De-humanizing them (de-animalizing them?) is the only way we can feed on them without remorse, but I’m unsure that means no animal ever must be sacrificed to eat.
So, what has happened? So far the benefits of an all vegan diet have been amazing. For someone like me that couldn’t conceive a diet without meat and had all the ready excuses for it, I feel healthier, lighter, and more active as ever before. I miss nothing, and feel satisfied and nourished every day in ways and flavours that the lack of no steak would make me regret. So far my experiment has worked for me, and I have incorporated happily in a new lifestyle. I don’t know how long it will last, or if it should last. I don’t know if I suddenly will feel an urge to tuck into a warm roast, or I will slowly drift away from the horrors of biting into flesh and blood.
Is Mr Campbell right? I don’t know, and my individual case changes nothing in the big picture. As he warns, science can only predict diet on statistical big numbers, not on individuals. I’m surrounded by pollutants in all other areas of my life, plastics, electrical wires, air contaminants, detergents... that may trigger cancer or disease in dark and anonymous ways. But so far, so good, a vegan diet has had a positive undeniable impact on my health, in the lines the book said it would.
This contradicts – to a point- the main philosophy of Michael Pollan that all diets, when followed in a traditional way, are beneficial. I find one weak point with this argument; traditional diets were interlocked with a traditional way of life that is no longer sustainable nowadays. People who ate heavy fat diets also spent much of their day walking up and down hills and performing physical demanding tasks we don’t endure anymore. Food was also very seasonal, and sometimes scarce, which made those rich dishes not so prevalent. You couldn’t cook all those foods all year round, as we do now. Replicating the diet may involve replicating a lifestyle in a way that is not possible or desirable, which is one big question I would also put towards the paleo movement. Eating paleo may involve living paleo, it may be counterproductive (or impossible) to become a modern-lifestyle-paleo-eater....
But Mr Pollan’s philosophy does intersect with Dr Campbell’s by reminding us that our food should be real food, and mostly plants. It’s in this perspective that the change in diet has been most effective. The question remains, is there such thing as a healthy meat or healthy dairy products?
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