Interview with T. Colin Campbell, author of 'Whole'

V for Veg: What's the key difference between The China Study and Whole? Why did you feel the need to a follow-up?

T. Colin Campbell: The China Study was basically a summary of the evidence and what I thought it showed. It was based on my own career, of course, but also involving the work of others. Whole, in contrast, is to count why.

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In other words, the China Study was: Here's the scene, here's the evidence, here's what we think it says. And Whole is sort of an explanation of why this evidence actually works. It really has a dramatic effect on health - even more than I thought when I finished writing The China Study. I mean I was pretty confident in what I was saying, of course, but nonetheless, since that book was published, what we now know about this is just truly dramatic.

V for Veg: Are the beneficial effects of the whole-foods plant-based diet more ascribable to the positive effects of the plant foods or to the elimination of animal protein's liabilities? Which one has the greater impact?

T. Colin Campbell: Well, I don't particularly care for trying to describe things in quantitative estimates of things. That often leads to a lot of controversy and dispute over the numbers, so I don't like to do it that way.

Let me explain it this way: What I had attempted to do after my four-plus decades of research was to try to reconcile all the details that people talked about involving the relationship between diet and health and so I assembled some of the detailed evidence and tried to synthesize an idea, and that idea was that a whole-foods plant based diet has the most potential for offering good health. And it turns out it works... and that, as you may recall, was the opposite of what I thought might be true when I started my career some 40 years before - I had come from a dairy farm, I had covered the science, I had worked and researched on a nutrient-by-nutrient basis and learned all those years...  and so we tried to knit together the details. That's what we tried to do, with my son who coauthored the book with me - he's now a physician, by the way, he was an actor in Chicago later I had gotten him to help me write the book but in the process he became anthused about this idea, went back to medical school he's just now finishing up his residency and he lectures himself now - in any case, we knitted together this story that I thought made sense, and as I say, it really works on a broad spectrum of different kinds of diseases and it works very quickly, the most benefit, [more] than anything else in medicine. If you took the best of medicine, it cannot match what this can do.

So I got very excited about it, very optimistic about it, and then I thought, well, how come we've gotten it so wrong? When I say "we," I'm talking about my community of research as well as the clinical practice community - basically, why has our society gotten it so wrong? And that's what the story of Whole is all about. And I'm trying to argue the case that it's not just about what a lot of people think it is - it's not just about money. Money is a major factor - what "sells" generally is the kind of information the public gets. But it's not that simple, and it's not really a conspiracy on the part of institutions. What I have come to believe is that it is really about the way that we understand science, or in fact the way we misunderstand science.

It's a very different way of thinking about what nutrition really means - and what the practice of medicine really means. I'm convinced that if this were known and people really did practice it - and an increasing number of people are now beginning to do that- if that were known we would be able to save a huge fraction of our health-care cost bill. There's nothing like it.

V for Veg: When you mention 'conspiracy,' how does that dovetail with, say, recent controversies about the Academy of Nutritional Dietetics (formerly ADA) and its corporate sponsorships?

T. Colin Campbell: That organization has shot themselves in the foot - I don't think we can rely on the information they now provide. What they have done is partner with the people that have been putting out so much junk information for so long. When you have Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, Glaxo Smithkline and the dairy industry, when you have those huge big organizations partnering with this so-called professional society, I don't see how anybody can expect to get good information out of that. They window-dress their information to make it look reasonably correct sometimes, but in reality they don't show how nutrition can improve people's health. I've spoken to that group as a keynoter three times over the years. The last time was in 2008, and by the time I got there then I think the organization had gone over the top.

Now this may sound like a conflict with what I said previously, that I don't believe in conspiracies, but... 'conspiracy' is a case, in my view, where people actually sit around a table, if you will, and concoct up a story and arrange for their trade in defiance of what they really know ...  I don't want to detract from the individual dietitians. They did spend 4 or 5 years getting their degrees. They do spend a lot of time learning a lot of information, and I find dietitians to be wonderful people, full of a lot of energy oftentimes and very sincere. But when they're operating within a system that is controlling what they can do and what they can say and what they can practice... you see? So I'm speaking out for dietitians and speaking against the institutions that control their training and their practices. I want to be very careful to make that distinction.

Of course, it's not just that institution that I find such fault in - it's basically the way that even larger institutions - you know, government-run institutions and agencies in addition to medical institutions - get caught in this whirlwind of information that's become almost like a tornado, and we're all spinning around with all this information that quite frankly is doing a lot of damage. We've got to step out of that box and think of another way of understanding: What does this really say, what is the evidence, how can we interpret it, how do we design studies, what kind of policies do we make on the basis of the evidence we get? There's so much in this information that we can talk about and actually deliver to the American public so they can actually get well. That's my interest.

V for Veg: Other than your books, are other channels emerging where people will have this info delivered to them?

T. Colin Campbell: Well, I do have a non-profit foundation and we partner with the online program of Cornell University, which is one of the top ten in the country, and we offer what we find to be a very exciting online course in plant-based nutrition. We've been authorized to give 30 class-one credits to doctors, and so about a third of our students now online are physicians and primary health-care workers, so that's one way. And we're finding that to be an exciting kind of thing - and that may sound kind of self-serving but I don't get paid on that, this is just a non-profit thing that we brought some really good people together to do.

As far as other organizations are concerned, there are some potentially very good organizations that could pick up the ball and run in this new direction, but the problem is that as yet they're still too encumbered with corporate influence to break free of those chains. A lot of people would not mind, as with the dieticians [needing an accrediting institution], they would like to have something to hang their hat on before they go out and get too serious about what they're talking about. So I'm just hoping this book, Whole, will start a discussion.