The Vegan-in-Chief

Food is a minefield. Socially, culturally, economically, we have made what we eat a lot more than just dinner. It is taste, status, power, profit, religion, ideology, politics.

What we may have forgotten—and the evidence is all around us within our own bodies, in the form of chronic conditions like obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer—is that food is both nutrition and medicine. We have, says Dr. T. Colin Campbell, been left to fend for ourselves nutritionally, under the marketing onslaught of the food and drug industries.

“Having started a research and teaching career in nutrition over 50 years ago, I have seen the passion, the frivolity and the arrogance over and over and over when people talk about their food choices,” he wrote recently on Huffington Post. “This topic is very, very personal. It’s sad because I do not see very much progress over these last four to five decades—lots of shouting and not much constructive thought.”

Campbell is emeritus professor of biochemical medicine at Cornell University. He has been examining the link between food and health for over 50 years. Almost 10 years ago, he and his son, also a doctor, wrote The China Study, which involved correlating health information from 6,500 people in China: 100 people from 65 different areas.

Monitoring the longterm diets of the 6,500 people, the father and son doctors examined mortality rates from dozens of different cancers and other chronic diseases. The results were stark: people who ate a plant-based diet were healthier and far less prone to disease. Those who ate animal-based foods were far more likely to develop “Western” diseases.

Campbell has always suspected this, having begun his work in the Philippines decades ago devising healthy, sustainable diets for malnourished children. He knows that the link between food and health is far stronger than most of us realize. “Properly practiced nutrition, as a dietary lifestyle, can do more to create health and save health care costs than all the contemporary medical interventions put together,” he wrote.

Modern science, he says, became obsessed with isolating the benefits of individual nutrients; hence the enormous market for vitamins and supplements. It lost sight of the bigger holistic picture: that good health is about whole foods, not taking vitamin pills or isolating food groups. The orthodoxy that grew up around nutrition has been too focused on scientific reductionism.

The China Study was published by a small Texan publisher because major publishers wanted Campbell to make his book more commercial by focusing it on recipes. He refused to dumb it down, but even without much marketing, the book went on to sell a million copies.

Its most famous advocate is former U.S. president Bill Clinton. When asked on CNN about his dramatic weight loss, Clinton mentioned Campbell’s book. To prevent heart disease and other lifestyle-associated illnesses, Clinton had put down the burgers and animal-based junk food he so famously loved, and adopted a plant-based diet.

In other words, Clinton went vegan.

Campbell dislikes the terms “vegan” and “vegetarian” because they come with ideological baggage. He emphasizes the science. “Nutrition has value beyond what we think we know,” he tells me. “It can prevent future disease, it can cure heart disease and diabetes, and reverse and stop others.

“The effect of what we eat on our bodies is extraordinary. When people eat the right food, their angina pain can go away within a week. No drugs come close. With cancer, we can turn on and off advancement via our protein intake. It affects cholesterol, hypertension, body weight. In ten-day studies, a group of fairly healthy individuals dropped their cholesterol from an average of 196 to 149 just by changing what they ate to whole food, plant-based. Each cell in our body is like a universe extraordinarily complex, and replicated 100 trillion times within us. We need to acknowledge this complexity. And animal proteins stimulate cell division.”

Campbell’s entire family now follows a plant-based diet. “You can really see the benefits,” he says. His latest book, Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition, explains the process in greater detail.

The reason Campbell’s idea of a plantbased diet is so foreign to many people is that we have been told from birth that meat, fish and dairy are esessential for good health. That without meat, fish, cream, butter and cheese, culinary life is not worth living. Ever come across a vegan restaurant critic? Me neither. It’s because they don’t exist.

Campbell is not, however, a hippie. He is all about the empirical data. “I’m not into animal rights,” he says, adding that he used to conduct animal experiments (which makes him that most extraordinary combination, a vegan ex-vivisectionist).

Still, I wonder if eating a plant-based diet makes for a more serene individual and a wider peacefulness, or is that just nonsense? After all, Campbell is all about the evidence rather than the vibes.

But he says it does promote peace. Making burgers involves environmental violence on a vast scale, where natural cover is flattened for grazing, usually in countries that are too poor to object. On an individual level, people who consume a plant-based diet tend to feel better about themselves because they are healthier, lighter, and therefore happier.

Weirdly, and by complete coincidence, my interview with Campbell comes a week after my own transition to a plant-based diet. In my forties, overweight and starting to ache and having tried everything else, I was inspired by a handful of friends who had been raised vegan for ideological reasons (hippie mothers) and who, in their forties, glow with the lightness and good health of a life-long plant-based diet.

I wanted what they had, so I decided to make the change; in less than a fortnight I can feel a difference both in my energy levels and in my taste buds, although this is by no means a quick fix. This is longterm, focused nutrition. It is food mindfulness. And it’s rather exciting, rediscovering food in middle age, and exploring new ways of cooking and eating. But this is not about recipes. It’s bigger than that.

“I have given close to 500 lectures on the subject, and continue to be astounded about the effects not just on heart disease, cancer and diabetes but on arthritic pain, muscular pain, general aches and pains. They just go away,” says Campbell. “It’s remarkable.”

His suggestions are straightforward. As well as avoiding meat and fish, he advocates eating whole foods (that is, foods that are unprocessed, unadulterated, intact). Don’t fry your food; cut down on refined carbohydrates. And then there’s the biggie.

“Number one, eliminate dairy,” says Campbell. “We are the only species on the planet which consumes mothers’ milk beyond weaning. Human milk is obviously perfect for us, but instead we use cows’.”

When you think about dairy, it makes no sense. Of course it’s delicious, but we are flexible creatures and “delicious” is a movable feast. Nutritionally, consuming as a matter of course milk intended for baby cows is physiologically peculiar, but we don’t question it. Dr. Campbell reckons our bodies do question it, however, and that questioning takes the form of chronic disease. (Not that he is puritan; beer and wine are plant-based, he says, and are fine in moderation.)

“I make as many enemies as friends,” he says mildly. “But all I am saying is that we rediscover Hippocrates’ main idea from 2,500 years ago: ‘Let food be thy medicine, let medicine be thy food.’”•






“As long as men massacre animals, they will kill

each other.”



“And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” Genesis 1:29


Leonardo da Vinci:

“Truly man is the king of beasts, for his brutality exceeds them. We live by the death of others. We are burial places.”Einstein:

“It is my view that the vegetarian manner of living, by its purely physical effect on the human temperament, would most beneficially influence the lot of mankind.”



“It is my view that the vegetarian manner of living, by its purely physical effect on the human temperament, would most beneficially influence the lot of mankind.”


Leo Tolstoy:

“As long as there are slaughterhouses, there will be battlefields.”


George Bernard Shaw: “Animals are my friends and I don’t eat my friends.”


Benjamin Franklin:

“Flesh eating is

unprovoked murder.”



“Meat is murder.”



“When a man has pity on all living creatures, only then is he noble.”



Author: Suzanne Harrington

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