Dr. Colin Campbell is one of the least likely vegans. Raised milking cows on a farm, he began a research career in the 1950s focusing on ways to prevent malnutrition amongst poor children through the ‘Western diet', a diet high in animal based protein which he, as well as his colleagues at the time, fervently believed was the best diet one can have.
It was while doing research in the Philippines in the 1960s when he noticed a higher than expected incidence of liver cancer in children, especially those from more affluent families who were the ones consuming the most animal protein.
‘When I started, it seemed like I kept running into things that went against what I thought. After 27 years with the research funded by the NIH [the US National Institute of Health], I obviously got to a point where my views on nutrition were substantially different from what they were when I started. Instead of relying on animal based foods as a primary source of good nutrition, it is very clear that we should be relying on plant based foods,' he told the Ecologist.
Years of field work and laboratory based studies, followed by a systematic review of published scientific research which, ‘lo and behold was pretty much being ignored', he says, led Campbell to co-author a best selling book, The China Study: Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long Term Health.
All his research pointed in one direction: populations with a heavy animal protein diet are more likely to suffer from cancer. But even more surprising was evidence showing the impact a plant based diet can have on stopping and reversing serious diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
Today, when asked how much animal protein there should be to maintain a healthy diet, his answer is firm: zero.
The findings put him at odds with the powerful US cattle and dairy industry that, he says, can be pretty insidious. ‘I spent about 20 years working on national health policies. They do a lot of work behind the scenes to make sure their supporters get into key positions. They participate in the setting of standards and policies that are very much in their favour. They've also tried to embarrass me and tamper with my reputation. The best way I am finding to deal with that is to keep on doing what I'm doing.'
Going against the grain
Campbell also disputes the ‘hunter-gatherer' evolutionary argument for humans being predisposed to eating meat. ‘Quite frankly anthropologists are challenging that concept - how many years and how much meat were we actually taking. Evolution would have evolved over millions of years, if you look at the nearest primate relative only about two to three, five per cent at the most, is coming from animal protein and that is from insects. The vast majority of our evolutionary history, we weren't hunter-gatherers. We should call ourselves gatherer-hunters, not hunter-gatherers.'
Grains are also a relatively recent part of the human diet - introduced some 10,000 years ago, a short history in our evolutionary past. He says that we may also have gotten to the point of over consuming grains, but the real problem is that we eat them as processed food. ‘If you are eating the whole grains, that's one story. But most people are eating refined white flour - that's not good. The recommendation I give is to avoid animal foods, especially dairy, and at the same time to cut down on processed foods.'
Changing the medical establishment
In 1991, after Campbell's work was featured the New York Times, he was contacted by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, a surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic. Dr. Esselstyn had been working for many years with heart disease patients and had come to many of the same conclusions. As he put some of his patients on a meat and dairy free diet, they were able to prevent and even reverse coronary artery disease.
Campbell and Esselstyn became colleagues and friends, often sharing the platform at conferences. Esselstyn's approach to reversing heart disease has many proponents, including former US President Bill Clinton, yet he is still one of the lone voices in the medical establishment.
While there are more and more doctors cottoning on to the role of nutrition in maintaining good health, Campbell finds fault in the medical industry relying on treating cancer and heart disease patients with drugs and chemicals.
‘I don't want to be anti-pharmaceutical but the medical business relies on the idea of magic bullets. This may work in the short term but they don't' solve long term problems. We are acting like engineers and this kind of approach to improving health is not working and is extraordinarily expensive. The sad thing is that medical practitioners aren't trained in nutrition at all.'
In the spotlight
Campbell and Esselstyn are now featured in two films, Planeat, which premieres in the UK on May 20th, and Forks over Knives, a Hollywood production that has just opened in the US. The directors of Planeat, Shelley Lee Davies and Or Shlomi, were inspired to make the film after reading The China Study and realising that, ‘the same diet that can help save the planet can also help prevent chronic diseases and tastes amazing'.
Indeed, the film is clear that you needn't live on lentils and lettuce if you decide to forgo animal protein. The film has many cut-away scenes of chefs preparing mouthwatering dishes in some of the world's best vegan/vegetarian restaurants.
While he started out firmly in the meat and dairy camp, the startling facts of Dr. Campbell research has meant that for many years he has eaten an exclusively plant based diet:
'My wife and I started the journey and we have five grown children and now grandchildren who are all pretty much the same way.'
Find a screening of Planeat in the UK
Ideas and recipes from the film
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