Welcome to the poor scientist’s book club. The last “book club” was one of my first posts (over 3 years ago!!), in which I discussed my thoughts on The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. I’m happy to say it’s one of my top posts, but I’m unhappy to report that most of the hits are from Google searches for “The Omnivore’s Dilemma cliff notes.” I just have one thing to say to those people: Cheaters, get off my blog!!
Anyway, where were we? Oh yeah. I read two books about food this year: The China Study by the father/son team T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell, and In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan. Since both books have been around long enough to garner significant press (China was published in 2006, Defense in 2008), I won’t go into serious depth about either. Instead, I’ll give a brief synopsis and present my general thoughts. Ready? Let’s go!
I’ll be honest: I never had any intention of reading The China Study. But I was over at TC’s with nothing to do, so I perused his bookshelf and was intrigued by the title. Was it about Chinese people? Well, sort of. It’s actually about a huge nutritional study done in China in the 1980s examining the link between diet and disease. What the authors found (and what is at the heart of the book) is that there was a significant link between animal protein and cancer. Later on, the authors state the case for the links between animal protein and numerous other diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity, autoimmune diseases, and even dementia. I admit, I was skeptical about this connection, partially because: 1. I love meat, eggs, and dairy, and I don’t want to give them up; and 2. How is it possible that animal protein could cause all of these diseases when we’re “made” to eat meat and have for a long, long time? Well, the answer to the second question is better answered, I think, in In Defense of Food, but before I move on, I wanted to list some of my pros and cons of The China Study:
- T. Colin Campbell is a renowned, well-respected nutritional research scientist who does a great job explaining the ins-and-outs of research, and why most nutritional studies don’t cut it due to their reductionist approach.
- Instead of writing in a pop/soft science style, the Campbells build their case with real data and every chapter is laden with references to peer-reviewed journal articles.
- Despite my initial skepticism, I was convinced by the end of the book that animal protein is harmful and that I should eat less of it. It makes sense that animal protein, which is a super efficient/high quality form of protein, could also be deleterious when consumed in large amounts.
- The authors raise interesting points about food marketing (e.g., “Got Milk?”), which is so insidious, we don’t even realize we’re being marketed to. There’s also a compelling argument about how the meat and dairy industries basically buy their way into our government’s nutritional recommendations. You really won’t look at a food pyramid (or a food plate) the same way again after this book.
- I think the book is a tad extreme in its advocacy for veganism. While I think the average American consumes way too much animal protein, I’m not sure everyone should become a vegan.
- While they do a good, thorough job building their case for the link between animal protein and cancer, it gets a little redundant when they give the same treatment to every single disease mentioned in the book. By the time I got to Chapter 10 (Wide-ranging effects: bone, kidney, eye, and brain diseases), I was yelling at the book, “I get it already! Animal protein is the worst! ” Just saying, it could’ve used a heavier-handed editor. (On that note, I REALLY recommend the documentary Forks Over Knives, which lays out all of the salient points without the drudgery.)
My take-home message: We’ve been told that meat, dairy, and eggs are super nutritious and that we can’t live without them. Well, all you have to do is look at a vegan and know that that is not true. The real problem is that we’re all eating too much animal protein… which brings me to my next point.
It took me a LONG time to recover from The Omnivore’s Dilemma (TOD). While I had heard great things about Michael Pollan’s next book, In Defense of Food (IDOF), I was not ready to read it until recently. Whereas TOD makes you feel hopeless about food, IDOF makes you feel hopeful. Its simple and straightforward mantra (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”) is refreshing. It was also a nice follow-up to The China Study, since IDOF also talks about “nutrionism” (not to be confused with rigorous, holistic, nutritional science), the faulty science that often undermines our understanding of nutrition, and how we as a society blindly follow the latest nutrition trend, whether it’s valid or not.
- See above.
- Simple, easy to remember things such as: Good, nutritious food will eventually rot, so you probably do not want to eat anything that refuses to grow mold. Generally, the less processed a food is, the better it is for you. Don’t buy any foods claiming health benefits on the label. Look at ingredient lists, not nutritional information, for the nutritional value of the food product.
- Nothing glaring. Sorry.
My take-home message: Read this book! It’s a quick, enjoyable read and I’m certain it will change your outlook (and grocery purchases) for the better.
To tie it all together, I think that both books have been extremely valuable in shaping my views on what to eat and what not to eat. While I’m not going to become vegan anytime soon, I have cut back significantly on my intake of animal protein. I was already cutting back meat consumption due to my environmental and ethical concerns, but the idea that I can significantly cut my risk of developing cancer, heart disease, etc. is also very attractive. Not to mention, eating meat is expensive (as it should be), making vegetarianism more budget-friendly. It’s hard to reject processed foods that are so easy to prepare and cheap, but I’m striving towards making whole foods a central part of my diet.
Anyway, those are my two cents. If anyone out there has read either or both of these books, I’d be very interested in hearing your thoughts. Leave your comments below!