poor scientist. will blog 4 food.

the culinary adventures of a self-described foodie

Double book review: The China Study and In Defense of Food


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!

Author: Jen

Howdy! I'm a 30-something recovering former academic living in the San Francisco Bay Area. I like to eat, run, and blog, but not usually at the same time.

8 thoughts on “Double book review: The China Study and In Defense of Food

  1. I’ve actually become really interested in how the “paleo” food movement has grown out of publications like these two. Granted, it has a lot of the hallmarks of the typical diet hucksters and magical nutritional evolution woo, but it’s also interesting how it seems to have become the mass-market version of these philosophies. It essentially blends some carryovers from the low-carb craze with the madness of the gluten-free diet for normal humans, and then staples it to the idea that whole foods are best for you.

    My girlfriend and I are actually going to try a CSA-based paleo diet (read: low complex-carb whole food) starting next year, although I’m the cook (and a geneticist!), so I plan to temper the woo whenever I can.

    • TC and I are contemplating the CSA box too; just trying to decide between weekly or bi-weekly boxes. Anyway, I tend to avoid gimmicky diets, which means I don’t even know what a paleo diet is but I don’t like the sound of it at all (even if I might agree with parts of it). I can understand the desire to go back to less refined foods, but there’s no way I’m giving up white flour, sugar, rice, pasta, etc.

      I totally (and purposefully) left out the other components of wellness in the post (e.g., exercise, emotional well-being), but obviously those are really important too.

  2. Unfortunately the China Study has been debunked to the point where it is actually embarrassing. Partly he is probably a bad scientist, but mostly he has an vegan agenda and he won’t tolerate any other point of view. Start here: http://bit.ly/mZVNR8
    Also, you can read The Protein Debate between Loren Cordain and T Colin Campbell which will also give you a framework of the paleo concept (google “the protein debate” and the pdf should be the first hit). From what I’ve read, the paleo people aren’t gimmicky at all, they focus on food quality and are heavily into referencing the scientific literature whenever possible and in creating testable hypotheses. You can see from the Protein Debate how many references are given by Cordain and how few if any are given by Campbell.

    • I haven’t read the whole post you linked, but so far I agree with what she has to say about Forks Over Knives. I don’t know anything about T. Colin Campbell, or his status as a scientist, but I do think China Study brings up some interesting points. Are they all correct? Of course not. I find the idea that any one food item as THE source of all evil to be over simplified and flat-out wrong. I personally don’t believe in a one-diet-fits-all model — I think people should figure what works for them and stick to it.

      I try to look at the big picture when it comes to topics like this. What’s the cost/benefit? In my opinion, meat has a high cost, environmentally, ethically, (possibly) nutritionally, and literally $$. The benefits are that it tastes good. In practice, I feel much better physically after eating more veggies and less to no meat. Will I ever go vegan? Probably not. But I don’t think it hurts to eat a diverse range of foods, including vegan, paleo, etc.

  3. The China Study as it stands is almost worthless, as the correlations they find (increased meat = increased cancer) are also correlated with cities, meaning they ignore the effects of increased industrial air pollution, toxic metals in the seafood, etc. Also, they are completely dishonest about the casein studies. Even if casein causes cancer, whey protein is protective against cancer.. and they both are found in milk. Such is the problem with isolated molecule studies.

    By the way, I found your blog because I was looking up papers from the Goldstein lab and came across your name. I got my PhD from UNC also and I had some connections in the cell biology world (my band played for the weddings of Dale Beach and also for Paul and Amy Maddox).

    • Oh, how funny! Small world. I was at Dale’s wedding, so we’ve definitely been at least in the same room together.

      Well, I finally did finish that post that you linked too. I forgot about all of the misgivings I had about the China Study (this is what happens when you wait too long to review a book), but that blog post reminded me of them. I agree with her points, for the most part. Anyway, I think one important thing that I took from the book (even if it turns out to be wrong) is to question the food pyramid and what nutritionists tell you to be fact… and to hopefully encourage people towards whole foods.

    • On more thing: just because The China Study has been debunked doesn’t mean that veganism doesn’t have its virtues. There hasn’t been, to my limited knowledge, a well-controlled, longitudinal study on vegans, or the paleo diet, for that matter. What we’d really need is a twin study to at least eliminate genetics as a factor. However, even in the most well-controlled study, it would be very difficult to identify for certain what the most influential factors are. And then to generalize across the human population would be another mistake, as it has been shown that different cultures have developed their own strategies for diet (e.g. the Inuits and a high fat diet).

      I think I’ll start a new diet called “the Grandma Diet.” Meaning: no high-fructose corn syrup, pastured animals raised without antibiotics, less-refined starches, etc. All at about half the portion that we’re used to eating.

  4. I agree with that; a lot of people on both sides want more studies. You’re right about the fact that conventional wisdom from nutritionists is dead wrong a lot of the time, and with any governmental agency, downright dishonest and corrupt. There actually is a lot of common ground between the two camps in terms of eating high quality and less processed foods, like your Grandma Diet. That sounds pretty good. Grandma was right about another thing: she cooked with butter and lard instead of nasty high omega 6 seed oils like soybean, vegetable, sunflower, safflower, and canola.

    So you don’t remember how awesome the jazz music was at Dale’s wedding? Just kidding, I wouldn’t expect anyone to remember that. Your blog looks really good, thanks for all the great and interesting posts and recipes.

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