Wednesday, 29 July 2009
The China Study
Advice on diet and health is not hard to come by. The books flood the market places and the fads come and go: they come because we worry about these matters and they go because most of the advice on offer is utter bollocks. We get told to cut out carbs or sugars or fats or we get told to eat more carbs or sugars or fats. There are odd little snippets such as tomatoes preventing cancer or peanuts causing it that do the rounds, so that when everything is weighed up, especially us, it's hard to know what to do. Not that it matters, as the regimes in most of the health books are completely unsustainable in the long term and therefore, at best, will only make temporary changes in our ability to run up stairs or observe our private parts without a mirror. Below this cacophany of voices though, there is a constant quiet refrain of advice that all appears to be from people singing from the same song book: eat lots of whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables and lay off the animal fat. It's a tune which T Colin Campbell has turned the volume up on. Right round the dial to the part where there is a warning that you should turn on the decibel limiter. This is not a book to pick up if you want easy solutions to your health issues. It's not a book that you should read if you hope that a temporary diversion from your usual eating practices will knock off a couple of pounds in time for the bikini season. It's a book you might read if you are serious about your health. It's also a book you might read if you like horror stories, especially your own.
What is seriously scary about this book is that it is so impressively researched. Colin Campbell is one of America's most respected nutritional scientists and the book is based partly on the most comprehensive scientific study of the relationship of lifestyle and health ever conducted. Over a very long period, Cambell has belted out more scientific literature than you could shake a stick at, unless you were exceptionally proficient at stick shaking, but this is not a book for scientists. It is for the people who might read it and benefit from it: the inhabitants of Western countries who have adopted dietary habits which are slowly but surely killing them.
In the West we spend more on healthcare than ever, but our health statistics get steadily worse. Over centuries we have found ways to free ourselves from the diseases of poverty, and instead afflict ourselves with the diseases of excess: heart disease, cancer, diabetes, hypertension and stroke. Campbell carefully and convincingly spells out the links between various dietary factors and these diseases. He explains in simple terms the mechanisms by which these diseases, particularly cancer, arise, and he suggests strategies by which these diseases might be prevented or, in some cases, reversed. It's a hopeful book but also a challenging and shocking one, for it seems that some of the orthodoxies we have lived with all our lives are demonstrably false. In particular, lots of red meat, fresh milk and protein won't make you healthy wealthy and wise. Quite the opposite, in fact.
His recommendation is for a plant based diet, as free as possible from processed simple carbohydrates. That is, he is not giving advice we haven't all heard before. His new angle is the meticulous research and the massive tidal wave of evidence collected over several decades and across many different cultures.
One of the troubles with the crowded market in nutrition literature is that people will look at this book and treat it as yet another fad du jour. It deserves better than that, as it might possibly save a few lives. Campbell's advice is that change in lifestyle needs to be radical, long term and permanent if changes in health are to follow. This is one of the things that distinguishes The China Study from most other nutrition best sellers, and is what makes it likely that most people will try to avoid it.
This is a book that I hope everyone I care about reads. The ones I don't care about? Well.... have you heard about the Atkins diet.....?