Friday, May 24, 2013

Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition

Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition by T. Colin Campbell PhD and Howard Jacobson PhD aims to change the way we think about health and nutrition by taking a more wholistic view.

Dr. Campbell is 79-year-old biochemist, whose doctoral dissertation half a century ago was on the greater biological value of animal-based protein. Coming from a dairy farm, that was a natural choice for him.

Campbell's "slippery slope to heresy" began in the late 1970ies, when he discovered a connection between animal protein and cancer. Initially he naively expected to be praised for his scientific results, but soon realized that he had strayed beyond the paradigm of mainstream science.

Having tasted the forbidden fruit, he got hooked despite attacks and criticism. Campbell's magnum opus The China Study came out in 2005. (It's a lot of information to digest, so here's a convenient China Study cheat sheet.) Campbell starred in the 2011 documentary Forks Over Knives.

Whole is more like a biography of a nutritionist than one of those diet books with success stories and recipes. However there is nothing more convincing than experiencing the benefits of WFPB (Whole Foods Plant-Based) yourself. The following paragraph would be a great starting point:
"The ideal human diet looks like this: Consume plant-based foods in forms as close to their natural state as possible ("whole" foods). Eat a variety of vegetables, fruits, raw nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, and whole grains. Avoid heavily processed foods and animal products. Stay away from added salt, oil and sugar. Aim to get 80 percent of your calories from carbohydrates, 10 percent from fat, and 10 percent from protein."
For reductionists nutrition is just the sum of the effects of individual nutrients. This is why we count calories, pay attention to nutritional labels, wonder if we get enough protein at each meal, or add ketchup to our meal because it's a source of lycopene.

From a holistic point of view that doesn't make much sense. For example an apple may do more inside our bodies than all the known effects of its nutrients. However it's difficult to say what a particular apple will do for you, due to differences in nutrition content, individual absorption rates, and complex chemical interactions. Our bodies are much more intelligent than we think, taking and using what is needed in each case.

If WFPB could be sold as a pill, it sure would make a lot of money. Imagine a drug with the following effects:
  • prevents 95% of cancers
  • prevents heart attacks and strokes
  • reverses heart disease
  • prevents and reverses Type 2 diabetes
  • gets you to your ideal weight in a healthy and sustainable fashion
  • eliminates most migranes, acne, colds and flu, chronic pain and intestinal distress
  • improves energy
  • cures erectile dysfunction.
There would the also be following positive side-effects:
  • slows and possibly reverses global warming
  • reduces groundwater contamination
  • ends the need for deforestation
  • shuts down factory farms
  • reduces malnutrition.
That's quite a list! But you can't patent a diet recommendation.

T. Colin Campbell clearly believes in nutritional rather than genetic determinism. The former states that healthy nutrition can control our genes by turning on health genes and suppressing disease genes. Lately Angelina Jolie has strongly supported the latter. As Dr John McDougall comments, the potential harms of radical surgery outweigh the benefits. Improving your diet will always be easier, healthier, cheaper and smarter than chopping off body parts.

The bottom line is that the food you eat is the most powerful determinant of your health. Who knows, Whole might soon be known as the book that inspired the world to eat plant-based whole foods. There are some signs that we are moving in that direction anyway:
  • The power vegans are already on the rise. 
  • Part-time veganism like Mark Bittman's VB6 (Vegan Before 6pm) has been a successful way to start for many. 
  • Restaurants everywhere, including in China, are serving delicious plant-based options, which are more popular than ever.
Whole is a an honest health book by an honest healthy scientist.


Premshree said...

I'm a big fan of the idea of preventative medicine, and sadly (and not surprisingly) it's not a topic that many people, doctors included, seem to even consider here.

Figuring out the ideal diet seems hard. On the one hand I'm constantly bombarded by information from adherents of the paleo diet, and then there's the whole plant-based diet. (I tend to pay some attention to the former because I have friends who have first-hand experience in improving their health significantly by following a paleo diet.) I seem to naturally drift somewhere in the middle: eating plenty of fruits and vegetables (especially in the summer), but also red meats, poultry, etc., etc.

Perhaps it may just be that the biggest change one could bring to their health is by eating whole foods -- plant-based or otherwise. (From Pollan's In Defense of Food:) It's curious yet not surprising that America, a nation obsessed with health, is one of the most (the most?) unhealthy country in the world, and I think American capitalism and greed is much more responsible for this mess than is obvious.

Anyway, I also want to say that I'm so glad to know people like you who are constantly learning and sharing. Thank you.

Trail Plodder said...

Thank you Premshree. Paleo (aka low-carb) diets are generally much better than SAD (Standard American Diet). My health and results improved when I went paleo in the early 1990ies. Still I feel plant-based (vegan) whole food has been even bigger improvement for me. It just makes me feel better, that's all I need to know.

When I was a kid there were 3 billion people, but soon there will be 9. There's no way we can feed them all with anything but whole plants. Fortunately that seems to be the best option four our health and for the planet.

Will said...

Well done trailplodder. I watched forks over knives and we stopped eating meat for Lent a year ago (my kids too). I'm torn because, as an endurance athlete, I'm a believer in the fat for fuel concept Maffetone espouses. That line of thinking suggests one should eat what we burn and running over 2 or 3 hours the body needs to burn fat, and animal fat has been that source for me. I think the real culprit here is sugar and the massive doses of it we get when eating processed foods. Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful post and keep up your training for UTMB!

Trail Plodder said...

Thanks Will! Good job getting your family to quit meat! I highly value Dr. Maffetone's methods and his aerobic training method has worked great for me. In aerobic state we burn a mixture of carbs/fat. Unfortunately we endurance athletes often get confused about food. In Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing he clearly states that carbs should be the most important fuel. Most athletes have sufficient body fat, so there is usually no need to eat over 10% fat. Fortunately our bodies are smart and can adapt to most dumb diets. I simply try eat whole foods and 10 servings of fruits/veggies daily just like Phil, as described in the following article: