Some big news about vitamins not working -- and even causing harm -- has been all over the airways recently, so I reached out to T. Colin Campbell, author of the new bestseller Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition, who has been saying as much for years.
Dr. Campbell is a professor emeritus at Cornell University and the co-author of the groundbreaking The China Study, which looks at the effects of food on health. Campbell's work is regarded by many as the definitive epidemiological examination of the relationship between diet and disease. He has received more than 70 grant years of peer-reviewed research funding, much of it from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and he has authored more than 300 research papers.
The majority of his talks in the recent years have been at medical schools and medical school-sponsored conferences, which shows that there is considerable interest now being shown in this community who are and will be our primary health caretakers. He has received several national and international "humanitarian of year," "visionary of the year," and "lifetime achievement in cancer research" awards in recent years and has been in demand at business conferences that are focused on the future of health care in this country. And interestingly, Campbell and his colleagues have started an online course in "plant based nutrition" developed by their non-profit organization, The T Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies, which is operated by their partner, the arm of Cornell that does online courses. Of the 200+ online courses offered by eCornell, theirs is No. 1. Clearly, a shift is underway.
Here is my conversation with him about vitamins, whole foods, and health.
KF: The title of your book is Whole; what do you mean by that?
TCC: The China Study summarized the experimental research findings of my 40+ years of professional research on diet and health and made some dietary recommendations. Although it has been enormously successful, it did not fully answer the oft-asked question, "Why have people not heard this before?"
Whole attempts to answer this question by offering a new meaning of nutrition. Our present misunderstanding of nutrition has caused great confusion with the public. The consequences of this misunderstanding have been serious.
Having researched for so long the biochemistry of nutrition, I became conscious of an incredible ability of each of the 10-100 trillion cells in our body to integrate, as in symphony, an unimaginably complex series of events that optimizes health and minimizes disease. Nutrition, when provided by the right foods, services this system with a food program that both prevents future disease and treats a broad spectrum of diseases, an effect that is far more effective and safe than the best of all pills and procedures could ever hope to do.
It is an amazing gift of nature that has long eluded our consciousness.
KF: Are we winning the war on disease? We're living longer, right?
TCC: It's not clear. We are capable of winning the war on disease, but we are still making decisions to take more drugs instead of eating a better diet. There is no comparison regarding which we should be choosing. Food almost always wins, with little or no side effects!
KF: What's wrong with taking medications?
TCC: There is a place for medications. When I am in pain or suffering from an infection, I would like to have access to something that might bring me relief. But when I am over the crisis, I want to learn and do everything I can to use diet and nutrition that will take me the rest of the way to health and keep me there.
KF: So you're saying vitamins are a bad thing?
TCC: All the reviews of recent years that have summarized the many studies on the effects of vitamins on long-term health show that they do not work to solve any of the serious problems that beset us. They do not lower rates of cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. In fact, we are more likely to suffer serious side effects from these supplements rather than getting benefits.
KF: Are you saying we don't need vitamins, or would you go so far as to say we shouldn't take them?
TCC: Unless there is clear unequivocal clinical evidence of benefit, we don't need them, and because serious side effects have been documented, it makes no sense to take them. At least this is my personal interpretation and my personal choice. I confess that taking an occasional vitamin B12 may be useful, but I also believe that we have not yet seen all the research that needs to be done. I also choose not to take vitamin D because I have unanswered questions about the way our vitamin D status is measured and the excessive claims made by the marketing people. It should also be known that vitamin D is not a vitamin but a hormone produced when we get adequate exposure to the sun. I do have an open mind about this practice and can change but only if I see unequivocal evidence for its need.
KF: It's not always do-able to prepare healthy foods every day! What if you don't have the time or inclination; how do you approach food/meals in that case?
TCC: My wife, who long prepared our family the old diet high in fat and animal food, is convinced that preparing this whole food plant based diet without added fat is much easier. Which is easier, washing up pots and pans with lots of fat or with lots of water?
KF: What is the ideal diet for health and longevity?
TCC: A whole food plant-based diet without adding fat, sugar and salt. Lots of vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains and nuts in moderation -- of this I am confident. It is also important to note that transition to this diet from the standard American diet high in fat and refined carbohydrates may be initially difficult for some but this is likely due to their long time addiction to fat. Allow some time, perhaps a few weeks or a couple months, and new taste preferences will emerge and the addictions fade away.
KF: What are some specific promises of this diet?
TCC: I prefer not to make promises. Rather, I rely on the weight of the evidence to make my decisions, and this weight is now overwhelming. I accept the claim that a few people may still retain health problems and some may incur new problems with the transition, but the evidence favoring benefits for most people is overwhelming. For certain, a proper diet beats, hands down, reliance on pills and procedures to be healthy. In as little as 10 days, people can reduce their blood cholesterol by 50 points (from 200 to 150 mg/dL), shed 5-10 lbs body weight and, in two weeks according to colleagues, resolve pain (e.g., angina, arthritic, migraine, common headaches). Many people also see substantial decreases in blood pressure. Actual reversal of serious disease (heart disease, diabetes) is readily obtained.
KF: Why, specifically, does this diet produce those results?
TCC: There are countless mechanistic explanations for this amazing effect. From a broad perspective, I find that the balance of oxidation vs. anti-oxidation, involving a complex network for biochemical reactions, often associated with pro-inflammation vs. anti-inflammation, respectively, is especially notable. This network of reactions often partitions along animal vs. plant-based foods, respectively. The formation of an excess of highly oxidized free radicals in the body has long been known to enhance cancer formation, modify the immune system and promote aging. These radicals are very reactive and act like the rusting that occurs when iron is left standing in the open for a long time. An animal-based food diet with decreasing plant based foods tends to enhance formation of these radicals, among countless other mechanisms.
KF: Are anti-oxidant supplements as effective as eating plant-based foods?
TCC: No, definitely not.
KF: How committed to a WFPB diet does one have to be to get significant results?
TCC: For me, a 100 percent whole food plant based diet is the goal and I honor anyone transitioning to this goal. For some, 100 percent should be the goal quickly, if they are on the road to or experiencing serious illness. We cannot say for certain whether every person needs to be 100 percent all the time before they experience good health. I see no benefit tarrying, however, primarily because the benefits to be achieved are so obvious and so pleasant.
KF: How soon can one expect to see results in their health by eating this way?
TCC: Surprising for many, important health problems (pain, high cholesterol, high blood sugar, high blood cholesterol, excess body weight) can substantially change within days. Much evidence also shows that such changes will be sustained as long as people continue to use this dietary lifestyle.