Having read Taubes exhaustively, and tried the regime he recommended, and having read Atkins and Gabriel, and starting to read Holford’s Low GL regime someone said, “but this high protein, high fat, low carb diet causes cancer and heart disease … have you read The China Study?”
And, of course, I hadn’t.
So I checked it out:
The science is clear. The results are unmistakable.
Change your diet and dramatically reduce the risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
Respected nutrition and health researcher, Dr. T. Colin Campbell reveals the truth behind special interest groups, government entities and scientists that have taken Americans down a deadly path
Even today, as the low-carb craze sweeps the nation, two-thirds of adults are still obese and children are being diagnosed with Type II diabetes, typically an “adult” disease, at an alarming rate. If we’re eating healthier, why are Americans stricken with heart disease as much as we were 30 years ago?
says their website. Oh dear: Gary was SO clear, SO persuasive, and here’s a “respected nutrition and health researcher” contradicting all I had just learned.
What to do? Because I don’t have the skill, clear thinking, and research ability that Gary has, so I went searching.
First thing I came up with was the Diet Detective interviewing Gary, and asking him about the China Study. Gary says:
Diet Detective: What if you’re mistaken, too? What about all the research showing that saturated fat may cause cancer — the China Study, for example? And the research showing that whole grains are good for the body? Was there any leap of faith in your interpretation of the scientific literature, or were you just reporting on evidence that should be perfectly clear and obvious to everyone?
Gary Taubes: Well, if I’m mistaken then I apologize. I do say in my books that this is a hypothesis that has to be tested, but I also say that the evidence — in my mind, at least — is sufficiently compelling that it should be treated as the null hypothesis. That is, the hypothesis that needs remarkable evidence to reject. As for the China Study, the study itself — not to be confused with Colin Campbell’s book by that title, which I will discuss shortly — is just a list of associations between hundreds of variables and health conditions in different counties in China. If you actually look at the raw data (page 106 of the massive academic publication on the data, Diet, Life-styles and Mortality in China, which I own), there is no association between animal protein and mortality from cancer. None. People who ate more animal protein did not have more cancer, or at least no more of them died from cancer than people who ate less. And it’s cancer that the Colin Campbell is concerned with in his book, The China Study.
In that book, Campbell massages the evidence through a series of steps until he can make the opposite claim. So he doesn’t tell you that animal protein is not associated with cancer in this study, but he says that blood markers of protein consumption are so associated, even though he gets this wrong as well. He never makes the claim, nor do any serious researchers anymore, that saturated fat causes cancer. Although it’s always been an open question whether poly–unsaturated fats do.
(the emphasis is mine. You can read the entire Diet Detective-Taubes interview here).
Wondering if I was getting a little too committed to my hero, Taubes, I started to look at what other people have been saying about Campbell and The China Study, and came across a truly remarkable young woman, Denise Minger. She is as sharp as Taubes in her ability to spot bad science and to analyse bad statistics. She did a really thorough, point by point critique of Campbell’s work, which he then critiqued in turn. She then provided a really comprehensive analysis, and posted it on line. Here’s what Denise says in her introduction:
When I first embarked on an analysis of T. Colin Campbell’s The China Study, I did not anticipate the range or magnitude of responses it would invoke—reactions that have been at times controversial, at times impassioned, and at times downright heated, but above all else intellectually provocative. It seems “The China Study” is a book that, in many cases, is either intensely revered or vehemently criticized, and its ability to generate ongoing discussion signifies a deep-seated division in the scientific community.
I would like to thank Dr. Campbell for his cordial response to my critique, as well as for the time he has taken to elucidate his philosophy of nutrition and his approach to research. While I do not agree with some of his conclusions, I honor his contributions to the field of health and nutrition, and deeply admire his courage to promote an unpopular message amidst a research sector dominated by special interests and opposing views.
I propose that Campbell’s hypothesis is not altogether wrong but, more accurately, incomplete. While he has skillfully identified the importance of whole, unprocessed foods in achieving and maintaining health, his focus on wedding animal products with disease has come at the expense of exploring—or even acknowledging—the presence of other diet-disease patterns that may be stronger, more relevant, and ultimately more imperative for public health and nutritional research.
Having lit a proverbial fuse, I feel called and compelled to make the sum of my findings available to the public so that they may add, in whatever extent or direction, to the symphony of voices engaged in this discourse. My intent with this paper is not to discredit Campbell as a scientist, nor to promote or discourage a particular diet—but rather, to present new ways of looking at the China Study data and related research while highlighting the shortcomings in Campbell’s specific conclusions. I hope this information can be valuable to readers while—above all else—encouraging the use of independent, critical thought to advance our understanding of health.
She has oodles of stuff about the China Study on her blog, as well as stories about her contributions to Wikipedia being summarily deleted. You have to understand that Campbell’s book provided all the evidence that Vegetarians and Vegans needed to persuade us all to follow their paths to health and happiness, and here was a raw-food aficionado and one-time vegan preaching apostasy. It got some people really mad at her.
However, I would say, having read through her stuff until very late at night, and given myself a severe headache from studying her statistics (never my strong subject), that all she is doing is showing us what Gary has already told us: there’s a lot of really bad science in the field of public health!
One last thing. If the logic and science and math and statistics in Taubes’ work, and Denise’s work (I’m sorry, I just can’t call her “Minger” … it’s a slang word in British English, and anyone less of “a minger” I find it hard to imagine!) … if they faze you, here’s a quick summary of what it’s all about. To quote from Denise’s paper “The Truth About Ancel Keys” (the man who started the whole “fat is bad for you” shtick):
Correlation isn’t causation. Correlation isn’t causation. Correlation isn’t causation. Correlation isn’t causation. Correlation isn’t causation. Correlation isn’t causation. Correlation isn’t causation. Correlation isn’t causation. Correlation isn’t causation. Correlation isn’t causation. Correlation isn’t causation. Correlation isn’t causation. Correlation isn’t a cucumber. (Just making sure you’re awake.)
Let me give you an example. Aspirins alleviate headaches. Taking daily low doses of aspirin has been shown to lower the risk of stroke. So, clearly, if aspirin cures headaches and aspirin prevents strokes, it must follow that headaches cause strokes.
That was a correlation, not a causation.
You may also find both Denise and Gary using the term “confounder”. Here’s an example. We do some research and discover that a high proportion of the residents of Town A die from cancer. We also discover that a high proportion of people in Town A eat red meat. So we draw the conclusion that eating red meat causes cancer. But we fail to mention (because it doesn’t suit our cause) that Town A is heavily industrialised, has chemical factories whose effluents are poorly controlled, and has a nuclear plant. And a high proportion of the residents smoke. You see, adding in some extra data confounds our original hypothesis. Of course, it may still be that it’s red meat that’s causing the cancer. But is it because the red meat comes from cattle that graze on pasture downwind of the chemical plant?
That’s enough … I just wanted you to get the idea that a lot of these diet books are based on what is NOT sound science, even when their authors have impressive-sounding academic qualifications. One last quote from Denise:
In rebuttals to previous criticism on “The China Study,” Campbell seems to use his curriculum vitae as reason his word should be trusted above that of his critics. His education and experience is no doubt impressive, but the “Trust me, I’m a scientist” argument is a profoundly weak one. It doesn’t require a PhD to be a critical thinker, nor does a laundry list of credentials prevent a person from falling victim to biased thinking. Ultimately, I believe Campbell was influenced by his own expectations about animal protein and disease, leading him to seek out specific correlations in the China Study data (and elsewhere) to confirm his predictions.
It’s no surprise “The China Study” has been so widely embraced within the vegan and vegetarian community: It says point-blank what any vegan wants to hear—that there’s scientific rationale for avoiding all animal foods. That even small amounts of animal protein are harmful. That an ethical ideal can be completely wed with health. These are exciting things to hear for anyone trying to justify a plant-only diet, and it’s for this reason I believe “The China Study” has not received as much critical analysis as it deserves, especially from some of the great thinkers in the vegetarian world. Hopefully this critique has shed some light on the book’s problems and will lead others to examine the data for themselves.
Lastly, since I first wrote this, both my wife and I have fallen head-over-heels with Denise Minger. This might give you an idea why: