“The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance – it is the illusion of knowledge.” (Daniel J. Boorstin)
As someone who reads and ponders a lot, I sometimes confront myself on the simple, earthbound matter of what practical difference all the reading and pondering eventually makes to my real life. I regret so say that the answer is: a negligible one. I honestly feel that there isn’t usually an impressive cascade of life-changing events in the trail of the conspicuous amount of theoretical effort that I put in.
Not this time, though. In the wake of a chance encounter with The China Study by Colin Campbell, and after quickly devouring its contents in a matter of days, something actually clicked. Unlike many of its predecessors, this book has managed to make a dent in my life, and a significant one at that, in the sense that it has triggered a chain of important changes that I can see are likely to stick.
It’s only natural, therefore, that I will want to share, as far as I can, this unexpected gift, and all of its life-changing potential. This is stuff that will impact your life.
A ‘healthy’ amount of deception
It is commonly believed that once we reach adult age we are all free to make our own choice as to the sort of lifestyle that suits us best. We know that certain behaviours, like smoking or drinking, come at a price; we also know that healthy food and exercise promote longevity and good health, and armed with that knowledge we can choose which way to go: the shorter, easier, self-gratifying way, or the longer, more mindful, more disciplined one. Or so I thought.
I have always considered myself, if not an expert, someone with some reliable basic knowledge on health and nutrition, just enough background to take good care of my own health by relying on a handful of fundamental principles acquired over the years. But I was wrong. During all those years I actually missed much of the important, critical information, even as I thought I was making reasonable efforts to keep myself informed and knowledgeable. What’s worse, this may have silently taken a toll.
Turns out I’m not alone in this: we’ve all been swindled to some extent by the overwhelming mainstream nutritional drivel. The real problem is that the important, critical information isn’t available to the public, but only to the specialists. What is available to us is highly filtered, manipulated and politicised information, concocted to serve huge economic interests first, and public health second.
Despite having always prided myself on a healthy natural endowment of skepticism, I’m now finding that, really, I hadn’t a clue as to the sheer amount of deception that I’d been fed, and that’s being regularly fed to the unsuspecting public, until I’d come upon this revealing book, and gone through its 400+ pages almost cover to cover, in the grip of a degree of uncomfortable incredulity. However challenging, or even surprising, the views expressed, I fully trust its author to be a rare paradigm of both scientific achievement and personal integrity, something I cannot usually say of everyone.
What Campbell does, in his book, is summarise the knowledge and wisdom acquired through an entire career in biology and nutrition, as well as through his close acquaintance with the proceedings taking place in the rooms of power, that are often hidden from public scrutiny. His revelations aren’t flattering to either the echelons of academia or industry. They are more likely to make you feel very angry at them.
In spite of its title, The China Study also goes beyond its headline topic, and comprises a compendium of the vast, really crucial research conducted over more than fifty years on the links between nutrition and disease, the sort of stuff we never hear about.
In the end, it all comes down to one fundamental question: why has public health steadily declined in Western societies over the last few decades in spite of all advances in drug treatments and technology? Perhaps drugs and technology aren’t the answer to the problem, and perhaps they are even making things worse. Perhaps our diet and lifestyle ought to be put in question before anything else.
Did you know, for example, that the second leading cause of death in the US is ordinary drug or surgery treatment? Mind you – not mistakes, but regular, properly delivered treatment. What are we to make of such an appealing record from our supposedly first world ‘health’ services?
To put it mildly, there seems to be some entrenched resistance about exposing the real causes of the whole health debacle, for the simple reasons that doing so would damage powerful economic interests. The status quo is the only viable option for those interests to retain their position of power, never mind the costs paid by society at large.
To me this simply was a revelation, and a long belated one. I now just wish I had known better when I was younger. The irony is that the relevant data existed at the time, but, absurdly, it never quite made it to the mainstream channels of information. The one lesson that I seem to be learning over and over again is that, in human affairs, profit always tramples over every other considerations, no matter what the consequences.
I strongly advise everyone to read the whole book, cover to cover. It’ll be worth every minute of time you’ll spend on it. But for those who won’t, or only will at some later stage, I’ll give here a brief summary.
There are four parts to the book. The first deals with the massive, almost three-decade long China Study itself, and also with large part of the remaining bounty of research, all pointing to a clear link between nutrition and health, and more specifically to the trademark health hazards of the typical Western diet. In short, all those cherished animal-based products that we have grown accustomed to consume rather liberally appear to be responsible for those peculiar diseases that we suffer from, including unexpected items, like milk, traditionally held as a cornerstone of health.
The second part addresses in detail the sort of diseases that we have gotten used to live with, and to die to, in our rich, advanced Western societies, and how those diseases can all be traced back to bad diet and lifestyle. Even more shocking, the evidence is reported on how not just prevention, but also treatment and disease reversal are possible with simple but fundamental dietary changes. A handful of key dietary guidelines are subsequently developed at length, together making up the third pard of the book.
Essentially, Campbell advocates a whole-foods, plant-based diet as the healthiest choice by a long shot, to the best of our accrued knowledge. The evidence is on his side, the only possible objection to his advice being that it goes so contrary to the common Western taste as to make it just as useless in practice as it is laudable.
In fact, one could well ask: what are the chances that such radical dietary changes could ever take place among us on a meaningful scale? Of course, such an objection has merit, but we must consider that all societal habits are established over a period of time, sometimes decades, and that what has once been done could also, in principle, be likewise undone.
Finally, the fourth and last part is the one that’s bound to stir up a few emotions. There, the power game that goes on behind the scenes of the national health policy-making is laid bare for us all to see. Money, it seems, is the chief concern in dictating those policies, whereas scientific evidence and the safeguard of public health usually come as a minor concern. In essence, the public is being played with on the fundamental matter of health not unlike it is on other less vital issues like, say, consumerism.
At the risk of taking this matter a tad too far, I cannot help thinking that if something of such devastating consequences for our health could be allowed to happen, then what other sorts of public deception must be taking place on a similar scale? I cannot help connecting the dots with, for instance, the recurring financial crises that are dealt with more like a natural calamity than an orchestrated crime perpetrated by the echelons of finance, or also the astonishing, irrational car dependency of our society, so well tailored to suit particular economic interests, and so disparagingly oblivious to the tremendous costs exacted on the public health, and the environment. All pieces of the puzzle eventually fall in their proper place, it would seem.
You’ll need to stomach somewhat your way through the harsh facts revealed in the final chapters, but if you do, you’ll emerge on the other side with enough knowledge, and determination, as to finally want to take your health into your own hands, and out of the questionable paws of governments and corporations.
Could it be possible that the current trend in research seeking links between lifestyle and disease is so thoroughly skewed towards the status quo as to be utterly useless? Could it be that what we are trying to learn this way is more part of the problem than part of the solution? Campbell certainly appears to make such a case. His landmark China Study produced useful results precisely because it included a wide range of diets and lifestyles; in contrast, more recent mammoth studies lacking that quality have only delivered results that are negligible or confusing at best. He quotes a revealing answer from a colleague of him, who, after hearing his usual criticism of so much research being conducted on too narrowly uniform Western diets and lifestyles, flatly replies: “you may be right, Colin, but people don’t want to go there.”
Such reply sums up nicely the general attitude towards this issue. It is the attitude that says: “we have gotten where we are thanks to our advanced Western society, we are happy to be here, and we are not going to budge an inch.” Therefore, whenever a problem arises the most we can think of is seeking out a quick fix of sorts. Which is precisely what the typical response has been, for several decades now, to the health crisis that’s gripping affluent societies like ours.
All we ever seem to think of is cranking out some new magical supplement pills, or industrially tinkering with the food, adding this and subtracting that component, none of which approaches ever delivered any convincing results. It never seems to occur to anybody that our excessively rich diet and unnatural lifestyle ought to be questioned in the first place, that we badly need to take a step back or two in that regard, and that the problem we are facing is a far more fundamental one.
The modern man is a spoiled child who won’t hear of giving up any of his favourite treats. Indulging in rich foods, driving a comfortable car, laying idly in front of a TV screen, are as much the backbone of his life as any of his most cherished beliefs.
We’ve gradually slipped down this insidious slope of civilisation to the point where climbing back up seems now almost impossible. The attitude of researchers only reflect this fact. Hence the monumental efforts and resources deployed towards finding a fix. Technology has gotten us in trouble, and technology will get us out of trouble, appears to be the underlying rationale. Results, though, have so far been thin in coming, specially when compared to the immense amount of resources expended.
Ultimately, though, what most troubles the reader is discovering that he’s always been fed – literally – like an infant, utterly disregarding his own judgement on the matter. Even acknowledging all the practical difficulties that I have outlined above, I still would so much appreciate to be treated like an adult, to be given all the complete information available, rather than a supposedly convenient selection, and then to be left to make my own choice.
In the realm of nutrition and lifestyle, one feels, there’s no reason why things should be any different as compared, for example, to smoking or drinking, where the hard facts are put in front of us, and then we are left to make our own choices. Difficult and unlikely as radical lifestyle changes might be to come by, I stilll wish I should be the one deciding whether or not I’m going to apply them to my own life.