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'China Study' doctor: Plant-based diet provides prevention and healing when it comes to health

Dr. Thomas Campbell thought he ate healthy, balanced meals as a little kid: a vegetable, grain and meat on the plate, dairy to drink. “One of my favorite foods growing up was sausage patties,” he recently recalled. “Favorite dinner was meatloaf. I used to bug my parents on car trips to stop at the fast food joint so I could get an occasional burger.”

But things change when you grow up in the household of the guy who runs the nutrition center at Cornell University. As Campbell grew into his teens, he found a greater number of whole-food, plant-based meals on his plate. That turned into daily fare as he helped his father, T. Colin Campbell, write “The China Study,” a 2005 book which ties the standard American diet to poor health outcomes.

Today, Campbell, 38, a University at Buffalo medical school grad, is a family doctor in suburban Rochester. With his wife, Erin, he co-founded the year-old University of Rochester Program for Nutrition in Medicine. He and Clarence resident Jessica Meyers Altman, the Garden Fresh Foodie, will host a workshop, entitled “A New Approach to Disease,” from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. next Saturday in the Windsong Medical Park Community Room, 55 Spindrift Drive, Williamsville. Cost is $15; register under the “Healthy Cooking Classes” tab at, by phone at 983-8965 or by email at

Q. What do you plan to talk about in Buffalo?

A lot of people have begun to understand that food is very important but there’s so much confusion out there, so many confusing messages, that I want to share about why food is so important, and a little bit of the evidence about why a plant-based diet is so important – and not just for prevention of disease. What’s really exciting now is there is increasing research showing reversal of disease, so nutrition should be part of our treatment plan for patients with common chronic diseases: diabetes, heart disease, risk factors for heart disease, even cancer in some cases. Obesity. Diet and nutrition is causing many of these things, so based on the research we now have an opportunity to treat things with diet and lifestyle. It’s a little bit of a change in thought, a change in paradigm. ... I appreciate not everyone is interested, but for those who do want to take the plunge, it can offer extensive health benefits and it’s a lot more pleasurable than people realize.”

Q. Can you talk about some of that nutritional research?

There’s more consistency than most people realize. The public nutrition world is a mess, where you can find opposite messages every other day. But in the research literature, it’s more clear that eating more plants is linked to better outcomes. In terms of reversal in the treatment aspect, we have old data that’s been added to for the last 20 years that shows reversal of advanced heart disease with diet and lifestyle – in some cases with medication and in some cases without. That’s our number one killer. We also know that we can treat high cholesterol, see a reduction in blood pressure and affect weight loss. You can pretty quickly and dramatically reverse early and moderate diabetes, as well, within a matter of a couple weeks.

Right there, you have a majority of patients in our medical system.

What’s very exciting, too, is some of the disease affected. One is early stage prostate cancer. These are published, funded, in very good peer-reviewed journals: early staged prostate cancer men randomized to a diet and lifestyle program that also reverses heart disease. It’s also been shown to stop or reverse early stage prostate in men with no other treatment.

There’s also some other smaller research looking at other autoimmune diseases, things like Multiple Sclerosis. If you look at the literature, gallstones are affected by our diet.

There’s not only a depth of evidence, but breadth.

Q. Talk about your role in “The China Study.”

The research for the book started in 2001 and it was published in 2005. The project was done in the early ‘80s with my dad as the codirector. What I did was tailor the book to the general public. I was an editor and a writer but became much more than that. I really delved into the science much more than I thought I would. We thought it would be a one-year project and it took over three years to write the manuscript. I spent a lot of time going through university stacks. I ended up earning a co-author’s role because I ended up doing so much writing, rewriting and editing.

The China Study itself was a very large, comprehensive study in rural China. Around that time, this was a population consuming a largely plant-based diet. Meat was a condiment, a special treat for feasts for the most part. There were very little processed foods. The researchers went into homes and weighed all the food that was consumed for three days. They linked all these factors to health outcomes. The very general findings were that more animal foods consumed, the higher the blood cholesterol levels. The higher the blood cholesterol levels, the higher the incidence of Western diseases ... things like colon cancer, breast cancer, heart disease. Many people don’t realize some of our cancers are Western diseases.

A lot of people think The China Study is a vegan book. We were very careful to avoid the “V words,” because you can have a very unhealthy vegan or vegetarian diet. It really is all about avoiding processed foods. Over the last 10 years, that’s even become more important in my head. It’s about eating whole foods that nature provided rather than fragments. Sugar, for example, is a food fragment. It’s not just about avoiding animal foods and you’ll be healthy.

Q. What have you and your father learned about the relationship between nutrition, cancer and chronic disease since the book was published more than a decade ago?

There’s been additional research that has added to the original notion. One is that there’s more mechanisms being uncovered all the time. With diet and cancer in particular, we now know from some of that intervention research on prostate cancer in men, we know that a healthy diet and lifestyle can change genetic expression within a matter of months. It will turn off the pro-cancer genes and turn on the anti-cancer genes. So you can change what genes are being expressed in your body in a manner of months.

We also know angiogenesis – cancer can’t grow past a certain size without having a blood supply – so cancers become most dangerous when your body forms new blood vessels to that tumor. We have a whole drug industry now that’s targeting this mechanism, trying to keep these blood vessels from forming. We know along the way of doing research that antioxidants and certain plant chemicals also have the same power to regulate angiogenesis. ... We’re learning more about bacteria in our gut and learning Western diets affect our gut bacteria in a way that promotes heart disease. We know some of the mechanisms that impact that now. The research has become deeper and more compelling with time despite some of the confusion in the marketplace.

Q. Which are worse and why – animal fats or refined carbohydrates?

They’re both bad and it’s not so much just the animal fat but everything the animal is consuming. Animal food is characterized by fat and protein generally, and we now know that animal protein has its own detrimental effects. We know it lead to atherosclerosis in animal models. We know it’s consistent with (troublesome) findings with gut bacteria. ... You eat meat, you create TMAO. That promotes heart disease. So it’s not just the fat.

I don’t think there’s a lot of benefit for people to replace a pound of chicken with a pound of beef. I’m not sure there’s a health benefit drinking a glass of 2 percent milk versus all-fat milk. The science is torn on that. The best thing to do is avoid it altogether. Step back and look at the whole package of the food and the dietary pattern. All these foods combined, what does it mean? That’s much more powerful.

In this country, we consume enough of two things: protein that comes from meat, and grains. Ninety percent of the grains we consume are refined grains and these come in food packages typified by white bread, pizza, and cookie, cakes and pastries. Obviously, these foods are terrible. They’ve had all the vitamins and minerals mostly stripped away and have had a lot of junk added. It’s nutrient deficient. Sugar is addictive, and there’s a lot of added fat with vegetable oils that can cause problems.

So they’re both foods we absolutely have to get away from.

Q. What are the staples of your diet and where to you get your protein?

I’m not eating any added sugar. I’m eating whole foods. I eat beans every day. I eat grains every day. I usually have some sort of potato. I usually have some sort of healthy starches, but they’re refined. It’s not white bread. And I put a lot of vegetables on that. In our freezer, we have big bags of frozen fruit. We have big bags of frozen vegetable mixes. I have a breakfast of oatmeal with frozen fruit added almost every day. Often, I have a lunch of leftovers, which is some type of whole grain with a vegetables or bean or a nice sauce. Foods like pineapple stir-fry, spinach and mushroom lasagna without cheese and a tofu spinach base. It’s better than it sounds. One of our crowd favorites is whole grain pasta, occasionally with some whole grain bread, beans. We eat a fair amount of brown rice. We eat whole wheat, whole wheat pasta, rice pasta.

We eat a lot of fruits and a lot of vegetables every day but beans are sort of a super food. We eat them every day. We also eat a good portion of cooked, leafy greens, another super food, every day. A portion of beans is much larger than most people would think. It’s often a half a plate. Whole fresh fruits for snacks. Some people are scared of fruit because they read something about the sugar but for most people, whole, fresh food is nature’s perfect snack and you should have it abundantly.

Q. Any particular types of beans?

We have a lot of different types. We have lentils regularly. We never have pasta plains. We have it as a vehicle for beans and vegetables. In pasta, we have a lot of the white, Great Northern beans. We also will have Mexican-inspired dishes or salsas, lettuces with chickpeas and black beans, occasionally some pinto beans. There’s a huge variety and we don’t get to snobbish about it. We often used canned beans. It’s not too difficult – and incredibly cheap.

Q. What are the most delicious parts of your diet?

Your palate changes quite a bit so it’s not going to be cake or something fried. One of my favorites recently has been the pineapple stir fry. I like the lasagna dish a lot and I like fresh fruit. Recently I’ve been caught up, if anything, eating a huge mound of frozen cherries. It’s not very sexy, but frozen cherries is one of the most delicious parts of my diet. Once you get used to the food, it’s not hyper-palatable. It’s not engineered to trigger every bit of dopamine surge it can, which is the way an Oreo is engineered. What happens is that you adapt. You adapt to whatever you’re eating. So if your eating a hyper-palatable Western diet and you eat Oreos every day, at some point a few weeks into it the Oreos are no longer as enjoyable as when you first started gorging on them. It’s the same thing in reverse when you start eating a whole food, plant-based diet. When you’re changing from hyper-palatable foods, they seem bland.

Q. How have you adopted what you’ve learned in your nutrition research and family nutrition research to your family medical practice?

I have a traditional family practice where people see me for a number of things: belly pain, medication refills, chest pain. Most of those people are not necessarily aware of, or particularly interested in, my nutrition background. They’re expecting a standard physician interaction. Lots of people are not in a place where they’re interested in challenging or questioning their diet and lifestyle and I’m probably more aware of that than most anybody out there. But there are plenty of people who don’t want to take medicines. They’re sick and tired of being sick and tired. When they say, “How long do I have to be on this medicine?” And you say, “Probably for the rest of your life unless you change your lifestyle,” some will say, “Maybe I’ll change my lifestyle. Maybe I’ll change my diet.” There are some people who much prefer that approach. A number of people. And then I’ll share my resources.

We’ve also added a nutrition and medicine program here at the University of Rochester as part of our medical umbrella. People can come for group programs or individual consults. It’s really meant to provide a structure when I can really help people change their diets and lifestyles. You can’t do that in a 15-, 20-minute visit when you’re addressing five other things and filling meds and documenting 20 things.

Here at the center, when we first meet someone, we spend at least an hour with them. We get into a food diary and talking about what their barriers are, and try to work with them to try to set healthy goals.

Q. Where can folks find good vegan recipes online?

We have a Pinterest board at At the bottom of the page, there’s a little Pinterest board. You can click on that and read all of our recipes. We have over 200 recipes with links out to a variety of websites and resources, so that’s a good one-stop shop.




Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon

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