The China Study Fallacy (And Why I Stopped Being a Vegetarian)

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterest

thechinastudy

People who ate the most animal-based foods got the most chronic disease. Even relatively small intakes of animal-based food were associated with adverse effects. People who ate the most plant-based foods were the healthiest and tended to avoid chronic disease.

This bold statement (along with many others) made by T. Colin Campbell in The China Study has influenced many into ditching meat and other animal-derived foods and instead adopting a diet consisting entirely and exclusively of plant-based foods.

Often thought of as the “final word” on the scientific superiority of veganism, the evidence presented in The China Study seems so compelling that many intelligent minds have fallen prey to it and completely re-vamped their outlook on food and nutrition as a result of it.

But under scrutiny, the information laid out as facts in The China Study shatters — into tiny, pathetic, protein-deficient pieces. I’ll explain why later — but first, it’s story time! (Feel free to skip ahead to the next section if you’re not interested).


6 Meatless Months

During my sophomore year of college, I decided to give up meat — a decision that was heavily influenced by a combination of my co-workers at Trader Joe’s (devout China Study fans), terrifying PETA videos, my ongoing battle to try any and every diet that might help me lose 10 pounds, and sheer curiosity.

At the time, I was so positive that I was doing the best thing possible for my body composition, overall health, and humanity as a whole by giving up meat. When people asked me how it was going, I automatically began thoughtlessly raving about how amazing it was to be a vegetarian. I ignored the digestive troubles, worsening acne symptoms, and weight gain that my new lifestyle had perpetuated.

It wasn’t until I went on a camping trip at the beach with my family that I ever considered the notion that my new meat-free diet could be doing me more harm than good.

After spending a day feeling incredibly self-conscious and insecure in my swimsuit at the beach, it was time for dinner — and burgers were on the menu.

My “burger” consisted of a bun with re-fried beans inside.

It was terrible. But it didn’t have any unhealthy, cancer-causing, artery-clogging red meat…so I was good, right? Despite everything I had been told about how “healthy” my new lifestyle was, something about what I was eating in that moment just seemed so terribly WRONG.

I paid close attention as my cousin’s wife ate ONLY the hamburger patties accompanied by some veggies — the complete opposite of what I was doing. Her dinner wasn’t the only thing about us that was different. She was slim and toned, I was thick and pudgy. She had loads of energy, I was constantly feeling sluggish. The list went on and on.

“How can this be?” I thought to myself. It just didn’t add up to everything I thought I knew about nutrition.

A few months after the trip, it started to become more and more clear that the vegetarian thing just wasn’t working for me. After taking some hints from my body and realizing that there ARE alternatives to the inhumane and unnatural factory farming practices that I was so opposed to (something that the author of The China Study completely fails to address), I ended my short stent as a vegetarian — and boy, am I glad that I did!

*Important Note — There are vegetarians and vegans out there who go about their lifestyles in a much healthier and whole food-based way than I did at the time. The purpose of this post is not to belittle or criticize any particular way of eating, but instead to expose the inaccuracies in a book that has (and continues to) influence many to adopt a plant-based diet under the false pretense that animal-based foods cause chronic disease.


My Beef With The Vegan Bible

Just hearing the title The China Study, you’d think that the book would focus almost entirely on… The China Study.

But it doesn’t.

Only one chapter of the book (39 of 350 pages) actually focuses on the China-Cornell-Oxford Project — a large observational study conducted throughout the 1980s in rural China.

And even within that one teensy little chapter, author T. Colin Campbell makes some serious sins of omission in his interpretation of the study’s original data. Nutritional experts Loren Cordain, Chris Masterjohn and Denise Minger (just to name a few) have all succeeded in shedding light on these these discrepancies (and there are many) in separate and comprehensive critiques of The China Study.

The resounding message of this chapter of the book can be summed up in the following quote from Campbell (also mentioned above):

People who ate the most animal-based foods got the most chronic disease. Even relatively small intakes of animal-based food were associated with adverse effects. People who ate the most plant-based foods were the healthiest and tended to avoid chronic disease.

But the evidence taken from the actual China-Cornell-Oxford Project tells a different story. In what is widely considered to be the most comprehensive and meticulously researched smackdown of The China Study out there (seriously, stop reading this and head over to her post if you’re really interested in this stuff), Minger pulled out the top 5 counties from The China Study with the lowest animal protein intake per year and stacked them up against the top 5 counties with the highest animal protein intake per year.

Though she admits that these graphs alone aren’t enough to draw confident conclusions from, they should still show stark contrast in support of Campbell’s claims. Here’s what they showed instead:

animal_protein_intake

death_from_all_cancers

mi_and_chd

Additional graphs included in her critique compare rates of stroke, diabetes, and a myriad of cancers in nearly vegan vs. meat-eating counties. All show similar results — the counties that consumed the most meat were no worse off (and were often even more healthy) than the counties that consumed less than one gram of animal protein per day on average.

Campbell also fails to give any credit to Tuoli, a county that ate 45% of their diet as fat and 134 grams of animal protein each day (twice as much as the average American). Yet according to the raw data, they were generally much healthier and suffered lower rates of cancer and heart disease than many of the counties that were nearly vegan.

Instead of demonstrating a direct causal relationship between animal consumption and chronic disease (there isn’t one), Campbell added another variable (cholesterol) into the mix in order to justify his vegan ideals. He reported that:

Plasma cholesterol in the 90-170 milligrams per deciliter range is positively associated with most cancer mortality rates. Plasma cholesterol is positively associated with animal protein intake and inversely associated with plant protein intake.

But there’s a lot more to the story. According to Minger,

Campbell never took the critical step of accounting for other disease-causing variables that tend to cluster with higher-cholesterol counties in the China Study—variables like schistosomiasis infection, industrial work hazards, increased hepatitis B infection, and other non-nutritional factors spurring chronic conditions. Areas with lower cholesterol, by contrast, tended to have fewer non-dietary risk factors, giving them an automatic advantage for preventing most cancers and heart disease. (The health threats in the lower-cholesterol areas were more related to poor living conditions, leading to greater rates of tuberculosis, pneumonia, intestinal obstruction, and so forth.)

Even if the correlations with cholesterol did remain after adjusting for these risk factors, it takes a profound leap in logic to link animal products with disease by way of blood cholesterol when the animal products themselves don’t correlate with those diseases. If all three of these variables rose in unison, then hypotheses about animal foods raising disease risk via cholesterol could be justified.


And then there’s the rats.

Campbell also pushes his vegan agenda through a series of experiments he conducted with rats in which he proves that casein, an incomplete protein found in milk, promotes cancer growth in rats.

In order to prove this, Campbell first poisoned his rats with aflatoxin (a mold-related contaminant often found in peanut butter). The poisoned rats given a 20% casein diet all developed cancer or cancer-like lesions, while the rats fed a 5% casein diet did not. Campbell said that casein “proved to be so powerful in its effect that we could turn on and turn off cancer growth simply by changing the level consumed.”

Based on these results, Campbell somehow concluded that ALL forms of animal protein promote cancer growth. In every circumstance. Period. This claim, however, hinges on the following far-fetched and unproven assumptions (as pointed out by Minger):

  1. The casein-cancer mechanism behaves the same way in humans as in lab rats.

  2. Casein promotes cancer not just when isolated, but also when occurring in its natural food form (in a matrix of other milk substances like whey, bioactive peptides, conjugated linoleic acid, minerals, and vitamins, some of which appear to have anti-cancer properties).

  3. There are no differences between casein and other types of animal protein that could impose different effects on cancer growth/tumorigenesis.

You see — whole, unprocessed foods work in synergy to fight against disease and provide us with nutrients. When used in isolation, they don’t always have the same beneficial effects.

Whey, the other major protein found in milk, appears to have qualities that protect against cancer. But instead of including whey (or any other animal-based protein) in his experiments, it was more convenient for Campbell to stop with casein.

Chris Masterjohn also speaks to the faults of Campbell’s casein conclusions in his critique of the book:

What powdered, isolated casein does to rats tells us little about what traditionally consumed forms of milk will do to humans and tells us nothing that we can generalize to all “animal nutrients.” Furthermore, Campbell fails to address the problems of vitamin A depletion from excess isolated protein, unsupported by the nutrient-dense fats which accompany protein foods in nature.

It’s also important to note that, although they didn’t develop liver cancer, the rats that were fed less casein were anything but healthy. As stated by Liz Wolfe in Eat The Yolks,

What Campbell failed to state in his book — although the evidence was present in his own research — is that these rats experienced tissue damage and liver cell death. They may not have developed liver cancer, but they still suffered major health problems.

…like cell death. Not good!


But your family sells meat! Of course you don’t want us to be vegans!

This is true. I would be lying if I claimed to support veganism in any way, shape, or form. And there’s no denying the numerous health & environmental benefits of consuming healthy, humanely raised, pastured animals. But all seriousness, I wouldn’t be telling you these things if:

a) I didn’t believe them myself.
b) I didn’t practice these things myself.
c) There wasn’t substantial evidence to support my beliefs/opinions.

Every creature in the animal kingdom is classified as an herbivore, carnivore, or omnivore. They are what they are because of the nutritional needs required by their species and their innate desire to eat certain foods.

The same rationale applies to humans. Why would we have the immense need for nutrients that are extremely bioavailable in meat if we weren’t meant to eat it? It also doesn’t strike me as fair to blame relatively modern diseases on foods that our ancestors have been enjoying since the beginning of time in excellent health. Just my two cents!

But don’t take my word for it. Check out what all of these really smart people have to say about the benefits of eating meat:

What are your thoughts on The China Study? Are you loving life as a carnivore or are you set on being an herbivore? Whatever your stance is, tell me about it with a comment!

Comments

  1. david says

    This is a good article — It is very clear that humans are meant to consume animal products. A vegan requires supplements to stay healthy. And as you have pointed out, The China Study has been debunked.

    But the question I wonder about is: given where we are at now, should we? Consider 2 thoughts

    1) UN estimate of world population in 2300 is about 23 billion. And less developed countries will be much improved by then: the potential for meat consumption to go up say 6-10x is there. IF not done on large scale like it is today, how reasonable is it to have the land and resources to accomplish this magnitude of production?

    2) Violence. If we are what we eat, then the cells of animals who have had a violent ending (humane or not) flows through us. Yes, we can consume this material and reap benefits. Protein FTW But given the amount of ongoing violence in the world, I wonder if there is a correlation between what we eat and how we think. Would humans take a quantum leap forward in empathy if everyone moved away from these products?

    Eggs, Milk etc no problem on the above scenario.

    Just the thoughts of a meat consumer who is rethinking his position.

  2. J says

    “It also doesn’t strike me as fair to blame relatively modern diseases on foods that our ancestors have been enjoying since the beginning of time in excellent health ”

    Amen. I’ve always felt that way….. But I’m surprised a bit to see it here, but maybe I don’t understand.
    I promise I’m not trying to be argumentative, in fact, I actually don’t know too much about the “paleo” diet(as in lifestyle, not “dieting”, I realize) , so this is a genuine question, not an argument, but doesn’t this apply to paleo and gluten free \carb avoiding diets as well? I know some people have genuine sensitivities, and I know everyone has to decide for themselves what makes their body feel best, but my philosophy for me personally has always been to eat moderate amounts of any/all types of foods in the purest form you can get your hands on, it’s just the farm girl in me (believing we and the earth were created with agriculture in mind), personally, and I’ve never been one to eliminate any type of food entirely. I’m not trying to argue my way of thinking, because I’m no expert on any of this, that’s just me doing my thing, but I just think it’s interesting that that almost exact sentence or thought has been my reasoning on it and I’d love to hear if I’m missing something. Because I really am open minded about the whole thing, and would be open to understanding paleo better, but I admit that my brain always goes to the fact that bread/grains have been a staple for almost all humans since at least recorded history, without the obesity and rates of health issues of the modern day. It just seems like food was made for eating and we’re doing a lot of other things as humans (including easing non food) that are killing us. Please, though, your thoughts!

    • Bethany McDaniel says

      Hi j! I appreciate your thoughtful comment and questions and would be happy to give you some background on what the phrase you’re referring to means to me. It sounds like we’re, for the most part, on the same page with our philosophies on eating natural, real foods. But our thoughts may be a bit different on the subject of bread and grains. Paleo/primal advocates would say that humans generally did not consume grains prior to the agricultural revolution (and were much healthier for it). They instead survived and thrived on a diet of meat, fish, healthy sources of fat, vegetables, fruit, seeds, and nuts. I tend to align myself with this style of eating because I’ve experienced the positive effects of it and because it just makes sense to me. Since there are no nutrients found in grains that aren’t found in larger, more bio-available quantities in unprocessed animal and plant foods, I see no need for them in my diet. I feel much better without them as well. Most grains today are highly processed, genetically modified, and only fortified with vitamins and minerals (as opposed to containing them naturally). Check this post if you want more info about my stance on grains:

      http://blog.primalpastures.com/realfood/take-grains/

      As for the low carb thing, I don’t have much experience in that area. I still eat plenty of carbs as a paleo-dieter including potatoes (sweet and white), plantains, and lots of fruits and veggies.

      Does that help? Please let me know if you have any other questions or if anything I said didn’t make sense. I’d love to talk more about this!

      – Bethany

  3. Don says

    I would agree that pasture raised meats are superior to the mass produced meat factories. However, have you considered the research by Joel Furhman, and his ANDI (Agregate Nutritional Density Index) chart of foods? Veges, fruits, nuts, seeds, are more nutritionally dense then meats. Personally, I use to be all of the above diets, but now I am more leaning toward a whole foods vegan lifestyle, with maybe 10% of calories coming from meats. Best, Don

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *