Interview with Dr. T. Colin Campbell

by WHES Staff

T. Colin Campbell, PhD has been dedicated to the science of human health for more than 60 years. His primary focus is on the association between diet and disease, particularly cancer. Although largely known for the China Study–one of the most comprehensive studies of health and nutrition ever conducted, and recognized by The New York Times as the “Grand Prix of epidemiology”–Dr. Campbell’s profound impact also includes extensive involvement in education, public policy, and laboratory research.

WHES: Sometimes it feels like the problem of hunger is huge; what gives you hope and keeps you in the struggle against hunger?

If I can equate good nutrition with Hunger, one thing I’ve learned is the enormous capacity of good nutrition to heal;  and at the same time that works for everybody… Nutrition can be used as a treatment of heart disease, treatment of diabetes, it has been shown to reverse heart disease, reverse diabetes.  Good nutrition is very very powerful.

But nutrition is not understood. What I mean is that nutrition is the biological expression of food, we eat food, we have a diet.  We eat and the food is metabolized.. I’ve come to learn the remarkable ability of our bodies (I call it nature) to take this infinitely complicated mixture of food components and metabolize it in such a way that everything is coordinated.  It is the default position of nature.. What kind of food does that… Well it turns out it is food from the Plant Kingdom.

There is no real need for protein from animals; we have lived with the idea for many years that animal protein is a higher quality protein.  That is false… that idea was started in 1924.. and it was said that the animal protein was the highest amount of protein which is retained by the body, it turns out that the most proteins that are retained in our bodies are animal proteins. So the thinking is that, we are animals, and if we eat animal protein, it is more efficiently used and retained.  It made it sound good.  However, what happens when we retain more protein? We synthesize more blood cholesterol..that leads to heart disease. We synthesize more growth hormone, which is associated with cancer growth; and many other negative things…that all work simultaneously, instantly with each other.

So the concept of eating a plant based diet is referred to as wholism, which I find very exciting.  Which keeps me going, I am enamored with this concept. If this is how our cells work, it is a fundamental characteristic of Nature.  So therefore, it can relate to a whole host of outcomes which we don’t like; diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and other maladies. This is the basis for explaining how this concept (Whole Food Plant Based) of eating a plant-based diet, this concept has enormous reach – actually treating disease – by using food to reverse disease, treat disease, now a lot of people have done that.  Many people in the medical profession have done that, turned disease around.  I want to promote that on the policy level.

WHES You were integral in the documentary film  “Forks Over Knives” . 

The film, Forks Over Knives,  was created by three people.  The producer, John Cory; the Director and Spokesperson, Lee Folkerson; and Producer Brian Wendell, who found the money for the film.. They read the book, The China Study, that I wrote and was pivotal in findings about plant based diets, so they came to hear a lecture I gave in Santa Rosa, California.  Afterwards, they then spoke to me about helping develop the film, Forks Over Knives.  I became a featured person in the film.

In addition, my son wanted to make a film called Plantpure Nation.  The question I kept getting was “Why haven’t I heard this before?”.  So the film Plantpure Nation is about that question, ‘why haven’t I heard this before’. I was invited to speak on the Whole Food Plant Based  (WFPB) diet to the Kentucky State Senate along with an academic colleague. That led to a proposition that they would make a statement for the Kentucky Senate to support plant based agriculture for the State.  However, it was voted down… which showed the power of corporations and the food industry in our country.

Let’s face it, corporations own our government.  And the government behaves according to what the corporations want.  We have two huge industries;  Agriculture –  they feed us food that shouldn’t be eaten and make money on it;  and Medicine, who are responsible for making all the drugs that fix us up when we get sick.  One arm of the government (USDA) provides food that we shouldn’t consume and the other arm of the government (HHS) says don’t worry about it,  we have drugs that will fix the problems.

WHES; Can you tell us of the critical junctures in your life and career.

My father was an immigrant, and I grew up on a dairy farm outside of Leesburg, Virginia.  I went to Penn State University and then did my Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University. My dissertation was on advancing the uptake of more animal proteins in one’s diet. Afterwards I worked at Virginia Tech University where I was a coordinator of a project funded by United States Agency for International Development (USAID).  The object of that project was to develop a model for feeding malnourished children to address Hunger.  One of the theories behind severe acute malnutrition is the lack of protein in the diet.

When I was looking at studies in India, I saw something that was very odd; that the few children who got the most protein seemed to be at a higher risk for liver cancer.  During the same time there were studies also in India which showed that as you give more animal protein, you see higher levels of liver cancer. So that posed a dilemma for me, as the goal of my program was to see that children get more protein, animal protein, specifically.

Subsequently I received a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that lasted for 27 years in which I sought an answer to the question – “Does animal protein cause cancer?”  and the answer was YES, it was very dramatic. I then had the question; what kind of food shall we be eating?  The concept of hunger needs to be addressed, and I see it as an infrastructure question with political, social and economic ramifications.   The question that is not faced is the kind of food that we eat. That is a capital intensive problem.

At Cornell University the research which I thought we should pursue was the kind of foods that we consume, and this line of reasoning was challenging to some of my colleagues, and got me into some trouble with the administration in Cornell, as they did not like the line of research I was pursuing.  However, I ended up having the largest research project in the department and worked with many students.  I was challenging the agricultural industry – which is a top down industry. They produce the food that we eat and promote the products.  It really became a question of being equitable.

WHES  That influence goes on into Food Aid.  In the United States, Food Aid was traditionally based on providing American products to those in need in other countries including using Dried Milk Powder to provide therapeutic food products. This is based on the precept that animal protein-based products were a better and higher quality food product.

Yes, This was the major thought. That this was the opposite from what I thought. I did my thesis on looking for ways to promote use of animal protein, but the data I saw was showing the opposite, that it contained risks.  I had a choice to make and I was warned by colleagues,  “don’t go down that path, you are going to get into trouble”.  But I had to stay with this question  because my Dad, an immigrant farmer in rural Virginia, who went to great lengths to get me an education, told me  “Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”.   I didn’t get into my career to make money. Being a scientist this was important to me, that is the thesis of science, being a skeptic and following the evidence.

WHES What was the name of that course you taught at Cornell, that was so popular?

I gave the course the name Vegetarian Nutrition as I was getting into the idea of a plant based diet.  Promoting vegetarianism was not my motivation – nevertheless that is one of the most challenging questions in Nutrition, because vegetarianism for a long time was perceived by the academic community as being “not-science”.  In 1978-1979 I was on a  NIH Committee to develop research priorities for cancer research, my colleagues on the committee were medical doctors; Pathologists and Oncologists. They had asked me to explain more about nutrition as they had been receiving grant applications on nutrition.  So in place of vegetarianism, I used the term “Plant-Based Diet” . I wanted to reframe the perceptions about “vegetarianism” that many at that time might have had.  A couple of years later when dealing with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), questioning the emergence of the vitamin supplement industry , I added the phrase “Whole Food”  – that was during  the 1980s and so the phrase, Whole Food Plant Based was created.

WHES  When did the Center for Nutritional Studies ( come into being? 

It originally was a foundation to help fund graduate students in Nutrition.  In 1994 there was a Ph.D. graduate in Physics at Cornell, who liked what I was doing. He recorded some of the things I was doing.  He approached me and said, you know, I have about $100,000 dollars in profit from the stock market and I would like to give it to you to go out and use to promote your ideas.  That was in 2007.  So that was the birth of the Center for Nutritional Studies (CNS).

WHES;  In the big picture, Considering Wholism,  have things improved for hungry people…are things getting better or worse when it come to diet and food?

I think that if anything, things are getting worse.  I hate to say this, as I want to be a hopeful person.  I was involved in policy, at the National Academy of Science (NAS) expert panels and speaking before Congressional Committees so I got a feel for what was going on, and who controlled what in the government.  When I was at Virginia Tech, I received tenure, and realized how important Academic Freedom is.  When Cornell made me an offer of full professorship but wanted me to go through the review for academic freedom,  I turned it down without the tenure – until then they offered me academic freedom (Which they did).  In a separate study the the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) on Academic Freedom from 1980s to 2010  (30 years); it is amazing –  In 1980, 70% of University Professors had Academic Freedom;  and in 2010 the percentage who had that tenure dropped to 30%.  The amount of money coming in from industries  to universities to support research increased in that same time period.  Now my younger colleagues in Academia, especially in areas of Nutrition and Food can’t speak out. Academic Freedom is one of the greatest treasures we have.  

WHES  Young Professionals issues: There is a hesitancy to speak out even in this specialized environment. What kind of message would you have for people who are starting out in the Nutrition and Hunger areas, to pursue that chance, what avenues should we take?

Hopefully we can get Academic Freedom  restored. Stick with it. Let the world know we have suffered a loss.  Keep the faith.  We all need to be Activists.

ADDENDUM WHES: In a later followup after this interview, Dr. Campbell expanded his concerns about academic freedom in nutrition research. They will be in hyperlink T.C. Campbell on Academic Freedom (1)


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