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Book Review: A Proven Path to a Healthy Plant-Based Diet
Category : January/February/March 2016
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BOOK REVIEW

A Proven Path to a
Healthy Plant-Based Diet

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The Campbell Plan is both compelling advocacy and a toolbox for moving to optimal health by removing animal and processed foods from one’s diet

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BY MATTHEW MCDERMOTT

ADECADE AGO, THE GROUND BREAKING book The China Study, coauthored by T. Colin Campbell and his son Dr. Thomas Campbell, presented compelling research showing how, by simply exchanging unhealthy dietary patterns with a diet based on whole plant foods, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and other serious illnesses can be eliminated. Now, in The Campbell Plan, published by Rodale Books, Dr. Thomas Campbell focuses on guiding us through a successful transition to a healthy plant-based diet. Hindu readers can take heart that an Ayurvedic, Indian vegetarian diet (minimal consumption of fresh dairy) comes close to the Campbell’s target optimum diet.

After a recap of The China Study research, Campbell moves into a step-by-step approach to dietary transformation. Nearly half of the book consists of recipes and advice to help with that transition. Much of this information can be found in other sources, particularly in the wealth of online recipes and dietary tips for people already committed to a plant-based diet. For those who have grown up within a plant-based culinary tradition, many of the recipes may seem overly basic. Campbell’s dietary recommendations and insights nevertheless offer useful guidance in tweaking culinary repertoires to be even healthier. Vegans and vegetarians who are advocates or faced with having to defend their choices will also find his cogent presentations of the science useful support for these discussions.

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Committed vegans and vegetarians may be disappointed by this book’s avoidance of the huge ethical and ecological dimensions behind a meat-free choice. The Campbells’ emphasis on health and allowance for a small amount of animal flesh (lean chicken or fish) seems to be a concession to those in transition. For the main target demographic of the book—the person eating the Standard American Diet (S.A.D., see graphics opposite), heavy in animal and processed foods—Campbell’s recipes and meal plans are an invaluable jumping-off point to drastically improved health. Whatever your dietary goal, be it a complete transformation towards a plant-based diet or refining an already established one, the most interesting chapters of The Campbell Plan are those laying out his advice on how to think about food and his insights into contemporary hot-button dietary topics.

Start Thinking in Three Food Groups

Campbell recommends we think of food in three broad categories: animal products (Campbell makes no distinction between meat, dairy and eggs); processed plant fragments (sugar and oil, plus tofu and many other foods many people might not consider processed foods); and whole plants (does it look like something that came off a tree or grew in the ground?).

Identifying animal and whole plant foods is easy. Processed plant fragments are harder. Campbell says, “Processing means mechanical or chemical steps taken to isolate certain components of the original plant. There are different degrees of processing. Oils and sugar represent the ultimate processing results. Those mostly are just single components derived from a whole plant. But there are things like brown rice pasta in the health food section of your store. Is this refined? It has been mechanically reshaped, but read the label. The major ingredients of the food are whole plants, so I would consider the product to be almost equivalent to a whole plant.”

Diets Differ Dramatically

Campbell goes on to break down different diets into his three food groups. If you follow the Standard American Diet, you are probably eating 45% animal foods, 45% refined plants and 10% whole plants. Following a low-carb diet (such as the once-trendy Atkins Diet), you’re consuming 70% animal foods, 15% refined plants and 15% whole plants. Campbell’s vegetarian diet estimate comes in at 45% refined plants (this assumes a high level of oils and refined grains), 35% animal foods and 20% whole plants. People eating what Campbell describes as a “healthy vegan” diet take in 75% whole plants and 25% refined plants. An “unhealthy vegan” diet reverses those percentages. Campbell describes his “Optimal Diet” as being “Whole food, plant-based,” breaking that down as roughly 80% whole plants, leaving the remaining 20% as equal portions of refined plants and animal foods.

Campbell says, “The small animal-foods portion of the diet allows for infrequent fish and seafood consumption or for lean meat to occasionally be used in very small amounts to flavor plant-based foods. The small bit of refined plant foods in the diet allows for use of practical conveniences that make it feasible for anyone to follow, such as some plain tofu, non-dairy beverages like almond milk, and occasionally some sweeteners.”

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What About Oils?

From the days of misguided margarine consumption to the current virgin olive oil fad, the debate on fats seem never-ending. Dr. Campbell’s recommendation is simple: we don’t need any added oil in our diet. Summarizing the reasoning and research behind fats, he writes, “We have heard that unsaturated fats are healthier, especially polyunsaturated fats. These polyunsaturated fats are billed as being not only less dangerous, but even health promoting.” But, he concludes, “The most convincing scientific results come from trials in which patients with heart disease avoid every last drop of added oil, along with fish, meat and dairy. These studies have demonstrated the most significant reversals of heart disease ever shown. Taken together with the other evidence that added oils, even plant oils, actually damage the cardiovascular system, it seems the enthusiasm for olive oil and canola oil in the popular press is seriously misguided.”

What About Paleo and Gluten-Free?

The popular Paleo diet eliminates what its proponents believe was not eaten before the advent of agriculture: grains, diary products, legumes, salt, processed oils and refined sugars. Campbell sees a positive aspect of the Paleo diet—it eliminates processed foods and replaces them with lots of whole fruits and vegetables—but he questions its claim to historical accuracy. He points out that there is evidence we’ve been eating grass seeds and legumes long before we began cultivating them. The high amount of animal foods in the Paleo diet also get a thumbs down.

Gluten-free diets have become popular in the past few years, with countless new gluten-free foods being created and old products being labeled gluten-free. Campbell writes, “Wheat gluten is currently considered a great evil in our pop nutrition world. But based on current evidence, I believe this is an inaccurate exaggeration. I also am disturbed by the popular proposal that gluten is so dangerous that if we just get rid of it we can eat creamy, cheesy foods, and meats galore, and find good health. This ignores far deeper and broader evidence that dairy foods specifically and animal foods in general are much more poorly tolerated than gluten.” Still, Campbell offers, “I do find myself with serious concerns about wheat. Celiac disease provides the most damning argument against its consumption. Celiac disease is serious business....In addition, we now know that non-celiac gluten sensitivity is real, despite the fact that it may be uncommon.”

His conclusion is consistent with his overall dietary advice: Avoid processed white flour as much as possible. If you believe you have celiac, or some other chronic digestive issue, get tested. There’s no harm in eliminating products that contain wheat or gluten from your diet to find out if you feel better.

How Bad Is GMO Food?

GMO food (Genetically modified organisms) is a highly contentious issue on a number of fronts: nutritional safety, environmental effects, food justice and corporate control of food. Proponents and opponents frequently make black and white statements about their need, usefulness, benefits and safety. Solely commenting on the effects on human health and nutrition, Campbell takes a skeptical but moderate approach.

“I don’t feel convinced either way about the safety or dangers of genetically modified foods,” he writes. “We’ve been eating some types of genetically modified foods now for a long time, and as guinea pigs we’ve fared okay, at least as far as we know. Over the past 15 years we have become sicker, fatter, more diabetic and developed more allergies and asthma, celiac diseases and autism, but there are explanations for all of these things beyond eating GMO foods.”

That said, Campbell lambasts the lack of effort placed into researching the safety of GMOs. Campbell says bluntly, “The truth is, we simply haven’t looked for evidence of any safety or harm issues in a robust way. It is stunning to me how paltry the scientific literature is, given that this is a many-billion dollar industry creating the very food we eat every day....The impression I get is that industry has hijacked science. The public is left in the dark....I do not know whether GMO foods pose any real risk to humans. Most of them probably do not, but there may be a variety here and there that does. I just don’t know, based on the science, and I don’t think anyone else knows for sure, either. But this hijacking of science and politics leaves a horrid taste in my mouth.”

Should We Eat Organic Only?

While there is compelling research showing the ecological benefits of organic agriculture, on a strictly nutritional basis Campbell says there is a bigger question we need to consider: comparative nutrition from equal amounts of plant and animal foods. He writes, “In reviewing the nutrient values of grass-fed beef/conventional beef, conventional spinach/organic spinach, it is readily apparent that the differences between beef and spinach, regardless of production practice, dwarf any small differences deriving from how those foods are grown. The argument for the possible health benefits of consuming animals raised on certain foods is simply a distraction from the true choice of eating animals versus plants.” Campbell concludes, “The evidence overwhelmingly supports the argument that we should be eating more unrefined plant foods and less meat, dairy and processed foods. No other dietary recommendation even comes close in terms of comprehensive support.”