He says the CIA has shown up at his door with questions. Colleagues have warned him not to pursue his controversial research findings. One of his professional organizations considered kicking him out because of his research, and national panels that once wooed him now ignore him.
But in the end, T. Colin Campbell is a consummate researcher. When his findings belied one of his own foundational beliefs about nutrition, Campbell found himself standing alone at a crossroads: continue a respected and tenured academic career at a prestigious school or go public and advocate for scientific findings that counter established tenets of nutrition, contradict government dietary guidelines, are misunderstood by the medical establishment and belie the marketing claims of major food corporations.
Campbell says he chose the truth. In response to a comment that he picked a fight with a billion-dollar industry, Campbell said, “No, it’s a trillion-dollar industry.”
The professor emeritus in nutritional biochemistry at Cornell University said research has proven that consumption of animal products, including meat, fish and dairy, triggers chronic diseases and impaired health and poses a greater risk than heredity or environment. He has linked casein, a protein in milk, with breast cancer. His lifelong professional focus has been cancer and nutrition, and Campbell says that our national and global fight with cancer has targeted the wrong enemy.
Though he is scholarly and genteel, Campbell is not reserved. He's impatient and blunt. He dismisses the Atkins diet, Paleo diet, South Beach diet and high protein diet. He’s not a supporter of celebrity physicians who prescribe diets of wild salmon, expensive grass-fed beef and costly nutritional supplements. He comes down firmly on the side of health for everyone, not just the wealthy who can afford pharmaceutical supplements of questionable health benefit and expensive prescription medications for blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes.
Campbell advocates disease prevention at the end of a fork. He was prominently featured in the award-winning documentary Forks Over Knives, and is the focus of a new documentary Plant Pure Nation, due out in early 2015 and produced by his son Nelson Campbell.
Colin Campbell discounts physicians as reliable sources of nutritional advice for their patients. Physicians, he said, received minimal to no nutritional education in medical school and have not generally conducted investigative laboratory research themselves.
Campbell, however, has spent more than five decades in laboratory research, much of it publicly funded. He’s adamant the public has a right to know his results.
“Diet can be used to prevent and reverse cancer just like it prevents and reverses heart disease,” he said. “A diet high in animal protein increases the amount of carcinogens going to the cells. It increases the enzyme MFO (mixed function oxidase) that causes increased carcinogenic activity.”
In the lab, Campbell has shown that increasing consumption of animal protein alters MFO and activates cancer while decreasing consumption detoxifies cancer. A high protein diet derived from animal products increases cell replication and increases oxygen free radicals associated with cancer and aging.
“High-protein bars are crazy,” Campbell said. “Plants alone can easily provide all the protein we need.”
By demeanor and upbringing, Campbell is an unlikely warrior. He grew up on a dairy farm in Virginia convinced of the nutritional value of milk. Early in his academic career as one of the youngest tenured professors at Cornell University, Campbell was researching dietary protein among children in the Philippines and was surprised to see a high correlation between consumption of animal protein and liver cancer. He was further surprised when he read an obscure research paper published by scientists in India linking dairy protein with cancer.
“This was counter to everything we believed,” he said.
The work started a line of inquiry that amassed the scientific foundation for what Campbell calls a “whole-food, plant-based diet: whole foods, no processed foods, only plants, no meat, fish or dairy and no added oils.” He wrote about the diet and his epidemiological studies in his book The China Study. The book, written with his son Thomas Campbell, was published in 2005 and was expected to have a limited audience. It has now sold over a million copies and been translated into 25 languages. Campbell’s sequel, Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition, came out in 2013 and is a New York Times bestseller.
After 50 years of nutritional biochemical research, Campbell views casein as one of the most relevant chemical carcinogens ever identified. He’s critical of the Komen Foundation for ignoring the research and expanding its marketing income by putting pink ribbons on yogurt containers.
Komen spokeswoman Andrea Rader said, “We focus on studies with humans. What we attempt to do is present scientific evidence. There are no large, peer-reviewed studies” linking casein with human breast cancer.
Some of Campbell’s research is epidemiological and based on animal studies, but that does not make it less compelling, said Mladen Golubic, chief medical director at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Disease Reversal. Golubic suggested the Komen pink ribbon should not go on yogurt but on kale, broccoli and Brussels sprouts.
“Campbell’s research is basic science. It’s very compelling and elegantly done,” Golubic said. “When it comes to human cancer, the data is not as clear. But knowing that not a single nutrient in milk can’t be gotten from plants, there is no reason not to avoid milk.”
Golubic said epidemiological studies like Campbell’s work published in The China Study are not flawed, but are weaker than randomized control clinical trials with human subjects.
There have been no large-scale clinical trials with humans to test the efficacy of the whole-food, plant-based diet for prevention and treatment of cancer; however, a small study at the Cleveland Clinic has shown the whole-food, plant-based diet reversed coronary heart disease among patients.
Greg Miller, executive vice president of the National Dairy Council, a dairy industry group, said a claim linking dairy with disease is a misinterpretation.
“The weight of the evidence indicates that a healthy, balanced diet includes fat-free and low-fat milk, cheese and yogurt,” Miller said in a statement. “Researchers have examined the potential of milk and milk products and many of milk’s components (e.g. casein, calcium and vitamin D) to be associated with specific cancers such as colorectal cancer, breast cancer, and prostate cancer. The research overall is inconclusive.”
He claims the science is more conclusive linking dairy consumption with health and prevention of cancer.
Rekha Chaudhary is not so convinced. Program director in hematology and oncology at the University of Cincinnati school of medicine, Chaudhary invited Campbell to present at the school recently to physicians and medical students. She said she invited him because he speaks with the authority of sound scientific research. She credits his research with changing the way she treats her own patients.
“When a cancer patient used to ask me ‘What about diet? What changes should I make?’ my response was ‘none. Go home and eat some ice cream,’” she said. “That’s not what I say now. I’m a very different doctor now. Dr. Campbell has 57 years researching the effects of nutrition on health, specifically nutrition on cancer. I am now very enthusiastic about the role of nutrition in fighting cancer.”
Chaudhary said she had no instruction in plant-based diets when she was in medical school. That was also the experience of Thomas M. Campbell, co-author of The China Study with his father. After immersing himself in research for the book for several years, Thomas Campbell decided to enter medical school. Although the book was called the "Grand Prix of epidemiology” by the New York Times, it wasn’t influencing medical education in this country.
“The role of diet in health is one of the most crucial questions of our time, but nutrition is a forgotten science,” Thomas Campbell said.
Now a family practitioner in Rochester, NY and director of the Campbell Institute for Nutrition,” Campbell said, “In 2001, my father asked if I would help with the book. I read thousands of abstracts and studies, and became more interested in nutrition and health. During this period, I completed my transition [away from meat and dairy].”
He entered medical school with this background in nutritional science and was confronted firsthand not only with the total lack of nutritional education but misinformation about nutrition.
“I put my head down and learned. I decided I can’t advance this idea without experiencing the conventional structure of education and work within the system,” he said. “There were times of intense personal irritation, but it was neither the time nor place to educate people.”
He recalls one lecture during his second year of medical school when a question was asked about whether there was any evidence showing heart disease is related to diet.
“People snickered at the idea. A cardiologist said there is a little evidence, but no one would want to follow the [prescribed] diet,” he said. “I held my tongue, but after the lecture I went to the computer lab with another student, pulled up the Ornish and Esselstyn diets [plant-based, whole-food diets] and pointed out that 75 percent of people who start these diets stick with the diets.”
Today, as a physician, he tells his patients, including children, to avoid all animal products.
“I tell them they can get off their medications and reverse their disease,” he said. “I tell them this is absolutely the best diet for kids and adults. The evidence is deep and clearly established for reversing heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. There is also good evidence of its role in kidney stones and gallbladder. For cancer prevention, there is a lot of evidence this diet helps. In terms of reversing cancer, there is a lack of direct evidence, but there is good evidence nutrition likely plays a role.”
What is needed are large-scale, randomized clinical trials, he said.
His book, The Campbell Plan, covers the how-to of the diet and comes out in March 2015 published by Rodale Press.
Edward Giovannucci, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health, said diet is the leading cause of poor health in this country and worldwide. His own research findings are compatible with Campbell’s work.
“The diet Campbell advocates, the whole-food, plant-based diet, really is a healthy diet. It is perhaps the healthiest diet people can achieve. But will everyone adopt it?” he said. “If anyone asks me what is the best diet, it’s reasonable to recommend it, but there are other healthy diets.”
However, even as a supporter of Campbell’s work, Giovannucci said the link between casein and breast cancer may be too reductionist and may not cause other nutritional synergies. Even Campbell says focusing on casein and human health is reductionist, but he adds that laboratory science bears out the link.
“I agree with Campbell when he is speaking broadly and holistically, but I’m not convinced casein is the worst factor in diet,” Giovannucci said. “The worst thing in the western diet is eating too much. Body size.”
Despite that, Giovannucci said there is no nutritional benefit in dairy that is not available from plant sources.
The science is sound showing a plant-based diet is superior to consumption of animal products, Giovannucci said, but public health policy continues to recommend animal consumption.
“Why doesn’t the science translate into public health policy? Because public policy is driven by commercial interests,” he said. “Even well-meaning people like pediatricians continue to recommend dairy.”
While it may be valid to choose milk over sweetened beverages, he said, the research does not support dairy providing strong bones later in life.
“Advocating the benefits of dairy is too simplistic,” he said, noting research shows increased dairy consumption actually correlates with increased risk of osteoporosis later in life.
Research that concludes dairy is beneficial must be questioned, he said, because such “research is shaped by commercial interests.”
Although more randomized controlled clinical trials are needed to study the plant-based diet and disease, Giovannucci said it is unrealistic to insist that epidemiological work like Campbell’s is inconclusive.
If we were to dismiss epidemiological work as inconclusive, we’d still be debating the health problems associated with smoking, he said.
Miller of the National Dairy Council said research funded by the dairy industry is subject to the same scrutiny all published research goes through as part of the peer-review process. He cited a Tufts University report comparing dairy checkoff-funded obesity research with research done by the National Institutes of Health that concluded industry research was unaffected by its funding. Countering Giovannucci, Miller maintained that research shows consumption of dairy foods improves bone health.
The Cornell Chronicle, published by Cornell University, was slated to publish an article on Campbell’s work this spring. A staffer at the publication sent Campbell a copy of the piece, but it was later spiked with no explanation. Campbell said this is just another example of a university yielding to industry pressure. A spokesman at Cornell declined to comment or issue a statement about the school’s situation with Campbell.
“Cornell is now working hard to discredit me,” Campbell said.
He understood years ago that researching the health benefits of a plant-based diet would challenge the status quo. When he returned to the United States from China following field work for his massive epidemiological study, the CIA turned up at his door.
“They offered me 'assistance' with translation,” he said wryly, speculating that they really wanted access to his collection of blood and urine specimens. He declined the assistance.
Another pioneer in the field of dietary and lifestyle changes, Dean Ornish, said “Dr. Campbell made a very landmark contribution by showing that people in Asia and China who ate a whole-food, plant-based diet had lower rates of the major chronic diseases that afflict not only our country but countries throughout the world” as they adopt the American diet.
As a result, we are seeing the “globalization of chronic diseases,” he said.
Ornish combines his dietary recommendations with other lifestyle recommendations. For the past three and a half years, Medicare has covered the Ornish program, and the doctor said cost savings are significant.
Questioned about the correlation between dairy casein and breast cancer, Ornish said, “There are studies that show a link, but I think the jury is still out to make that definitive.”
However, he said his program combining diet guidelines calling for elimination of meat and dairy with lifestyle changes has shown that progression of early-stage prostate cancer can be arrested and reversed. He expects to see similar results with breast cancer.
“We haven’t studied breast cancer, but we are doing that now, and most things that affect prostate cancer affect breast cancer as well because they are both hormonal diseases to a large extent,” he said.
In his book Whole, Campbell wrote about the effort of key people in the American Society for Nutrition to expel him from membership. The Society did not offer a spokesperson to be interviewed for this article and did not give a written statement about Campbell’s claims.
Today, Campbell divides his time between homes in New York and North Carolina and a rigorous lecture schedule. He is blunt in his assessment of the role of government in public health policy and nutrition, contending government is ignoring science and giving too much weight to corporate research.
A vast, global economy stretches from agriculture, including crops, livestock and agrochemical corporations, to the medical establishment, including hospitals, drug and pharmaceutical companies. That economy, Campbell said, is based on established dietary guidelines calling for consumption of meat and dairy.
“Research shows nutrition can determine if a carcinogenic exposure results in the development of cancer or whether the cancer cells are suppressed. Chemotherapy is really not a good approach. Radiation and surgery are not the best approach. We’ve been on the wrong track,” he said. “The public is being misled with tragic consequences.”