Book Review: Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition

Hello dear readers! Long time no blog, right? You’ve all been terrifically understanding about my hiatus, and for that I am forever grateful. I did, however, promise to get a few posts up during this hectic time, and one of those was a review of the book Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition by T. Colin Campbell.

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Many of you may know of Campbell as the co-author of the groundbreaking book, The China StudyThe China Study provided scientific evidence to support the value of a whole-foods plant-based (WFPB) diet. I know a number of vegetarians and vegans who credit their current veg-diet to reading that book.

The first section of Whole spends some time reviewing the scientific studies that support a WFPB diet. Campbell describes how he was a committed omnivore and that his doctoral thesis, written decades ago, supported the consumption of animal protein. However, Campbell—and a number of other scientists—have since revealed studies that show the opposite: we don’t need animal protein. An ideal, health-promoting, disease fighting diet should actually consist of mostly fruits and vegetables. Colin suggests that “the ideal human diet looks like this”:

Consume plant-based foods in forms as close to their natural state as possible (“whole” foods). Eat a variety of vegetables, fruits, raw nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, and whole grains. Avoid heavily processed foods and animal products. Stay away from added salt, oil, and sugar. Aim to get 80 percent of you calories from carbohydrates, 10 percent from fat, and 10 percent from protein. (p. 7)

For me, this—what Campbell describes as “wholelistic”—seems like a totally sane, reasonable diet. The “healthy living world” is so full of incredibly drastic (and unsustainable and triggering) “diets,” but this, to me, feels very intuitive and nurturing. I understand, however, that I am speaking from a particular position—someone who is already vegan, already avoids processed foods, etc.

However, Dr. Campbell’s recommendations and findings—in both the academy and mainstream society—apparently border on heresy. This is where Whole gets very interesting. Campbell explains that his attempts to promote the findings from his studies about, specifically, how nutrition impacts cancer, diabetes, and general health have been met with overt hostility.

Why would academic journals, cancer research groups, and the mainstream media shy away from promoting findings that could literally save people’s lives? Campbell spends the majority of Whole explaining why. I loved this part of the book, because it’s so close to what I do in my academic work: critique the structures of society by demystifying hegemony and political economy.

Campbell never uses these terms, but he describes them both through his analysis of academic paradigms and funding systems. For example, Campbell explains the ways in which the academy privileges “reductionist” research over whole-istic research. That is, there is more funding available for a study that isolates a single variable (as though anything functions inside a vacuum!) so that it can produce results that lead to a pill that can be sold by the pharmaceutical industry. Campbell also discusses how lobbyists for the meat and dairy industry “all but write government regulations.” This leads to state-sponsored health initiatives that promote the consumption of food that is literally killing us. More terrifying is the functioning of organizations set up to research horrible diseases like cancer and diabetes. Campbell—(in a chapter that echoes the work of one of my favorite books, Pink Ribbons, Inc.)—explains that organizations like the American Cancer Society are funded by corporations that dictate the advice that they give. “ACS looks for simple solutions involving chemicals used to selectively kill cancer cells, a synthetic approach that ignores nature’s means of restoring and maintaining health” (p. 265). Furthermore, the ACS and others like it, promote “preventative” practices like breast cancer screening through mammograms that actually cause cancer growth. All of these things ignore nutrition because it’s not a benefit to the capitalist economy.

I loved this critique put forth by Campbell. He repeatedly talks about how this is not just a problem of a “few bad apples” in the lobbying industry, or media, or academy, rather it’s the entire system itself that is flawed. And yet, Campbell falls short of actually critiquing capitalism; in fact, he says “…I’m not arguing against capitalism, free markets, or profits….The problem is not inherent to the free market, but rather the result of a market manipulated by its most powerful participants, often through collusion with a government far removed from the people it is supposed to serve” (p. 189). This is probably my biggest criticism of the book. For me, all the problems Campbell is describing are inherent in the free market system, and we won’t find true health justice without dismantling it. (Doesn’t mean we can’t keep trying to work within the system in the meantime, but I had to underline this part of the book with the margin note, “BOO!”)

That critique aside, Campbell’s Whole is doing incredibly important work. It is revealing the reason behind the relatively low popularity of a diet that could improve the health and well-being of our lives and our planet. This book is great for anyone who wants to engage critically with the ways in which “health” is constructed and promoted in our society. There’s something for everyone, which also means there are some parts that may lose you. For example, I glossed over when Campbell went into detail about some of the scientific study results—I was glad to know the bottom-line, but couldn’t always understand the charts and graphs. But for science-minded folk, this will be a wonderful part of the book. He spends a great deal of time deconstructing the academy which (as someone within it with the same critiques) I was mega interested in. However, if that’s not your world, you may find that less than compelling. But with that said, the book is definitely worth reading.

Colin concludes with this: “It’s time for us to begin a real revolution—one that begins by challenging our individual beliefs and changing our diets, and ends with the transformation of our society as a whole” (p. 290). I can get on board with that. Who’s with us?

I was provided a complimentary copy of the book from the publishers, but I was not compensated fort this review and all opinions are my own. 

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition

  1. angela says:

    I’m about 1/4 of my way through this book and can’t wait to finish it. I suspect I’m going to encounter a lot of the things he talks about within my dietetics program. In fact, I already have by seeing the recommendation that people drink 3 cups of milk per day that is so heavily pushed by the USDA and with very little mention of other ways to get calcium. I’ve also had a professor tell me there is no good way to get zinc in a vegan diet without supplementing (which is untrue) and a biochem prof teaching that vegetarians need to be careful to combine proteins (an outdated belief). So much dogma and misinformation in my textbooks, it’s scary. Then there’s the issue with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, our professional organization, being sponsored by Big Food corporations such as Nestle, Coca-Cola, Cargill, The National Dairy Council, and others. A great report was released by Michele Simon last year: http://www.eatdrinkpolitics.com/2013/01/22/and-now-a-word-from-our-sponsors-new-report-from-eat-drink-politics/) Anyway, very passionate about this topic! I believe it really is as simple as eating a whole foods plant-based diet but we over-complicate and confuse things and that’s how industry likes it!

    • raechel says:

      Ugh, three cups of milk?! So terrible. : (

      Thanks for the link to that report! I’m glad you’re in school for this so you can challenge things from the inside!

  2. Kari @ bite-sized thoughts says:

    Thanks for this review :) I hadn’t heard of this but read The China study and am interested to see work / writing by Campbell. I find he is a bit sensationalist in his writing but suspect that stems from the challenges he has faced with disseminating his research findings in a way that people accept / take on board! I agree with you, too, that a ‘whole’ approach has to be more sensible and useful than focusing on single variables (or those unbalanced fad-like diets).

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