A Healthy Dose of Skepticism

This week, I was extremely fortunate to meet in person with two renowned thought leaders in the field of nutrition.

One was my absolute hero, Marion Nestle, a writer, researcher, public health advocate, and the pioneer in the study of food politics (you can find my other posts about her books here and here).

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The other was T. Colin Campbell, the pioneering scholar of the plant-based nutrition movement. His work on The China Study (which I wrote about here) was one of the first to link diet and health in the public mindset.

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Nutrition nerd that I am, I was quite star struck by both of them. I should point out though, that Dr. Nestle is much more well-liked and respected in the nutrition science community than Dr. Campbell, and I want to explore why that is.

Dr. Campbell has come to be perceived as something of a zealot for a whole food, plant-based diet. He has condemned the dangers of animal products for decades now. He definitely takes a radical approach. I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that he sees the government’s failure to acknowledge the superiority of a whole-food plant based diet as absolutely criminal. Some scholars question whether the methodology of the research cited in The China Study is robust enough to advise everyone to adopt a fully plant-based diet. I admit I haven’t taken a close enough look to be able to comment on that, but when I read it, his evidence seemed compelling. He does come off somewhat angry in his writing, though. In person he was pretty calm, I thought. Obviously people who have an interest in selling animal products would tend to see him as an enemy. What I think is interesting is that Campbell actually grew up on a dairy farm, firmly believing in the life-giving power of a diet rich in animal protein until his own research convinced him otherwise.

Dr. Nestle, on the other hand, comes off as much more skeptical and rational. Twice this week on her blog she advised readers to take any news story that claims “everything you thought you knew about nutrition is wrong” with a grain of salt. Her writing is not angry; she lets the evidence speak for itself in a way that leaves little doubt that the food industry is responsible for much of our nutrition woes.

The thing is, to me, ultimately, the foods that Dr. Nestle defends as the most nutritious are exactly the same as those Dr. Campbell defends—whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. Dr. Nestle definitely admits that animal products and highly processed foods can be enjoyed in moderation in a health-promoting diet, but she also argues that the evidence has long made clear that the healthiest people eat by Michael Pollan’s creed: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Both Nestle and Campbell have PhDs in nutritional biochemistry, and I believe both ground their work firmly in scientific evidence, although some people think Campbell is a biased quack. Obviously, at this point I find the evidence compelling enough for me to adopt a completely plant-based diet, but not for nutritional reasons alone, as he argues. I’m sure he is biased, but so are most of us. Dr. Nestle does give the impression of being remarkably objective. She tells it like it is, in a way that any rational person, or scientist for that matter, cannot dispute.

Perhaps many will disagree with me, but I don’t think Nestle’s and Campbell’s diet advice are different enough that they should be regarded so differently as scholars and as advocates. I think Nestle just offers the information in a way that’s much easier to swallow (no pun intended). When I met her this week, she signed my book “Do nutrition, change the world!” Challenge accepted.

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