The China Study is one of those weighty, important books that is perhaps more talked about than actually read. It's easy to see why: At 417 pages packed with nutrition facts and research stats, it's a lot to digest—not exactly a beach read.
But it's worth knowing about since the book is based on one of the largest comprehensive studies of human nutrition ever conducted, launched via a partnership between Cornell University, Oxford University, and the Chinese Academy of Preventative Medicine, with data collected over a span of 20 years. In The China Study, T. Colin Campbell, PhD, and his son, Thomas M. Campbell II, MD, discuss and analyze the results from the study (and other influential nutrition research) and recommend their protocol for the best diet for long-term health.
In the 13 years since it was published, it inspired influential figures like Bill Clinton to go vegan, a plant-based nutrition certificate program at Cornell that's popular among chefs, nutritionists, and health coaches, and the documentary Forks Over Knives.
Of course, like all nutrition advice, there are many criticisms of the research and conclusions, especially among Paleo Diet advocates. We read it cover-to-cover for you, taking notes along the way, so you'd be in-the-know about the authors' claims—whether you choose to forgo beef for broccoli or not.
Here's your 10-step cheat sheet to The China Study's conclusions
1. American health statistics are scary. You may feel pretty fit, but the country as a whole is, well, not so great. The researchers spend a lot of time citing frightening stats on obesity, diabetes, and heart disease that point to the need for an American diet shake-up. Americans also pay more for health care than any other country—and don't have better health to show for it. It's probably the one section of the book no nutrition expert would argue with.
2. The conclusions are based on a lot of data. They're not talking about one small study on mice. After years of controversial lab results on animals, the researchers had to see how they played out in humans. The study they created included 367 variables, 65 counties in China, and 6,500 adults (who completed questionnaires, blood tests, etc.). “When we were done, we had more than 8,000 statistically significant associations between lifestyle, diet, and disease variables.” They also incorporate a wealth of additional research data from other sources.
3. Animal protein promotes the growth of cancer. The book's author T. Colin Campbell, PhD, grew up on a dairy farm, so he regularly enjoyed a wholesome glass of milk. Not anymore. Dr. Campbell says that in multiple, peer-reviewed animal studies, researchers discovered that they could actually turn the growth of cancer cells on and off by raising and lowering doses of casein, the main protein found in cow’s milk.
4. You should be worried about poor nutrition more than pesticides. The food you eat affects the way your cells interact with carcinogens, making them more or less dangerous, the authors explain. “The results of these, and many other studies, showed nutrition to be far more important in controlling cancer promotion than the dose of the initiating carcinogen,” they state.
5. Heart disease can be reversed through nutrition. The authors share the work of other respected physicians that they say supports their own data's conclusions, and some of the most interesting are on heart disease. Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., MD, a physician and researcher at the best cardiac center in the country, The Cleveland Clinic, treated 18 patients with established coronary disease using a whole food, plant-based diet. Not only did the intervention stop the progression of the disease, but 70 percent of the patients saw an opening of their clogged arteries. Dr. Dean Ornish, a graduate of Harvard Medical School, completed a similar study with consistent results. But hey, this is actually encouraging—heart disease can legit be reversed.
6. Carbs are not (always) the enemy. Highly-processed, refined carbohydrates are bad for you, but plant foods are full of healthy carbs, the authors say. Research shows that diets like Atkins or South Beach can have dangerous side effects. While they may result in short-term weight loss, you’ll be sacrificing long-term health.
7. Cancer isn't the only disease plants can ward off. It’s not just cancer and heart disease that respond to a whole food, plant-based diet, the authors say. Their research showed it may also help protect you from diabetes, obesity, autoimmune diseases, bone, kidney, eye, and brain diseases. Are you getting that plants are pretty miraculous by now?
8. You don't have to tailor your diet for specific health benefits. Eating healthy can seem segmented—broccoli will prevent breast cancer, carrots are good for eyes, and by the way, did you get enough vitamin C today? "Nutrition that is truly beneficial for one chronic disease will support health across the board," the authors explain.
9. You don't need to eat meat. “There are virtually no nutrients in animal-based foods that are not better provided by plants,” the authors say. Protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals—you name it, they’ve got it, along with major health benefits.
10. The takeaway is simple: Eat plants for health. “People who ate the most animal-based foods got the most chronic disease. People who ate the most plant-based foods were the healthiest,” the authors state. Whether you're going vegan or not, they suggest putting as many plants on your plate as possible at every meal.
This story was originally published on September 23, 2011; it was updated on August 9, 2018.
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