A Nutrition Lesson from PETA

The Left's latest scientific fraud.

PETA or the “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals" is the largest and goofiest group of “animal rights” nuts on the planet.  They consider the eating of chicken to be the moral equivalent of the Nazi Holocaust of Jews.  They advocate euthanasia of humans if it helps preserve any animals.  PETA has had ties to terrorist organizations.  Its chairwoman wrote Yassir Arafat and asked him to spare the animals while he was murdering Jews.

T. Colin Campbell is a biochemist at Cornell University.  He has also emerged as the ultimate “scientific” advocate of “vegan” diets and other features of the PETA agenda.  He has spent much of his career publishing books about nutrition, the best known of which is “The China study.”  Published in 2006, it was celebrated by much of the liberal media down to and including Oprah.  The NY Times called it “the Grand Prix of Epidemiology.” Campbell himself often appears on the Huffington Post.

While Campbell is not himself a physician, he sits on the advisory board to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), an advocacy group of doctors and researchers with strong ties to PETA.  PCRM has essentially the same political agenda as PETA, down to and including prohibiting use of laboratory animals in medical research.  It received $850,000 from PETA between 1988 and 2000.   The chairman of PCRM sits on the board of the PETA Foundation and writes a medical column for Animal Times, PETA's magazine.  The American Medical Association has called PCRM a "pseudo-physicians group" and claimed that PCRM’s dietary advice "could be dangerous to the health and well-being of Americans.”  The National Council against Health Fraud has strongly criticized PCRM’s activities as quackery.

Campbell’s main book, The China Study, is co-authored with his son, Thomas M. Campbell II, who IS a physician and teaches clinical family medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry.  Their book has become the new gospel of radical vegetarians and animal rights activists.

It purports to be an in-depth study of the role of nutrition in human mortality and morbidity.  It is based upon health data gathered in China, and hence its title.  But far from being a neutral exploration, the book is a naked work of advocacy for radical “vegan” diets.  Its agenda is apparent on every single page of the book.  Eating animal products, by which the authors mean not only meat but also fish, eggs and dairy products, is unambiguously unhealthy.  They claim a strict vegan diet not only makes you healthier, it also will prevent you from getting cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, and many other diseases.

The reliance of the authors on Chinese data is problematic for lots of reasons.  First, Chinese data in general are notoriously suspect regarding everything.  Second, the “Study” is only partly based upon analyzing the health histories of individual people in China.  Much of it is instead based upon analysis of Chinese counties, comparing one county to the next, including regarding mortality and dietary indicators.

But there are oodles of other differences across Chinese counties besides diet.  There are sharp age differences because of internal Chinese migration, and these age differences are reflected in morbidity and mortality rates.  The climate differences across different parts of China may be the most extreme for any country on earth. China is probably the most polluted country in the world and the pollution is higher in industrialized areas (meaning wealthier areas).   All in all, their study examined 6500 Chinese individuals in 65 Chinese counties.  Neither of these is a large enough number for persuasive conclusions. Counties of China where people eat more meat may be wealthier, explaining how they can afford meat in the first place.  Wealthier Chinese may smoke more and may be better educated.  Separating all these factors to isolate the role of diet is methodologically difficult.  The authors resolve the difficulty by not trying at all to do so.  Finally, Chinese are different in lots of ways from people in other countries, so any conclusion one could derive from studying the relations between diet and health must be taken with many a grain of salt.

Even with all those caveats, many of the authors “conclusions” simply do not hold up under examination.  The MUSLIM areas of China seem to have higher life expectancy than elsewhere!  It is NOT because they are vegetarian.  Parts of Tibet, where almost everyone is a Buddhist vegetarian, have HIGH mortality rates.

The authors’ thesis may be best summed up by themselves (on page 105):  “Almost all of us in the Unites States will die of diseases of affluence.” Affluence in the world is (unfortunately, to their minds) associated with unhealthy diets, including of course eating animal products.  Throughout the book they insist over and over again that nothing good can come from eating animal products, including dairy products.  Only a 100% plant-based diet can keep one healthy.

To sell this message, the authors are not above the most cynical manipulation of data. Campbell the Father openly admits to examining the data gathered by The China Project with intention of showing associations between animal food consumption and disease. Much of the “analysis” in the book is nothing more than seeking pairs of raw correlations.  So if women with high calcium in their urine tend to have worse problems with osteoporosis and women who eat dairy tend to have more calcium in their urine, then ipso facto eating dairy causes osteoporosis.  Never mind that every gerontologist on earth urges older women to eat more dairy to prevent osteoporosis!

The problem of course is that people who ingest a lot of calcium, more than their body needs, will tend to expel the excess.  This would include older women who eat a lot of dairy.  The conclusion that osteoporosis is CAUSED by eating dairy is completely spurious and is a good example of why the authors have been dismissed as quacks. Campbell himself has admitted that his claim that eliminating dairy products from the diet helps osteoporosis is bunk.

The book was dismissed as unscientific by the “Science-Based Medicine” web site.  One reviewer there wrote: “This is a cautionary tale. It shows how complex issues can be over-simplified into meaninglessness, how epidemiologic data can be misinterpreted and mislead us, and how a researcher can approach a problem with preconceptions that allow him to see only what he wants to see.” A health blogger named Denise Minger has probably devoted the most energy and time to debunking Campbell’s work and is worth reading.

There is a well-known difficulty of strict vegans in getting enough protein.  No problem at all, insist the authors, because protein is BAD for you.  Never mind that a major factor explaining the differences in life expectancy across countries is protein intake, where more protein is associated with longer life expectancy.

They attempt to peddle this snake oil by pointing out all the bad things that come from obesity and from eating high-fat high-cholesterol foods.  No one seriously denies that obesity is a serious and growing health problem in the United States, the UK, and elsewhere.  But that hardly means protein is bad for you.

The authors are slick and sneaky when it comes to presentation of evidence.  Right after they denounce butter as the most unhealthy of animal-based foods, especially for heart disease, they present a table (page 116) that shows that the French have one of the lowest rates of heart disease on the planet.  But as everyone knows, the French guzzle butter with almost every meal and also eat globs of beef and pork!   In other cases the authors present tables and charts and simply presume their readers are too stupid to read them.  For example, they present a chart on breast cancer and dietary fat, but readers can see that there is no relationship at all between the variables! The same is true of some of their other charts.

They are a bit shady when it comes to tradeoffs. Suppose one could be convinced that there really is a positive correlation between dietary fat and breast cancer.  There could also be a hundred NEGATIVE connections between OTHER diseases and dietary fat, so the argument that fat endangers your (net) health and life expectancy would still be dubious.  As blogger Denise Minger has shown, the authors left out lots of correlations between diet and disease having the OPPOSITE direction of what their agenda demanded and they simply suppressed and ignored these in the book.

The book repeatedly insists that affluence is bad for us all, health-wise.  Yet everywhere on earth, health is positively associated with income and wealth!  But the point they miss is that affluence has been so successful in creating conditions where many other possible causes of death have been eliminated, from malnutrition to communicative disease.  So what is left are the diseases that are less effectively eliminated by means of affluence (heart disease and cancer).

Finally, the authors’ chapter near the end of the book on the conspiracies of "Big Medicine" undermines any residual credibility for the rest of the book and could have been written by 9-11 Troofers.  But as PETA nutritionists, there was not very much credibility even before this chapter.

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