LW’s take on nutrition?

There’s a book called The China Study. It’s writ­ten by the “Pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus of Nutri­tional Bio­chem­istry at Cor­nell Univer­sity, and his son Thomas M. Camp­bell II, a physi­cian”. Based on what I know about the words “pro­fes­sor” and “emer­i­tus” and “cor­nell”, I as­sume this is writ­ten by an au­thor­ity in the field of nu­tri­tion.

When it was pub­lished in 2005 it recom­mended clearly crazy stuff: by min­i­miz­ing or elimi­nat­ing the con­sump­tion of an­i­mal based foods as well as re­fined/​pro­cessed foods (e.g. adopt a “whole food plant-based diet”), you could greatly re­duce your risk of dis­eases of af­fluence like heart dis­ease, di­a­betes, some can­cers, etc. The book fol­lows his 60+ year ca­reer through can­cer ex­per­i­ments on an­i­mals, con­duct­ing a pretty large epi­demiolog­i­cal study (the China-Cor­nell-Oxford study), and then dis­cusses some im­por­tant clini­cal tri­als that sup­port his recom­men­da­tions. He also sur­veys some nu­tri­tion liter­a­ture that cor­rob­o­rates his re­search.

Some other ex­perts vo­cally sup­port him; fur­ther, his recom­men­da­tions don’t seem to be a rad­i­cal de­par­ture from ei­ther pub­lic health recom­men­da­tions or prior re­search in the field. The FDA MyPlate, and also the UK’s health ini­ti­a­tives (“5 fruits/​veg­eta­bles a day”), as well as the Har­vard School of Public Health’s recom­men­da­tions and oth­ers all seem to be mov­ing in his gen­eral di­rec­tion, al­though seem­ingly filtered by poli­tics (e.g. tel­ling Amer­i­cans to stop eat­ing meat en­tirely seems like poli­ti­cal suicide, so baby steps in the di­rec­tion seem more ex­pe­di­ent; but I’m con­jec­tur­ing this).

The book is widely dis­missed as ve­gan pro­pa­ganda, but the au­thor says he’s not ad­vo­cat­ing a ve­gan diet and in fact crit­i­cizes ve­gan diets as only min­i­mally healthier than the “stan­dard Amer­i­can diet”. He also con­ducted ex­per­i­ments which sub­jected an­i­mals to car­cino­gens, which is not a very ve­gan thing to do. He does not ad­mit to be­ing ve­gan. He even ob­serves that the ev­i­dence says re­strict­ing an­i­mal based calories to un­der 10% of to­tal calories offers al­most all of the health benefits as re­strict­ing them to 0%, but says as a prac­ti­cal mat­ter this is much harder to stick to (e.g. you may only eat a 3mm slice of choco­late cake is much harder than sim­ply say­ing no to choco­late cake). He also ad­mits he had a bias when he en­tered the field of nu­tri­tion, but a bias in fa­vor of at­tempt­ing to jus­tify the use of dairy to cure malnu­tri­tion (he came from a fam­ily of dairy farm­ers). He said when he dis­cov­ered that his re­search did not sup­port his dairy bias he aban­doned his dairy bias (and would later shut down his di­ary farm).

Any­way, the China Study is widely crit­i­cized, but not by peo­ple in his field? I’ve been watch­ing for sev­eral years now (I adopted the diet my­self in 2010), and all of the nega­tive cri­tiques tend to fall into (a) cri­tiques from non-ex­perts, (b) cri­tiques from ex­perts in un­re­lated fields, (c) health ex­perts who agree that his recom­men­da­tions have merit, but that they’re im­prac­ti­cal for the gen­eral pub­lic to fol­low.

(C is worth­while, but this is a prob­lem for pub­lic health au­thor­i­ties to worry about. I’m much more in­ter­ested in what any suffi­ciently mo­ti­vated in­di­vi­d­ual can elect to do to max­i­mize their health)

So, this is the part that I find most sur­pris­ing. There are lots of peo­ple who are PhDs of ex­er­cise, an­thro­pol­ogy, or eco­nomics who crit­i­cize his recom­men­da­tions, but I have a hard time find­ing a mass gath­er­ing of nu­tri­tion sci­en­tists com­ing out of the wood­work to shoot down his recom­men­da­tions.

What should I be­lieve? Here are things I’ve con­sid­ered.

1. Science is crap. Don’t be­lieve ex­pert pre­dic­tions about the nat­u­ral world.

2. No no, just nu­tri­tion sci­ence is crap. Don’t be­lieve any ex­pert pre­dic­tions about nu­tri­tion.

3. Nutri­tion sci­ence isn’t crap, but the Camp­bells are rogue and the com­mu­nity of nu­tri­tion sci­en­tists have bet­ter things to do than de­bunk pop cul­ture books.

4. Nutri­tion sci­en­tists **are** crit­i­ciz­ing him in droves, I just don’t come across them be­cause I have con­fir­ma­tion bias blin­ders on.

5. “Nutri­tion sci­en­tist” is a made up dis­ci­pline, and I’ve been tricked!

I’m more or less at a loss on how to make progress on these points. Am I miss­ing some­thing cru­cial?

What’s the LW take on this? Why isn’t this good enough to in­form your dietary choices? As­sum­ing you don’t plan to be­come an ex­pert in the field of nu­tri­tion your­self, what’s a bet­ter way to in­form your dietary choices?

EDIT: I would just like to thank ev­ery­one who re­sponded. I’ve tried to dis­cuss this in many fo­rums, both IRL and on the in­ter­net and it’s al­most always a dis­aster un­like here on LW. Your mea­sured, in­sight­ful re­sponses are an enor­mous re­lief. You’ve given me a lot of food (ha!) for thought.