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Home » Why Is The Science of Nutrition Ignored in Medicine? – T. Colin Campbell (Transcript) 

Why Is The Science of Nutrition Ignored in Medicine? – T. Colin Campbell (Transcript) 

Here is the full transcript of author T. Colin Campbell’s talk titled “Why Is The Science of Nutrition Ignored in Medicine?” at TEDxCornellUniversity 2018 conference.

Listen to the audio version here:


Introduction to Nutrition

As I was introduced, my topic is about nutrition. A big, big topic, a word, a concept, an idea that we’ve all spoken about from time to time. But in reality, it seems to me that we haven’t been able to find very much consensus about what that word really means. So, I want to share with you some of the stuff that I’ve learned in the last 60+ years with many students and colleagues and others.

Honest question concerning, What is nutrition? And what is the right kind of food to eat in order to get the best possible health? Let me start out with a big idea. It’s one that has sort of come to me over the years that I think is worth saying.

Namely, nutrition, when done right, can create more health than all the pills and procedures combined. I know that’s a big startling idea but I really mean that. If we do it right, if we eat the right food, we get away from drugs, we can be healthy.

The Problem with Nutrition Education

So, there’s a problem, basically, and this is the problem I wanted to address here. Nutrition is not taught in medical schools. There’s not a medical school in the United States that properly teaches nutrition – hardly at all in many of them.

Secondly, among the 130 or so medical specialties – which is a sort of procedure by which physicians are reimbursed for services – of the 130 medical specialties that we now have, not one is called nutrition. So, here’s a problem. Here are the professionals who are supposed to be offering us their services in the area of health care, and not been taught the one subject that is the most important, in my view, of all.

And secondly, even if they did know something about it and they got some training, they’re not really going to be able to get reimbursed for services. Therein lies some of the problem with the fact that some people, many people in this country, have difficulty understanding what this question is really all about.

Public Confusion and Misinformation

Of course, as I mentioned, the public is massively confused. That’s one of the reasons, and it needs to be solved because there’s so much to offer, actually. It’s very difficult to know, quite frankly – and I think you would agree with this, that one of the problems with this issue is about confusion – it’s very difficult to know for the average person whether another claim, on radio, TV, conversations or whatever, it’s very difficult to know how valid that claim may be.

And I’m sure many of you know that claims are all over the map and quite in contrast with each other. So, as I look back over the years I have been involved in this, I’ve sorted out a couple of ideas, that if we stick to these two ideas alone, we’ll get to that sort of land that I’m talking about where so much health could be created.

Key Principles of Nutrition

First of all, eat whole foods. Whole foods, not the individual nutrients and food fragments within them. And by that, I mean no nutrient supplements. We’ve done a lot of research on nutrient supplements; it’s a huge industry, multi-billion dollars a year.

Fifty percent of the population uses nutrient supplements as a means to nutrition. I’m not talking about that. Nutrients taken out of the food, out of the context, do not do exactly the same thing for the most part that they do when they are in food.

And secondly, there are fragments taken out of even plants, incidentally, and I’m referring to plants as a good form of nutrition. Even the stuff taken out of plants, like oil, sugar, if you will, maybe it’s the right kind of food, in a sense, but when you take it out and use it separately, we get a different response in what we do, generally speaking, than the whole food.

This is another idea to keep in mind: plants provide all the protein we need. That’s somewhere around 8-10% of total calories. Turns out, if you look at the literature more carefully, that’s enough. We do not need to eat animal foods to get the animal protein. Plants have all the protein we need to have.

So, just those two ideas. Whole foods, obviously meaning plants because we don’t need animal protein, animal foods to go along with that. That combination really works.

Personal Experience and Research

Now, my career started, as I said, many, many years ago, and I happened to come across an idea when I was working in the Philippines, helping to coordinate a national program to feed the malnourished children where, in fact, our efforts were intended to actually make sure these children got enough protein – even good quality protein, animal protein, if you like.

And I saw something that sort of didn’t exactly agree with that, and we are not getting onto these details, but it led to this question: animal-based protein, which was my background, did not look to be as good as it was touted to be.

So, we organized a study. As we started to look into this question, Is protein as good as what we think it is, as I had thought it was? Here is one little display of some information among hundreds of things like this.

Cancer and Nutrition

Cancer, we all tend to agree, starts with a gene being mutated. It’s happening more or less all the time in some of our cells. So, it starts with a gene mutation, normal cell to a cancer cell.

As a result of it starting with a gene, if we have a cancer gene, we will have cancer, right? That leads to some suggestions: we should get analyzed for genetic background and this and that. But, in my view, cancer is not a genetic disease, even though that’s the most highly touted maxim, if you will, of the cancer industry.

Here’s what happens. This is an experimental animal study that we used much in my career early on. It started as a mutated gene, and we followed the progression of the early cancer over the first twelve weeks.

If we fed lower levels of protein, 5% – remember I said 8 to 10% is fine, is good enough – so, we start with 5% and we feed the animals who had the mutated gene 5% of protein, we get no cancer. If we feed them, on the other hand, the higher levels of protein, 20%, we get lots of cancer. So, here is a striking difference between 5 and 20%.

The Role of Nutrition in Cancer Development

But then we went to the next question. We wanted to know what would happen if we just switched the diet back and forth between 5% and 20%. So, starting with 20%, the first three weeks the cancers are growing.

These are precancerous lesions, if you will. Switching to 5% turns it off; 20%, we turned it back on again; 5%, it turns it off. That was striking at that time, it still is today for a lot of people, because if we assume that cancer is all coming from genes and if you have the genes you will get cancer, maybe if you don’t, you won’t.

In this particular case, what we are showing is that nutrition is important. So it leads to this idea here: we may have cancer genes, all of us, whether we were born with them or whether they were created in our lifetime, they’re sort of hanging around, they remain basically silent until they are nourished.

So, it puts the onus then on the question concerning nutrition being the cause of cancer, not genetics. We think of nutrition in a very simplistic way. We tend to think of individual nutrients doing their individual things.

The Complexity of Nutrition

We value foods according to how much nutrients it has – this, that or something else. Most of our thinking about nutrition is focused on individual nutrients. In reality, it turns out – and this is just one thought – it turns out the amount of nutrients we consume, let’s say in a spoonful or cupful or whatever, we can know how much is there in theory, but that has little relationship to how much nutrients there may be at the functional site, wherever that may be in the body.

So, the amount we are consuming here has almost nothing to do, quantitatively speaking, with the amount that’s operating in the functional site. Which raises a question. There’s a lot going on between here and there, and it’s sort of an activity, a bunch of activities that’s very, very complex.

And then, individual nutrients, when they are examined for their activities, generally, we think of – this is the way it tends to get taught – this nutrient causes this response and here is the mechanism by which it works. That’s the way we tend to think, and that’s the way cause and effect relationships often happen.

The Complexity of Protein and Cancer

It turns out that, in our hands, the protein turned on the cancer; I wanted to know what was the mechanism by which it worked. Which enzyme? Which transport mechanism or what have you might be working?

That’s the basis for the entire drug industry in large measure. If we see something going wrong and we want to solve the problem, we want to know what the mechanism is. So, maybe we can make a chemical to block it if we wish, or enhance it, whatever the case might be.

It turned out in our hands: the protein caused cancer, but not by one mechanism, every time we looked for a mechanism, in a sense, we found one. It got up to about ten or so, and in a couple of those mechanisms, not only was the protein turning on the process, it was actually attenuating or minimizing the effect of those processes that tend to protect us.

So, the high-protein diet was actually sort of getting the whole bucketful of mechanisms working together like a symphony to create a response. It was a very exciting idea. Again, it shows some degree of complexity, which I would suggest is really important in this consideration.

The Importance of Whole Foods

And then this leads us to the idea that nutrients work best in whole foods, as I mentioned before. It worked best in whole foods; you take them out to work with them individually, it’s altogether different oftentimes. Sometimes they work sort of the way you expect them to do, but it’s not necessarily a life-style practice.

So those three observations are pointed to a different philosophical concept regarding what nutrition is. It’s not a function of individual nutrients and adding up these effects; it’s all of them basically working together.

When we consume the foods, animal-based foods, in order to get that good protein we heard so much about, what that tends to do is to displace the consumption of the foods that we otherwise should be consuming. So, when we look at the totality of the food effect on the various disease processes, it’s not just one thing working, be it protein or anything else, it’s the combination, the presence of those nutrients, as opposed to the lack of those things that are not there.

The Power of Plant-Based Nutrition

Now we know, we’ve got good evidence for this, and not generally known, that kind of diet we heard from our grandmothers, “Eat your vegetables and so forth and so on, and prevent future disease.” Not sure we paid a lot of attention to that, especially when we were young – we figured out we’ll get a solution to that problem when it comes.

But in reality, now we know, and this is not yet published very well, namely: the kind of diet that actually prevents future problems, when it’s done right, actually can be used to treat existing problems. So now we have altogether a new paradigm, if you will.

Instead of relying on single chemicals, be they drugs or whatever else, to correct the problem, now we can simply look at this kind of food to sort of do it. And it happens very quickly, within ten days, two weeks or so, you can see remarkable changes occur in sort of biochemistries, if you will.

The Shift in Medical Perspective

Once we get to thinking about food as a means of treatment, we’re in a different territory. There’s something really meaningful in that case because you can see the results so fast. There’s a lot of people now doing this.

As a result of some of the work we did with some of my colleagues, this is now being tried by people, and many of you here, I think, probably would agree with that: you switch, you got a problem, you can see the results very quickly without side-effects.

Why is nutrition not taken seriously by the medical profession? As I said before, it’s not. It needs to be taken seriously. Medicine, or the practice of medicine, whether we’re doing research or practicing, is what I call reductionist.

The Reductionist Approach in Medicine

We’re looking at one thing at a time; we’re looking at just this disease – not some other disease – just this disease. We’re looking at usually just one antidote, this drug or that nutrient, if you will, and also, at the same time, we’re thinking about one mechanism at a time.

And so, medicine is a reductionist process, that’s what our system is: it’s highly reductionist. We now know we have a lot of problems with that approach. Things are not working like they should; there’s a lot of evidence to show that.

It’s also very, very expensive. And if we are going to rely on that highly technical philosophy to keep us well, we need third party care, namely the doctors or others. In contrast, nutrition, when everything is working together, as it is simply, as I suggested, it’s working basically comprehensively; it’s not working one mechanism, all of these seem to be changed the same way and the same direction to create the same response.

The Comprehensive Nature of Nutrition

That’s a very exciting concept. That, in turn, leads us to just wonder, What kind of foods should we eat to get that effect. And that’s first-person health care. All of a sudden now, the locus of control comes back to us. What we need to do is just do it, and in that way, we can actually eliminate a substantial proportion of pharmaceuticals for our treatment or other pills and procedures.

And finally, I want to ask the question: Why is nutrition not taken seriously by the nutrition science community? You probably thought that they are taking it seriously. I’m not sure they are.

The Influence of Corporate Interests

I’ve been in that community, let’s say, for a very, very long time. We have problems. And the sense is is that the problems are largely related to too much corporate interference and control.

Whether it’s coming in the form of money that may be supplying the funding, which sort of tethers us to that idea, or whether it’s coming from our participation with corporate sections on the outside. Not that we shouldn’t; we need to do that, we need to have this relationship.

That’s not the issue. But the corporate influence is such now that we keep falling back on pills and procedures, looking at things very specifically. We’re losing track; we’re not getting the essence of what we can learn from nutrition.

The Need for a Nutrition Renaissance

So, this happens also at the level of policy. I spent about 20 years on national policy development, where we attempted to translate the latest science into something we can tell the public. And once again, it’s a very complex process.

But the center of that interaction is again falling back on looking at things in a very, very fine way. And so, in the whole process, whether in practicing medicine, in policy development, or doing research, which we did a lot of that, just focusing on one thing at the time, we are losing track of what really matters.

And so, we’re doing that – I would suggest to use a tough word: our system is corrupted, it’s seriously corrupted from top to bottom, and we’re all part of it. And what we really need to do is to do it right and make people well because the cost to this society at large is huge.

The cost of health care being the highest per capita of any country in the world. Let’s redesign nutrition – I call it Nutrition Renaissance. I’m almost in a position of throwing away what we have done in the past, gather the whole idea, and then use it again to actually help to explain, basically, cancer.

And I would argue that we are in a position now to take the evidence we now have and just go forward and do that. Thank you very much.

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