The Many Benefits of a Whole Foods Diet: An Interview with the Co-Author of Whole
Earlier their month authors T. Colin Campbell and Howie Jacobson released their new book Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition, in many ways a follow up to Campbell’s earlier book The China Study. (Editor’s note: both of those are affiliate links)
We took the time to interview Jacobson below so you could get a sense of main points and storyline of the book.
Brian Toomey: For people who didn’t read Dr Campbell’s previous book, The China Study, can you summarize it very briefly?
Howie Jacobson: The China Study focuses on the evidence that tells us the whole foods, plant-based diet is the healthiest human diet.
From laboratory studies with rats and mice, to population-based studies such as the massive China Study, to decades of medical research showing that human beings can prevent, reverse, and heal cancer, diabetes, stroke, and heart disease by switching to a diet of mostly plants in as close to their natural state as possible.
BT: What is the focus of Whole, and the main thing you want readers to take away from reading it?
HJ: Whole explores the question of why contemporary science simply can’t see the overwhelming evidence favoring a plant-based diet.
I think of the structure of Whole like a whodunit: who killed the common sense approach to health and food and policy that any sane person would embrace, and replaced it with a warped alternate reality that leads to and rationalizes obesity, disease, disability, early death, poverty, starvation, and environmental destruction.
We finger two culprits in Whole: the reductionist paradigm that has turned most of science into a myopic, fundamentalist pursuit of trivia at the expense of the big picture, and the immense and subtle power wielded by big business to maintain that paradigm and keep the rest of us confused and compliant.
Here’s the main takeaway: pretty much all our human problems are caused or worsened by this system, and we can’t solve these problems unless we embrace a more wholistic approach. Which requires freeing our minds from the lies and half-truths created by indentured scientists, paid for by industry, sanctioned by government, mindlessly reported and repeated by media, and accepted passively and unquestioningly by the masses.
If you want to solve the health crisis, the animal cruelty crisis, the environmental crises (from global warming to aquifer depletion to air and water pollution and well beyond), the poverty crisis, and the breakdown of real community, then you need to see the Whole System.
And central to that system is the food we eat.
BT: is reductionism, and how does it relate to how we think about health?
HJ: Reductionism is a way of looking at the world that says, “The whole equals the sum of its parts.” Therefore, if you can understand all the bits of the world in isolation from one another, you can understand the whole.
That’s a bit like saying you can look at a person’s DNA and know everything about them. Anything that you can’t know from the DNA – their personality, the beauty of their smile, the depth of their passion, their great kindness – doesn’t really exist. And if it does, it certainly isn’t worthy of study.
When we think about health and nutrition this way, we make a number of tragic mistakes.
We train doctors to ignore nutrition and see disease as something random that just “strikes” one day.
We prefer unnatural drugs with unavoidable negative side effects to natural approaches that work more broadly, profoundly, and often, more quickly.
We think we can achieve “health in a bottle” by taking supplements that contain what we assume are the “active” ingredients in unimaginably complex foods like apples and carrots.
We refuse to fund the study the wholistic effects of proper nutrition because we can’t find a single cause-effect mechanism, so we don’t think of such research as “real science.”
And we treat each problem – individual, social, and environment – as an isolated phenomenon rather than as a symptom of a distorted system. So each “solution” comes with its own side effects, or unintended consequences, that require additional solutions in turn.
The cumulative effects turn the engine of profit for the few while leading to illness and misery for the many.
BT: What are the main findings you would want people to know about healthcare around the world, as it relates to both medicine and diet?
HJ: There’s no real question that lifestyle is the most significant determinant of health and disease in the Western world. Health doesn’t come from a bottle, it comes from the daily decisions about what foods we put in our mouths, how we move our bodies, and what we think about.
Truly healthy societies don’t get that way because of their “disease-care systems” (that is, what’s available when someone has already gotten a disease). Instead, they enable and support lifestyles that promote health.
When we look at populations around the globe, we see very clearly that rates of disease vary based on how much processed food and how much animal-based food they consume.
The closer a society is to a whole food, plant-based diet, the healthier, longer-living, and more vigorous its members.
And through studies of twins and immigrants, we know that lifestyle has a far greater impact on health than genetics.
HJ: Consume plant-based foods in forms as close to their natural state as possible (“whole” foods). Eat a variety of vegetables, fruits, raw nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, and whole grains. Avoid heavily processed foods and animal products. Stay away from added salt, oil, and sugar. Aim to get 80 percent of your calories from carbohydrates, 10 percent from fat, and 10 percent from protein.
BT: What is a quick summary for holistic thinking about science in general you could leave readers of this blog with?
HJ: If we want to create a sustainable world, then we need to embrace and promote holistic thinking. Another word for this is “systems thinking.”
Many sustainability advocates are familiar with permaculture, which is perhaps the ultimate in systems thinking. Permaculturalists seek to create systems that can thrive based on the higher logic of their own complexity and diversity, rather than relying on constant human management and control.
Our own bodies are unimaginably complex creations made up of unimaginably complex organs which are made up of unimaginably complex cells, and so on down to molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles. This is why a plant-based diet can improve many factors of your life, including reducing your risk for certain lifestyle diseases, and can also help improve your skin.
Each of us is part of a complex family structure, a community, a society, an ecosystem, a biosphere, a planetary family, a solar system, a galaxy, and so on to infinity.
Any science that does not tremble in awe and wonder and appreciation for these vast wholes within wholes, and does not attempt to relate its detailed discoveries back to these wholes for meaning and context, cannot help us move to a more just, healthy, and sustainable world.
Brian Toomey is the owner of JB Web Analytics, and an occasional contributor to sustainablog.