Lessons on Health From The China Study:
Author T. Colin Campbell, PhD, makes the following argument to support a vegan diet:
- Avoiding animal proteins cuts a woman’s estrogen and progesterone levels
- This delays the onset of puberty, stunts her growth, and leads to early menopause
- Which may reduce her risk of breast cancer.
Therefore, he argues, mothers should put their daughters on a strictly vegan diet. Skeptical? Me too.
Maybe you’ll be convinced if you hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. From page 164 of The China Study:
“The ability of dietary factors to control female hormone levels has long been known in the research community, but a recent study was particularly impressive. Several female hormones, which increase with the onset of puberty, were lowered by 20-30% (even 50% lower levels for progesterone!) simply by having girls eight to ten years of age consume a modestly low-fat, low animal-based food diet for seven years….These results are extraordinary because the were obtained with a modest dietary change and were produced during a critical time of a young girl’s life, when the first seeds of breast cancer were being sowed. These girls consumed a diet of no more than 28% fat and less than 150 mg cholesterol/day: a moderate plant-based diet. I believe that had they consumed a diet devoid of animal-based foods and had they started this diet earlier in life, they would have seen even greater benefits, including a delay in puberty and an even lower risk of breast cancer later in life.”
Dr Campbell’s Diet May Someday Be Found to Lower Risk For Some Types of Breast Cancer, But At What Cost?
Cambpell’s argument is an example of the thinking that has guided nutrition science for the past half century. Clearly Dr Colin Campbell cares deeply about preventing breast cancer. But to make the statements above is, in my medical opinion, not just scientifically premature (given the lack of consideration of the larger picture here) but also potentially harmful.
Are there ANY OTHER Implications of Reducing Estrogen and Progesterone Levels?
Reproduction is a big part of life. In fact, it’s one of the life’s defining characteristics. However, based on his own statements, it appears Dr Campbell believes that the timely onset of the hormones associated with puberty is not in any way essential to health or well-being but as ugly by-products of an animal-protein inclusive diet that serve only to put women at risk of breast cancer. As a woman, I feel torn by the fact that his stated intention is to reduce the chances of breast cancer, which noone is a fan of, but at the same time I find myself cringing a little at the idea of my teenage self or somebody’s daughter being included in his population-wide experiment to stall puberty for up to six years.
Though Dr Campbell doesn’t explicitly say this in his book, I suspect he would argue is that what’s unnatural is a young woman entering puberty at the tender age of 9-13 (the currently accepted normal ranges for the initial signs of puberty i.e. breast bud development), I suspect he would go on to argue that what is normal, natural, and healthy is for a girl to enter puberty between the ages of 15-19. It’s one thing to want to reduce breast cancer rates. But to do so at the expense of female development seems to me a bit extreme. Besides, we know hormones don’t have anything to do with some types of breast cancers. We also know that there are other ways to reduce breast cancer risk that don’t endager overall health.
Are there any potential downsides to a woman reducing her hormone levels to the lowest possible range?
The Worst Case of Hormone Deprivation I have EVER Seen
I have personally seen what may be the worst possible outcome of following an all plant-based diet: A stolen womanhood.
A young lady came to see me in clinic after suffering 8 compression fractures in her spine from severe osteoporosis after following an all plant diet for less than a decade. When I got her DEXA report (DEXA is the name of the most common bone-density test) my jaw dropped. The definition of osteoporosis is a T score of -2 or lower, which is not uncommon in 80-year-olds. Her’s was the first T-score I’ve ever seen so low: -8. She was 31.
When we first met, she was in tears. She was scared. She was in pain (those fractures hurt!) She had not had a period in something like five years. She was depressed. She couldn’t work, couldn’t support herself, and had to move back in with her mom. She couldn’t hike or do any of the things she loved. The hunch in her spine was hard not to notice, and she hated that. Yet, even after all this suffering, she was terrified at the prospect of re-introducing milk into her diet because of years of unwavering faith in Dr Campbell’s recommendations. The China Study was, after all, “the most comprehensive study of nutrition ever conducted.”
It says so right on the cover.
As a human being and an animal lover, I deeply empathize with people who have decided to go vegan in order to ensure they in no way support the horrible practices now endemic in the meat industry. I agree that those practices, and the companies that promote them, should be eliminated. As a scientist, however, I cannot countenance linear thinking when a more comprehensive, holistic consideration of the dynamic nature of physiology and growth is called for. As a physician dedicated to disease prevention and health promotion, I am angered and frustrated when a person comes to see me riddled with the debilitating complications from following any ill-conceived medical advice. Vegans have seen images of animal cruelty and said “This should never happen.” When I see a woman who’s quality of life has been taken from her, a woman who is suffering, I say “This should never happen.”
We’ve got to be able to figure out a way to prevent both.