The China Study

China is a big country, inhabited by many Chinese.

–Charles de Gaulle

And that’s about the quality of the information we can glean from The China Study.

The China Study is a book by T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell that purportedly proves without a doubt that the eating of animal foods causes all the chronic diseases of civilization, like heart disease, cancer, or diabetes. It’s supposedly based on the results of the China-Cornell-Oxford Project which was, interestingly enough, directed by T. Colin Campbell and involved China, Cornell, and Oxford. As you can probably guess, the study followed Chinese people in rural areas of China and recorded what they say they ate, when they got sick, and how they died.

And The China Study is pretty much the “inspired by actual events,” made-for-TV movie version of the China-Cornell-Oxford project.

Now if you haven’t heard of this book, you obviously don’t have any vegan friends because this is their favorite thing in the world besides tofu. This proves, proves mind you, that if you get cancer it is entirely your own fault for insisting on eating chicken.

Now some people far more capable than I have done some excellent and scathing analyses of the poor science, poor logic, and flawed methods employed in the book. For anyone with a science or math background it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. For the most in-depth analysis, I recommend Denise Minger’s full formal response. I also recommend science-based medicine website’s quick analysis. For a more light-hearted and easy to read summary of Minger’s critique, try here. And for a different take by a nutritionist, but equally scathing and slightly shorter, try here.

So what can I contribute?

Two things, both of which relate not to the bad science and bias that The China Study is rife with, but my concerns even about the underlying data it is loosely based on. As someone who has lived in China for nearly twenty years, I can tell you two things that bring into question any kind of scientific study done here.

First is lack of transparency. Oxford and Cornell might have their names on it, but the real work of gathering data was done by the locals. Just google “China, transparency, science” and you’ll find all you need to know about how questionable it all is. Scientific studies like this could not be conducted without government approval; no one from Oxford or Cornell could even come for a visit without an official invitation from a government-approved company and then approval from the government.

Second, the Chinese have a different culture from yours. When talking to an outside stranger in particular, they say what they think you want to hear (this is polite) or what will make them look good (this is how you save face for your group). This is a cultural thing: it is more polite to tell you what they believe will make you happy than to tell you the truth. How important? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wasted a whole afternoon wandering in circles looking for a place because everyone was too polite to tell me they didn’t actually know where a place was when I asked directions. They would just make up directions. And saving face is deeply, deeply important, at a level no Westerner can possibly fully appreciate. Failure to understand these two factors is a big reason businesses fail to make it in China.

And these two factors also mean any food survey–something already acknowledged to be of highly questionable value even in the West–crosses the line here to become less than useless. Food surveys are unreliable already because they rely on people’s memories (always faulty) and people’s honesty (always questionable when answering questions about themselves). And even for those who are trying their best to answer honestly and accurately, the nature of the surveys makes it very difficult to get accurate information. It’s impossible to answer them accurately even if you wanted to. But if you view your duty to save your own or your group’s face as being more important a virtue than telling the truth; or if you believe it’s more polite to tell the silly question people what they seem to want to hear than what actually happened?

Drawing conclusions purporting to tell people of entirely different genetic makeup how to eat, based on utterly unreliable surveys and data obtained from a country where all information allowed out is controlled: this is ridiculous and dangerous.

So how about a different China Study? I conducted it myself.

I’m going to be totally upfront with you right from the beginning, too. This is completely unscientific. It’s entirely observational, and the only conclusion you can draw from it is that perhaps the lipid hypothesis–that animal fat is the cause of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, etc–needs more careful investigation.

When I first came here I almost never saw an obese Chinese person. On the rare occasions that I did, everyone was staring at them, laughing at them, and talking about them. They were an anomaly. You stopped and stared because they were unique.

There were some other things true back then, too.

For one, people loved fat. There are numerous traditional Chinese dishes that are pretty much just giant slices of pork fat. Those were popular dishes, preferentially sought out by anyone who could afford them.

For another thing, people drank tea and occasionally water. That was just about it. Soda was sold in 6oz glass bottles which you had to stand by the vendor and drink. Then you returned the bottle. These vendors hung around certain places, and they grew harder to find outside of the hot summer months. They were not ubiquitous and people didn’t drink soda every day. Sometimes you would see groups of two or three sharing one; meaning each person was only actually drinking 2-3oz of cola.

As for exercise, if you saw a Chinese person running down the street, you knew you better turn and run, too. No one was stupid enough to just run for no reason. Older people would do some stretching/dancing sort of exercising in the mornings and evening, but there were no joggers, no cardio cyclers, few gyms, and no big weightlifting movement.

Finally while there was some consumption of refined grains, people would tell you that it made you fat. Except for the poor, rice was a “filler.” It was served at the end of the meal, and only if you were really hungry and needed something to fill in the gaps. You could get some noodles or some steamed bread, but you didn’t find it absolutely everywhere. People who could possibly afford it avoided that stuff unless they were in a hurry.

The other day I was talking about this to an elderly lady and her daughter. Mom’s got some serious issues–high blood pressure, high triglycerides–and she’s been eating the “healthy” diet with little fat or meat and lots of vegetables. Yet somehow she isn’t getting any better. When I mentioned to her daughter that not long ago Chinese people didn’t eat much bread, didn’t drink sugar drinks, and loved to eat fat, she didn’t believe me. She turned to confirm this with her mother, who replied that yes “we all used to eat that way.”

Because, you see, things have changed around here.

Whereas before you’d be hard pressed to find a fat person, now I can see at least one every time I go out. They still aren’t as ubiquitous as they are in America, but they’re now so common in my city that people don’t even notice them. You can especially find them if you go to the middle schools and high schools. Plenty of fat kids.

Now if you mention that, people tisk and shake their heads and talk about how kids don’t have any time to exercise because of all the important studying they have to do. But I’ve been teaching in these schools for almost 20 years, and 20 years ago the kids were just as busy and took just as little exercise as they do today. Yet there are tons more fat ones now then there used to be. They’re only more sedentary compared to 50 or more years ago.

Data backs this up. In the 20 years I’ve been here, cancer, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes have absolutely skyrocketed. It’s happened so fast it has dwarfed America’s problem all out of proportion. Diabetes has increased 30% just in the last 7 years. Obesity has doubled in the last 11 years. Heart disease is now the leading cause of death, with 1 in 5 adults afflicted with it. And cancer is the scary one. It’s the leading cause of death in Beijing and is striking younger and younger.

Ask anyone and they’ll tell you that the entrance of Western fast food into China is the reason for all this. There’s just a couple little problems with that. First, of course, is that’s a pat, knee-jerk answer for which there is no proof or any real study to back it up. Additionally no one forces anyone–Chinese or Western–to eat anything at any restaurant. And McDonald’s just isn’t eaten that frequently. But the main reason this is ridiculous is that these statistics are from across the country–yet the fast food places aren’t. There are plenty of them in big cities, and a few in smaller cities. But there are none in the vast rural areas. And even in the smaller cities (and by “smaller” I mean, say, less than 5,000,000) you may only find one or two. The city I lived in, of 1,000,000, had only one McDonald’s when I was there–and it just opened that year. The city I grew up in in America, of 700,000, had eight fast food restaurants within walking distance of my home.

But I’ll tell you what has changed. Whereas I used to be plied with fatty pork and fatty beef and fatty lamb at every meal out, people now tell me they are afraid of fat and urge me to eat more vegetables with them. This is especially true of young women trying desperately to keep their figure.

Whereas I used to be the odd one, carrying around a bottle of water everywhere I went, now I can glance out my window at any time of day and I’m guaranteed to see someone carrying a large bottle of sugared tea, sugared fruit-flavored drink, or soda.

Whereas I used to have to explain to my classes how foreigners made bread, now there are bakeries and pastry shops every 200 yards. Not a mall but has three of them, and those are the food purveyors most busy throughout the day. The one McDonald’s may fill to overflowing over lunch and dinner: but the three bread shops are full all day long.

Whereas you used to never see people running places, now you see them all the time. I know this because there’s always someone who loves to run in dark clothes at night on poorly lit streets (which is all the streets), and when I nearly run them over on my scooter they scream at me.

You can see the risks I’m taking for this study.


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