Home Healthy Diets Cornell grad and lecturer touts benefits of plant-based diet | Ithaca

Cornell grad and lecturer touts benefits of plant-based diet | Ithaca


If there is one piece of advice that 87-year-old Dr. T. Colin Campbell would give to those looking to age well and stay healthier longer, it would be to change your diet to a plant based, whole food approach.

The idea of “plant based” eating has gained popularity in recent years, but it was first coined by Campbell back in 1978. The bestselling coauthor of “The China Study” (published in 2006) said it has been exciting to see it gain traction in the last several years.

“It’s interesting because the idea of a plant based diet possibly being the best and the way of the future is just beginning to take hold in the mainstream public,” Campbell said.

His recommendation that most everyone can adopt a plant based diet and have it benefit their lives hinges on a discovery he made early in his career: that people do not need to eat animal protein in order for their bodies to get the protein they need.

For the son of a dairy farmer, this flew in the face of what he had believed growing up — but the evidence that a plant based diet can prevent and, in the vast majority of cases, even reverse common American ailments like diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease was so strong that he dedicated his career to researching it and publicly sharing his findings. He has also worked to shape public policy around health and nutrition and was the liaison to Congress for the medical research community in 1980 and 1981.

Campbell wasn’t always interested in studying nutrition. He was completing his first year of veterinary school when he received a telegram from a well known Cornell Professor offering him a scholarship and research opportunity, which led him to complete his education at Cornell University and MIT in the field of nutrition, biochemistry and toxicology. During his time at Cornell, around 1965, he was tasked with coordinating an effort to aid malnourished children in the Philippines. It was believed at the time that the children needed more animal protein to be healthy, but what Campbell found instead was that the few children who came from families who were able to consume more animal protein had a higher rate of liver cancer than their peers.

“I could’t quite believe what I was seeing,” Campbell said. “I had many students work in the lab on this question and over the years found that there is no need to consume animal food to get that protein. That is totally false.”

Campbell spent a decade on the faculty of Virginia Tech’s Department of Biochemistry and Nutrition, then returned to Cornell in 1975, where he currently holds his endowed chair as a professor emeritus of nutritional biochemistry in the Division of Nutritional Sciences.

In recent years Campbell founded a non-profit organization on online learning in nutrition which recently developed, under the direction of Campbell’s daughter LeAnne Campbell, the program Plant Forward, which holds online workshops.

The workshops teach a simple philosophy that can be difficult to put into practice at first but pays great dividends if the individual can stick with it for a month or two, Campbell said.

“The people who stay with it are often people who have a serious health problem or have a motivation,” he said. Sometimes the effects are almost immediate.

“People can see their blood sugar drop precipitously in one day,” he said. “It’s amazing.”

The key is to go all-in on the new diet. He likened it to quitting smoking — just cutting down to one or two cigarettes per day or smoking on some days but not on others is not likely to lead to success in the longterm. But soon, Campbell said, this new kind of eating will become second nature and even enjoyable.

“You’ll all of a sudden discover you crave a salad,” he said. “Just eat vegetables, grains, nuts, and avocados for the oil and fat.”

“As much as possible, stay away from added oils and refined carbs,” he added.

The effects of adopting a whole plant-based diet are striking, he said.

“We can turn experimental liver cancer genes on with animal based protein and turn it off by eating a plant based diet,” he said.

Campbell’s own father died of a heart attack when he was 70, and his wife’s mother died of colon cancer when she was just 51. “That motivated us to think about changing our diet, so we did,” he said. His wife is 80 years old, and both are largely medication free other than a short period Campbell spent on medication to control his blood pressure.

Campbell’s first book, “The China Study,” came out of a partnership in the 1980s with researchers at Oxford University and the Chinese Academy of Preventative Medicine and sold nearly four million copies worldwide. Campbell followed that up with his second book, “Whole,” in 2013, which is focused on the science behind plant based eating.

In 2020 he published “The Future of Nutrition: An Insider’s Look at the Science, Why We Keep Getting it Wrong, and How to Start Getting It Right.”

He still gives lectures and is involved with the online Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate in Partnership with eCornell. His research is the cornerstone of the 2011 documentary film “Forks Over Knives,” and his oldest son, Nelson Campbell, made another popular documentary on the topic called “Plant Pure Nation.”

Some advice that he received from his father that has guided him throughout his life: “Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” It is a philosophy that allowed him to question his original assumption that eating animals must be good for health.

“The key is to be honest with yourself and check your own biases,” he said. “That’s really critical.”

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