Scientific Reductionism Detracts from Whole Food, Plant-Based Message


Scientific Reductionism Distracts from Whole Food, Plant-Based Message

Since The China Study was first published in 2005, the human health benefits of a whole food, plant-based (WFPB) diet has become ever more convincing, and many individuals are speaking of this evidence. These dietary effects are real and substantial, theoretically having the capacity to simultaneously resolve major societal problems, such as restoring personal health, upgrading primary health care services, reducing exorbitant healthcare costs, resolving environmental problems, optimizing animal welfare, and improving school lunch and related public service programs. The answer is simple. Adopt, as much as possible, the WFPB diet. Or, is it really that simple?

For the sake of our society and our planet, we must bring this information to the attention of a very large segment of our population who are not yet aware of its existence. The question, therefore, is how best can this be done, especially when attempting to engage authoritative agencies and individuals who have great influence on the public. We face a highly skeptical audience and, although progress is occurring, I am concerned that those of us who are trying to convey this information are not doing as well as we might. We can do better.

It is my experience that, within the WFPB community, too many individuals are being excessively competitive and self-serving and, as a result, are distorting or ignoring the scientific basis for this message, especially the fundamentals of the science of nutrition. This needs to change. I know that some people are not especially interested in science—of any kind. I can empathize with some of this sentiment because the institutions of science (my lifelong home)—as in academia or in government institutions that rely on academic consultants—have not lived up to their creed and their public responsibilities. Corporate interests are seriously corrupting academic institutions (as in funding research studies, building campus buildings in donors’ names, and compensating individual academics for favorable support) and these conflicts too often are not publicly revealed. In addition, mega-industry interests exercise powerful control over research funding priorities that are administered by politically motivated congressional authority. Corporate interests prefer to stay the course (their course), maintain the status quo and, when possible, get the privilege of telling the public what they want the public to know.

Still, if this information on the WFPB dietary lifestyle will ever have a reasonable chance of reaching our larger population, it must be founded on scientific evidence that is fully open for public scrutiny, adequately replicated in the research laboratory, and serving the public good. Otherwise, the WFPB lifestyle will flounder amidst a storm of confusing claims, too often made by those who do not understand science and who instead wish to promote their own self-serving agendas.

Many people deeply want reliable knowledge on health and they are now beginning to understand that their problems have arisen because of very poor knowledge that is controlled by self-serving sources. The public generally knows that rates of serious diseases are much too high, with little or no evidence that they are being brought under control. The War on Cancer advanced by President Nixon in 1971 seems to most observers, almost a half century later, to have been a failure. Cancer treatment protocols often are horrific exercises in futility that still drain our ability to pay for them. Rates of obesity and diabetes have been on the rise, especially within ever younger populations. Our children’s future lives are at stake as never before. For decades, health care costs have risen faster than the rate of inflation, making U.S. per capita health care costs the highest in the world—by a considerable margin. Understandably, the public hungers for reliable information that they do not get from institutional science.

There is no doubt we now have the WFPB evidence that the public deserves to hear. The evidence is fundamental, so much so that it deserves consideration as a ‘fact of nature.’ Unfortunately, people don’t know what they don’t know. And public institutions, whether conducting scientific research, marketing would-be health products or setting policy, are failing to serve the unknowing public.

In presenting this WFPB message to the public, however, I see a present difficulty in communication that we all need to understand, whether we are within institutions or whether we are customers of these institutions. That difficulty arises because we rely far too much on the concept of reductionism, which focuses on parts rather than the whole. Within institutions, fundamental research investigations mostly study the effects of individual nutrients or other dietary agents, minus their whole food context. Outside of these institutions, i.e., the public, we seek simple explanations and solutions for our health problems, relying on the same concept of reductionism. We like magic bullets. As a result, confusion abounds because different individuals can choose from an incomprehensible number of details to create their favorite custom-made message. Add to this the fact that too many of the popular books on food and health are written by authors with no training or competence in scientific research, no understanding of nutritional science, and no interest in honestly serving the public. Fame and fortune is their goal. Too many of these ‘spokespersons,’ without credentials, have no interest in scientific facts—worse, they too often still pose as authorities then focus on reductionist argument.

Reductionism is not the way that nutrition works—by definition.

In the case of the WFPB diet, its benefits are so dramatic—for example, in reversing (curing) heart disease(1)(2)—because it works wholistically, a concept that is awesomely illustrated during cellular metabolism, especially when the elements of time and space are also considered. This concept was referred to in The China Study (2005)(3) then expanded in Whole (2013),(4) and The Low Carb Fraud (2013).(5) More recently, I then used this concept to redefine nutrition(6) and to question the fundamentals of cancer biology.(7)

I know that I risk my personal relationship with colleagues when I say that most commentators on the WFPB diet (as well as professional nutrition scientists) are not aware of the huge cost of mis-using this reductionist concept—I was also in that group earlier in my career. (However, I know what it’s like to be outside the norm—I’ve lived it many times, especially when I continued my experiments on the cancer-causing activity of animal protein and the research demonstrating the superiority of nutrition over drugs and genes!).

I can think of many examples where reductionist interpretation has led us astray, at great cost to our fellow humans and our environment. To illustrate my point, and using some misbegotten and/or exaggerated reductionism-based claims, dietary cholesterol and saturated fats commonly present in animal-based foods do not directly cause heart disease, although they are good indicators of disease risk. Environmental carcinogens do not significantly increase human cancer risk because proper nutrition controls most of their effects. Added plant oils are more likely to cause cancer and heart disease than animal fats like butter and lard because plant oils consumed outside of their whole food environment are likely to be proinflammatory and pro-oxidant. Nutrient supplements do not prevent disease because when isolated from their whole food context, their biological properties may be substantially different or even opposite than expected. Chemical carcinogens may act as anti-carcinogens when prior low levels of exposure are able to adapt the body and minimize the effects of later carcinogen exposure.

The making of many, many similar mythologies are now underway when we highlight the idea that blueberries and cruciferous vegetables prevent cancer when, in reality, a large number of similar plant-based foods are able to do the same thing. Some advertise that omega-3 fats prevent cancer, mental disorders, cardiovascular disease, and certain inflammatory diseases, but this fantastic claim can be strongly influenced by the presence (or absence) of total dietary fat and certain other fats that counterbalance the omega-3 effect. Among specific chemicals, it is claimed that lycopene (high in tomatoes) and beta-carotene (in green leafy vegetables) prevent cancer, resveratrol (rich in grapes) prevents Alzheimer’s Disease, and beta-carotene improves eyesight. Yet, for each of these claims (and many more), the effects likely work in whole foods but not when these chemicals are consumed in isolation—indeed their isolated effects may be the reverse. The calcium of cow’s milk prevents osteoporosis and makes strong bones and teeth, so it has been said for more than a half-century, but a comparison of bone health statistics for different countries shows that increased consumption of calcium is associated with increased not decreased rates of osteoporosis. And so it goes with dozens, even hundreds of other claims on consuming isolated chemicals and single foods. All of these claims are examples of reductionist reasoning. I can easily make a case that hundreds of millions, if not more than a billion lives have been cut short because of reductionist belief.

It is my belief that solely relying on reductionism—all too often an inappropriate guide for understanding nutrition research—must be brought under control. If this is not done, there is no chance that the true health benefits of the WFPB dietary lifestyle will be advanced to the larger community. WFPB nutrition cannot be interpreted or adequately judged for its value through the lens of reductionism. This fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of the science of nutrition is not acknowledged or understood in the practice of medicine. Similarly, the case for WFPB nutrition will be even more rejected because it substantially limits the consumption of animal food and so-called convenience foods, even if the latter are comprised of plant food fragments.

And finally, this misalignment of the concepts of reductionism and wholism is exaggerated further when some people, not familiar with the philosophy of science, not trained in the science of nutrition and never having submitted their opinions for critical review, arrogate to themselves the right to speak about the science of nutrition. They (and unfortunately many others even within the profession of nutritional science) seem to believe that the relative health value among closely related foods (one leafy vegetable vs. another, or one fruit vs. another) or different amounts of the same food can be accurately estimated by specific amounts and kinds of nutrients contained therein. Of course, there may be differences, but these are relatively small and short-lived and should only be accepted if supported by reliable evidence. It is the wholeness of food that matters far more than the mostly insignificant differences in its contents, which are the hallmark of reductionism.

It is time that enthusiasts for the WFPB dietary lifestyle rise above the noise and confusion of traditional nutritionists to make their case. It is time to stop ventilating and overemphasizing small differences as if they represent big differences. When using the WFPB dietary lifestyle, we don’t need to fixate on consuming tomatoes simply because they are richer in lycopene or not consume them because they contain questionable lectins. We don’t need to consume grapes because they contain resveratrol to improve brain function. We don’t need to avoid consuming soy products because they contain estrogenic compounds. We don’t need to consume cow’s milk for its calcium to make strong bones and teeth. We don’t need to consume animal-based foods because we need more protein. We don’t need to consume DHA supplements to improve mood and such. We don’t need to avoid high-fat, plant-based foods like nuts, avocados, and coconuts as if their fat/oil is the same as added oil. Similarly, we should beware of generalizations like “the fat we eat is the fat we wear,” “high-carb diets are the cause of increased diabetes and obesity,” “cow’s milk makes strong bones and teeth,” and “consumption of saturated fat in whole plants should be minimized.” Fixating on such details is more a matter of pharmacology than it is of nutrition. It is time to recognize the science that demonstrates the health benefits of whole foods instead of their nutrient parts. It also is time that the underlying science of whole food, plant-based nutrition is more reliable, more sophisticated, and more promising for human health than traditional views of nutrition.


  1. C. B. Esselstyn, S. G. Ellis, S. V. Medendorp, T. D. Crowe, A strategy to arrest and reverse coronary artery disease: a 5-year longitudinal study of a single physician’s practice. J. Family Practice 41, 560-568 (1995).
  2. D. Ornish et al., Can lifestyle changes reverse coronary heart disease? Lancet 336, 129-133 (1990).
  3. T. C. Campbell, T. M. Campbell, II, The China Study, Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, and Long-Term Health. (BenBella Books, Inc., Dallas, TX, 2005), pp. 417.
  4. T. C. Campbell, Whole. Rethinking the science of nutrition (with H. Jacobson). (BenBella Books, Dallas TX, 2013), pp. 328.
  5. T. C. Campbell, The low-carb fraud (with Jacobson, H). (BenBella Books, Inc., Dallas TX, 2013), pp. 88.
  6. T. C. Campbell, Nutrition renaissance and public health policy. Journ. Nutr. Biology In press, (2017).
  7. T. C. Campbell, Cancer prevention and treatment by wholistic nutrition. J. Nat. Sciences 3, (2017).

T. Colin Campbell, PhD has been at the forefront of nutrition research for over forty years. His legacy, the China Project, has been acknowledged as the most comprehensive study of health and nutrition ever conducted. Dr. Campbell is the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University. He is also the founder of the highly acclaimed, Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate and serves as the Chairman of the Board for the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.
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