I just finished watching a BBC interview with me last Fall that now has just been released. The interview was held in Ohio when my wife and I were house guests of our friends, the Esselstyn family. The interviewer was a Cambridge University scientist, Dr. Giles Yeo, who declared at the outset that, in his personal life, he is an unchangeable carnivore and, in science, is a geneticist interested in obesity. Yeo’s questions were pointed and our conversation was candid and professional but I was nonetheless somewhat wary because taped interviews make it easy for creative editing, especially when done by a carnivorous geneticist (they tend to go together!).
Unfortunately, the final product falls far short from being an unbiased investigation of diet and health messages. Not only was information and messaging selectively edited with an obvious agenda, but key information was egregiously omitted from his ‘investigation’. Most notably, a recorded interview with Dr. Esselstyn and several of his patients who have reversed advanced heart disease by nutrition, was all egregiously left out, demonstrating a pre-formed agenda at the outset of his project (more later).
For further background on the material in the documentary, my research findings (thanks to many graduate students and fellow scholars), gathered during the last six decades shows that 1) being a carnivore is not in our best interest and 2) genes are not the sole determinant of our health. I’ve repeatedly said “the closer we get to a whole food plant-based diet, the healthier we will likely be”, usually with the added caveat that for best results we should avoid added oil/fat (but not necessarily high fat plant based foods).
Also, I have often added that I know of no scientific evidence that proves that all people need to be 100% WFPB all the time. I prefer saying that going 100% is a “goal”, partly because—if done right—I know of no evidence there will be health problems, only health solutions. I also often say that going 100% WFPB without added oil, if continued for 2-3 months, gradually allows us to wean ourselves from our traditionally high dietary fat and sugar addictions. This allows us to enter a new world of dietary experience and exceptional health, where we gradually lose interest in returning to the old dietary lifestyle.
Enough of my background, now let’s return to my 2-hour interview. During the interview, I was asked about some of my more important findings and beliefs. Upon seeing the film, I am pleased that I said nothing in the documentary that I would now take back. Although I sensed a certain amount of skepticism in Dr. Yeo’s questions, I still wanted to remain optimistic that the final product would be, at a minimum, constructive and fair. BBC, as many of us know, is a very big deal.
Now that I have seen the documentary, however, I definitely see an agenda. He seemed to be especially interested in telling me how many people worldwide have been influenced by our 2005 book, The China Study, now having sold more than 2 million copies. I could take it as a compliment but…maybe not. I felt his concern that I should be very careful about what I am saying because personal lives are at stake.
Yeo liked reminding me of his own professional science competence—a signal that he was not especially convinced of my own. The film says almost nothing about my hundreds of publications—many in the most reputable journals, nothing about my long-time senior faculty position at Cornell University at the #1 nutritional science department in the U.S. (during my long-time tenure) and nothing about my food and health policy experiences at the national and international levels. I got his message that it was only he who truly understands how to conduct research and to interpret the findings.
We discussed my reasons for doing our research the way we did it, including the many years of experimental animal research, our epidemiological study of a human population in China, my use of the research of others, and how I wanted to consider them together. Most of this discussion was not included in the documentary. Rather, he wanted to discount our experimental animal research where we learned how diet and cancer works at the fundamental cellular and sub-cellular levels because experimental animal research cannot be trusted (in contrast, I can’t quite figure how it is okay for him to use mice and dogs in his studies on the genetics of obesity as a means of understanding human obesity (Yeo, G.S.H. Diabetology Online Dec 24, 2016). He then implied that my main views come from our human study in China where he heard me say that it was not possible to make definitive cause-effect connections. I was simply comparing those observations with our laboratory research findings and that it was the combination of observations from various sources that offer the most useful information. Unfortunately, some of that conversation was omitted from the film, thus leaving the impression that I may have taken too much license to see what I wanted to see. He asked whether I understood confirmation bias—of course I do—because he seemed to be thinking that I may have fallen victim to such misfortune.
We had a reasonably good, but short discussion on the general workings of science. In my case, I used our experimental animal research findings which, although provocative, nonetheless were very informative. For example, we can turn cancer development on and off by nutritional means and we gathered a huge amount of fundamental information as to how nutrition works, thus overcoming the genetic beginning for cancer. I then did our study in China to see how those observations (and the findings of others) compared with humans, especially in a population that was close to the diet that our research encouraged (average 14.% of total calories, 35 g/day dietary fiber and only 10% of the animal protein that we have in the West).
As many know—and Yeo knows, I came to this research topic with a very strong personal and professional bias (more protein, more health, just like everyone else) and learned that my bias was not correct. This has been a somewhat costly and, at times, difficult intellectual turnabout. It was, in my opinion, his biases of carnivorous eating and genetics determinism that showed best. Clearly, his views on the science of human health is in stark contrast to mine. My research found that animal-based foods favor disease (as do products made of sugar, fat and plant fragments) and that these disease events are not solely or even mainly due to genetic determinism. Although in a long series of research studies over about 3 decades, we learned that nutrition generally controls gene expression, that experimental cancer can be turned on an off by nutritional (non-genetic) means, that the topic of nutrition is grossly misunderstood, that nutrients act through a broad array of mechanisms and that it is time that the benefits of the right kind of nutrition be told. A very big gap exists between our respective views of science.
It is now clear to me that the main purpose for this documentary was to be critical of unsubstantiated diet and health claims—fair enough, for I have similar concerns. He interviewed several people, skewering two individuals, who have little recognition in basic science and who were portrayed by him as having made outrageous health claims, and one young woman chef in England who supposedly had fallen victim to the message of The China Study that I wrote with my physician son (I do not personally know these people). It is now abundantly clear to me that Yeo and BBC intended to disparage the notion that food matters in our health and, further, that the public is mostly getting nothing more than a bunch of diet gurus getting rich by taking advantage of innocent victims. It also seems that his (BBC’s?) main tactic was to include me in the shark group that he was constructing. He clearly wanted to make the point that I had violated the good name of science (that only he can know) possibly ripping off a lot of innocent people like others he crudely portrayed in the film. The film’s final comments seem to suggest that we are nothing but a bunch of scumbags, making false claims and lots of money. I take no money from our very successful, online course by our nonprofit Center for Nutrition Studies powered by eCornell that offers a Certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition, no money from any of the several documentary films that has featured our work and no money from any health products or programs that have been organized around my message. I only have received royalty from my books and speaker’s fees for my 700-plus lectures that I have given around the world, mostly in the more recent years to medical schools and or medically-oriented conferences. It is this alleged ‘success’ that concerns a lot of people invested in the present system.
Now, I wish to relate the two most telling parts of this interview, both omitted from the documentary, but each of which speaks volumes about this entire affair. First, Yeo’s most egregious and disrespectful behavior was his and BBC’s failure to show any of the interviews of three very articulate patients of my physician friend, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn. These people told remarkable accounts of having turned around serious life threatening cardiovascular illnesses when they used the WFPB diet according to Dr. Esselstyn’s instructions (Esselstyn’s and my views are virtually the same). These accounts were especially moving and impressive because these patients were advised by their initial Cleveland Clinic physicians that nothing more could be done for by experts. Instead, their successes show what this version of nutrition can do. Similarly, Dr. Yeo reported nothing of any of Dr. Esselstyn’s professional experiences as well. As Dr. Esselstyn often says, “Heart disease is nothing more than a toothless paper tiger!” I find Yeo’s omission of this story to be totally reprehensible, really quite obnoxious, given the unusual importance of Esselstyn’s work and his graciousness, both he and his wife Ann, who hosted the interviews in their home.
The second story speaks for itself. BBC, I suspect that you know that Dr. Yeo is a firm believer in solving health problems by researching and developing pills and procedures. The use of nutrition to prevent and, most importantly, to reverse/treat patients with advanced heart disease and type 2 diabetes and—based on observations yet to be published—arthritic conditions, autoimmune conditions and some cancers, is a serious threat to Dr. Yeo’s interests. Even more importantly, I strongly suspect that it is a threat to his funding source, namely, the very powerful Helmholz Alliance which consists of 30 leading German diabetes and obesity research teams and centers and which is in alliance with the very powerful Sanofi Aventis Pharmaceuticals, the fifth largest drug company in the world. The Helmholz Alliance also consists of “renowned diabetes and obesity research centers at Cambridge University (Yeo’s professional home) and Yale University. Their interests are to “cure obesity and type 2 diabetes” in the “hope of stemming the spreading pandemic of diabetes and obesity and hopefully reverse it.”
Yeo, himself, speaks of the need to conquer obesity by developing pharmaceuticals—an approach which thus far has failed after more than 20 years of considerable investment and which, in my view, is based on seriously misguided science (see the research paper of Yeo published shortly after his interview with me [Yeo, G.S.H Genetics of Obesity:can an old dog teach us new tricks? Diabetology, online Dec 24, 2016]). Now, through nutrition, we can virtually obliterate heart disease and diabetes, while also controlling obesity for most people. Importantly, I do not accept Yeo and his corporate partner’s assumption that obesity is a disease that gives rise to other diseases; rather, it is more correct to say that obesity is an outcome component of an array of other diseases, like cardiovascular, diabetic and neoplastic diseases, all responding to a similar cause. The Helmholz-Sanofi-Yeo assumption justifies the search for a pharmaceutical remedy for obesity and those follow-on diseases supposedly caused by obesity.
The nutrition strategy that I support, if properly articulated and executed, can do more for curing illness than all the pills and procedures combined. We also have impressive but not yet fully researched evidence that certain autoimmune diseases, arthritic and bone disorders, and several cancers will be shown to be controlled in the near future with the same protocol.
BBC, I regret having to write this commentary, for I have long had a very favorable impression of your being one of the greatest, if not the most courageous and thoughtful news organization in the world. I cannot understand how you chose to sponsor this interview. Is it because you have a self-serving agenda or is it because you simply failed to do your homework? I would appreciate an explanation. I also suggest that the evidence on nutrition as the principle mediator of human health is now more than sufficiently mature to share with your audience.
To view the episode see the video below. My segment starts at about 37 minutes in.
The BBC is disappointed to discover that Prof Colin Campbell has chosen to publish a critical article about the BBC programme Horizon: Clean Eating – The Dirty Truth transmitted on the 19th January 2017 without any comment from the programme makers.
The BBC rejects the accusations of conflict of interest and agenda that Prof Campbell makes about both the programme and its presenter Dr Giles Yeo. As with all BBC programmes this film was edited in line with BBC Guidelines, and accurately reflects the views of Prof Campbell that he expressed in the interview he conducted with the BBC.
The film has been critically acclaimed and has prompted an important national debate about dieting advice and evidence based science.
I sent my commentary to BBC a day or so before I posted it but, other than acknowledging receipt of my email, I got no further information when a response might be forthcoming. Because BBC had already released its documentary, unbeknownst to me, and there was a rumor that it would soon be shown here in the U.S. on CNN I decided that I could not wait further. Additionally, I had already received damaging feedback from viewers here in the U.S., thus I was not going to wait, perhaps interminably, until they responded.
Regrettably, Mr. Liddell’s response is totally unacceptable, as follows.
Mr. Liddell says it all, as he did in his response to Dr. Esselstyn’s commentary, when he states that the “film makes frequent reference to the importance of eating a healthy diet”. This means nothing to viewers who are known to have a wide variety of ideas as to what is a healthy diet. In fact, the documentary clearly infers that material of myself and Dr. Esselstyn may not be healthy.
I fully understand that only portions of an interview are used in a final documentary, but the choice of material is what gives meaning to the final product. BBC severely slanted the story, basically denigrating the role of nutrition in maintaining health and treating disease in favor of Dr. Yeo’s belief that human health is best understood and practiced by determining genetic pathways that pave the way for drug development. It is this latter practice of ignoring nutrition that has and continues to demean what human health really means—in favor of a pharmaceutical strategy that is hugely expensive and far too often is without merit. I am confident that it creates wealth for the few at the expense of health for the many.
Dr. Yeo makes clear in his recently published paper that he looks forward to research and development of drugs to control the “common” kind of human obesity. And in his most recent paper (24 December 2016) he states that it was supported by the Medical Research Council and “the Helmholtz Alliance ICEMED” which clearly states that they are an alliance of 30 research teams and research centers “enhanced by cooperative alliances with Sanofi Aventis Pharmaceuticals”. The fact that Mr. Liddell conveniently ignores this latter underlined statement says something about the views of Mr. Liddell and the BBC. As I previously said, I do not question Dr. Yeo’s preferences for work and his funding but I do question his not being forthright about his corporate interests (both in his not-so-veiled comments during the interview and his rather clear statements in his writing).
If there is any doubt about my interpretation of the motivation for this project, I suggest that Mr. Liddell read the rather large response that this affair is now generating. We are now at a junction as to what is to be the future of medical and health care. For BBC to ignore this junction speaks very poorly of their own biases and possible allegiances.
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