reviewed by John Reid for Healthy You Network
Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition is T. Colin Campbell’s summative statement about the gross manipulation of nutrition science for profit and the resultant damage to human health. A cry from the heart of one who has dedicated his life to understanding nutrition, especially in terms of the link between diet and disease, Whole stands as a fundamental challenge to anyone serious about addressing the explosion of chronic disease in the developed world and the longterm welfare of the planet.
Many of the themes in Whole will be familiar to those who have read The China Study, Campbell’s landmark 2005 work, but the emphasis is very different. As Campbell says, “The China Study focused on the evidence that tells us the whole foods, plant-based diet is the healthiest human diet. Whole focuses on why it’s been so hard to bring that evidence to light — and on what still needs to happen for real change to take place” (p. xii).
The heart of the book lies in the distinction between “wholism” and “reductionism.” Campbell summarizes the difference early on: “If you are a reductionist, you believe that everything in the world can be understood if you understand all its component parts. A wholist, on the other hand, believes that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. That’s it: the entire debate in a nutshell” (p. 49).
Campbell traces the problem to the “clash between the faith-based and rationalist viewpoints” that emerged during the Renaissance and that divided the Western world into two increasingly antagonistic camps defined by the lens through which adherents saw the world and sought truth. The result of the antagonism, in Campbell’s view is clear:
“Rather than seeking partnerships with theologians, scientists increasingly sought to distance themselves and their endeavors from “superstitions” not grounded in observable fact. This included not just religion, but any idea that did not adhere scientific views, in which truth was found only through breaking down the observable world into as many smaller parts as possible. In short: reductionism” (p. 52).
And the confirmation of reductionism as the master principle of scientific inquiry has made it impossible to make sense out of the sorts of complex interactions that dominate the field of nutrition. Those complexities are better understood through the prism of wholism:
“The whole point of wholism is that you can’t tease out one contribution and ignore the rest. Of course body fat, dietary fat, education level, depression, socioeconomic standing, and so many more characteristics are interrelated and interactive with one another and with our bodies’ systems” (p. 88).
In terms of nutrition science, Campbell’s implicit question is how do we put Humpty Dumpty back together again? How do we address important nutrition issues in their fundamental complexity, rather than in the tortured, deracinated forms dictated by normal science? The answer: a revolution, pure and simple.
However, the benefits of any revolution must be obvious, and while it’s clear that masses of people would benefit from a nutrition science focused on the complex, large picture, the truth is not “obvious.” That is, most people simply don’t know anything about how science operates to their disadvantage, and there are enormous economic and political forces arrayed to make sure such knowledge doesn’t become widespread.
Campbell makes it clear that there of trillions of dollars at stake in keeping the vast majority of people ignorant about what’s happening to them in terms of nutrition, and there are multitudes of politicians whose campaigns depend on donations from the industries that most benefit from the reductionist science that can be manipulated to support any result one wants found and believed.
“Reductionism goes hand in hand with ever-increasing corporate profits …, Campbell writes (p. 194). And to make sure everything stays on the profit track, “Regulatory agencies routinely offer employment to industry lobbyists and so-called scientists who trade on their degrees to enhance their income” (p. 254).
Leonard Cohen sings, “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded …. Everybody knows the fight was fixed.” A critical problem in Campbell’s view is that too few people know that the dice are loaded and that the fight is fixed when it comes to nutrition science. And he doesn’t see this changing any time soon: “I have tried for years to enact change from the top down, and it simply doesn’t work” (p. 295).
After all his years in the ring, Campbell has arrived at what he sees as the only way to alter the trajectory of our collective nutritional fate: “The crucial shift in the way we think about our health will happen one person at a time. Eventually the policy will begin to change. Industry, deprived of the income produced by ill health and our ignorance, will follow” (p. 296).
Whole gives a detailed picture of what’s wrong with nutrition science and the implications of continuing on our current path. It ends with a suggestion of how the story might have a happy ending. I suspect Campbell’s not holding his breath, but he just might have his fingers crossed.