Children, Nutrition, and the China Study – Part 1

I love browsing through vintage cookbooks. I like the retro illustrations and the funny, helpful advice for what to do when the electricity goes out, someone spills grape juice on the carpet or you find yourself having to balance your bridge club date with serving a formal dinner to 40 select guests. The situational comedy going on in these books is great entertainment and a window on the past.

The recipes are another matter. Suggested family menus not only have people eating meat three times a day, but cheese and butter get slathered onto everything and vegetables tend to be overcooked, come out of a can or are utterly replaced by the miracle of Jell-O! The cookbook authors boast, unashamedly, of the convenience of processed, packaged foods and this legacy of the 1950’s is with us yet.

Betty Crocker and the folks at Better Homes & Gardens may hold a special place in our hearts, but I’d like to introduce you to another nutrition expert who may be far more deserving of a spot in our kitchens.

Meet Dr. T. Colin Campbell, author of The China Study. This is the story of an American farm boy who started his work life at MIT and Virginia Tech as a researcher. His job revolved around promoting better health for US citizens by encouraging them to eat more milk, meat and eggs. Government agencies, medical professionals, scientists, researchers and cookbook authors alike set about convincing the public that a diet based on ‘high-quality protein’ was the optimum method of eating for glowing health. According to Dr. Campbell, he was proud to believe that Americans had the best diet in the world.

Then Came The China Study

Dr. Campbell became involved in a 20 year study conducted by Cornell University, Oxford University and the Chinese Academy of Preventative Medicine, the goal of which was to survey the diseases and diets of rural China and Taiwan. Researchers worked amongst Chinese adults and children, studying their lifestyles, eating habits and illnesses and amassed more than 8000 significant correlations between foods and diseases.

To quote Dr. Campbell, “I uncovered a dark secret. Children who ate the highest protein diets were the ones most likely to get liver cancer…”

As The China Study’s website details:

Although it was heretical to say that protein wasn’t healthy, Dr. Campbell started an in-depth study into the role of nutrition, especially protein, in the cause of cancer. The findings? People who ate the most animal-based foods got the most chronic disease. People who ate the most plant-based foods were the healthiest and tended to avoid chronic disease. These results could not be ignored.

So much for the famous 4 food groups and the complimentary marketing materials we all received as school children courtesy the National Dairy Council. So much for Betty Crocker’s Cheeseburgers Supreme.

Critically acclaimed and cited as ‘the most comprehensive large study ever undertaken of the relationship between diet and the risk of developing disease’, The China Study gives authority to what the best doctors, nutritionists and scientists have been telling us for years – that an animal-product-based diet leads to disease while a plant-based one is a far better bet for good health for both children and adults.

3 Important Quotes From This Eye-opening Book:

1)”We know an enormous amount about the links between nutrition and health. But the real science has been buried beneath a clutter of irrelevant or even harmful information – junk science, fad diets and food industry propaganda. I want to change that.”

2) “Synthetic chemicals in the environment and in your food, as problematic as they may be, are not the main cause of cancer. The genes that you inherit from your parents are not the most important factors in determining whether you fall prey to any of the ten leading causes of death. The hope that genetic research will eventually lead to drug cures for diseases ignores more powerful solutions that can be employed today. Drugs and surgery don’t cure the diseases that kill most Americans.”

3) “To make matters worse, we are leading our youth down a path of disease earlier and earlier in their lives. One third of the young people in this country are overweight or at risk of becoming overweight. Increasingly, they are falling prey to a form of diabetes that used to be seen only in adults, and these young people now take more prescription drugs than ever before. These issues all come down to three things: breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

Why Should This Matter To Us?

As Montessori instructors and parents, we create the environment in which children learn and grow. Children’s primary environments, however, are their own physical bodies and if these are neglected or improperly nourished, we cannot expect happy results. Additionally, we are aware that the examples we set as adults become the norms that children will carry with them throughout life. As I see it, we need to think about two aspects of setting a good example.

1) If we don’t insist on good nutrition for ourselves and the children we care for, we are promoting a poor idea of self-respect, independence and responsibility. If we value life, it’s a duty to educate ourselves about the very best modes of caring for our health if we want children to view this as an important concern.

2) Think about this: when you go to the doctor’s office, the pens, calendars, and free samples are all supplied by the drug corporations. Public school Health classes receive free nutritional materials from the Dairy Council and the various meat associations. Fast food chains have managed to insinuate their marketing materials right into children’s schools. The bottom line is that special interests are controlling much of the health and nutrition information that gets published and distributed to society.

Dr. Montessori believed that discernment was one of the key abilities children needed to develop, and by teaching children to discern the forces that may be behind the pamphlets, books and ads that encourage them to eat such-and-such food, we are fostering intelligent reasoning. If we refuse to be gullible, no one will be able to make fools of our children for corporate profits.

The China Study is not about a fad diet. It wasn’t authored by a celebrity or a spokesperson for McDonald’s. It is the result of two decades of intensive study by some of the world’s most respected educational institutions. I consider this an important read for parents and educators, and you can peruse an excerpt from the book as a PDF here.

Putting What We Learn Into Practice

If you have considered transitioning your family to a more plant-based diet because, like me, you feel you can’t ignore all of the data you have been hearing about the health benefits of doing so, you may have a lot of questions. Isn’t protein really important? Do plants really contain protein? How much protein do kids actually need? What about the organic vs. conventional question? Why do I see vegetarians who look too skinny? What about dangerous deficiencies? What if my kids hate vegetables? Please see part 2 of this post for answers to these questions and more.