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Scientists and Researchers of the Whole Food Plant-Based Diet

I’ve always been very interested in nutrition and how it affects our wellbeing, and the more I read up on the subject, the more evidence I found suggesting that ditching animal-derived foods and consuming lots of unprocessed, “whole” plant-based foods can make a drastic change in how we feel and perform. Practice shows that in many cases, low-fat whole-food plant-based (WFPB) diet can even prevent and reverse certain diseases!

In today’s post, I’d like to talk about the scientists and doctors who have been studying nutrition for decades, both in theory and in practice. They were able to determine the goodness of WFPB diet through many years of scientific research and medical practice. Oftentimes, their views on nutrition made them quite unpopular among their more mainstream scientific peers, but that never discouraged them to continue on their own path in search of truth. And truth is exactly what they found – even if it was often the not so popular truth.

If you’ve watched the now famous documentary Forks Over Knives, you should be familiar with the names of T. Colin Campbell, Caldwell Esselstyn, Jr., John McDougall, Neal Barnard, Joel Fuhrman, and Dean Ornish among others. These outstanding scientists and doctors have all arrived at the whole food plant-based dietary goodness from different directions, and all of them ‘practice what they preach’.

In this article, I’d like to focus on the work of T. Colin Campbell, Caldwell Esselstyn, Jr., and John McDougall.

T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D.

T. Colin Campbell has devoted 40+ years of his scientific career to studying nutritional biochemistry. He is a Jacob Gould Schurman Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University. He has authored more than 300 research papers, and was one of the lead scientists in the extensive China-Oxford-Cornell study on diet and disease in 1980s that explored the nutritional influence on cancer, heart and metabolic diseases.

The New York Times has recognized the China study as “The Grand Prix of epidemiology” and “the most comprehensive large study ever undertaken of the relationship between diet and the risk of developing disease”. In 2005, he published a book, The China Study: Startling Implications for Diet, Weight-Loss and Long-Term Health, which he co-wrote with his son. The book is an Amazon bestseller to this day.

In 2013, T. Colin Campbell published his new book, Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition, in which he talks, among other subjects, about the ‘reductionist’ and ‘wholistic’ approaches in science, and why eating ‘whole foods’ is always better for our health than taking handfuls of vitamins.

The T. Colin Campbell Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Ithaca, NY, offers online courses in plant-based nutrition. You can find out more about the work of T. Colin Campbell and his foundation on their website.

What we can learn from him: T. Colin Campbell has discovered in his research that diets high in animal protein can be deadly because of their strong link to the development of cancer and heart disease. Furthermore, he names casein, a protein found in mammals’ milk, “the most significant carcinogen we consume”. In Whole, he explains why the modern-day mainstream health science seems to be stuck in the rut because of its use of reductionist methods in research. Standard American diet high in animal protein, fat, and processed foods, can be one of the main contributors to the development of heart disease, arthritis and cancer.

As long as you consume a variety of whole, minimally processed plant foods every day that deliver plenty of calories, there’s no need to worry about an adequate protein/carb/fat ratio. Our bodies are designed to process real foods and draw from them all macro- and micro-nutrients and minerals much more efficiently than from nutritional supplements such as vitamin pills etc. Dr Campbell suggests that the latter can do more harm in our bodies than good. He makes an exception for vitamin B12 supplementation, adding that we need a very low amount of it (for more information on this, please watch Forks Over Knives: Extended Interviews, available through Forks Over Knives site, and on Netflix.)

Campbell advocates a no-added-oil, whole food plant-based nutritional approach for everyone to prevent and even reverse disease. He has been following this diet since around 1990 and is active in all areas of life at the age of 79.

 Caldwell Esselstyn Jr., M.D.

 Caldwell Esselstyn Jr. is a renowned American cardiologist with almost 40 years of practice at the renowned Cleveland Clinic. He served as the President of the American Association of Endocrine Surgeons in 1991. Doctor Esselstyn is well-known for his long-term study of a group of patients who had previously suffered from severe heart conditions that had to be treated surgically. All of them were prescribed a low-fat plant-based diet, and a miracle happened: within months, their cholesterol levels, chest pain, and blood flow improved dramatically. Dr Esselstyn continued monitoring these patients, and twelve years later, they had no further cardiac events. (For more info, please visit Dr Esselstyn’s site.)

Dr Esselstyn’s dietary approach as well as more details on his study can be followed in his 2007 book, Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease: The Revolutionary, Scientifically Proven, Nutrition-Based Cure. After reading this book, former American president Bill Clinton (who underwent cardiac surgery in 2010) adopted plant-based diet and lost a significant amount of weight and improved his heart health.

What we can learn from him: Do not underestimate the power of plants! From Dr Esselstyn’s experience we can conclude that if we all went on a WFPB diet today, cardiologists along with other doctors would lose their jobs tomorrow! It’s never too late to start on this path: whole foods are the best medicine for human body capable of not just preventing, but also reversing disease. They treat the main cause of disease whereas modern mainstream medicine only focuses on symptoms. Dr Esselstyn and his family have been on a WFPB diet since mid-1980s. His son Rip Esselstyn has been a professional plant-based triathlete, firefighter, and is a well-known advocate for a plant-based lifestyle with his Engine 2 Diet.

 John McDougall, M.D.

 John McDougall is a physician and a nutrition expert, founder and medical director of the McDougall Program based in Santa Rosa, California. During the early years of his career when worked as a medical doctor at the Hamakua Hawaiian sugar plantation, he first noticed the connection between nutrition and health. His older patients who had moved to Hawaii from the Far East were in much better health than their children and grandchildren who had adopted the standard American diet.

In his research, Dr McDougall came to a conclusion that a diet rich in vegetables, starches, grains, legumes, and fruit is optimal for human health. He adopted this way of eating himself in the mid-1970s. Dr McDougall refers to his dietary approach as the starch-based diet and recommends consuming 80 percent carbohydrates, 10 percent protein, and 10 percent fat through a variety of whole food plant-based sources. This plan is often referred to as 801010 diet.

Dr McDougall was one of the first accredited Western medical specialists to propose that there is no need to combine proteins in food to make a ‘complete’ protein. He has published a number of books: the most recent one is called The Starch Solution:Eat the Foods You Love, Regain Your Health, and Lose the Weight for Good!

John McDougall is a very charismatic speaker – a lot of his speeches on health and diet can be found on his site and on YouTube.

When asked whether all those carbs are going to make the followers of his plan diabetic, Dr McDougall points to the entire population of Asia and their consumption of white rice and other grains. According to him, not only are we not going to become ill, we will also greatly improve our health, prevent and reverse disease, and stay active for life. The seemingly low recommended amount of protein should not scare you either (especially if you are athletically active): many athletes have been following Dr McDougall’s plan successfully for years. One of the brightest examples is Ruth Heidrich, Ph.D. Ruth was diagnosed with breast cancer in her late forties, then chose to be a part of Dr McDougall’s forming new study on how a starch-based diet affects people with cancer or former cancer patients. Her tumor was surgically removed, but she never underwent chemotherapy, choosing to test the dietary approach. Remarkably, her cancer never returned, and she continued the starch-based diet for the rest of her life, completing six Ironman triathlons and winning over 900 races from 100-meter dashes to ultramarathons and triathlons. Now in her seventies, Ruth Heidrich continues to race almost every weekend and maintains mostly raw food diet. (This information came from this speech Ruth Heidrich gave at The Vegetarian Society of Hawaii, and her personal site.)

What we can learn from Dr McDougall: don’t be afraid of the starches! As long as they come from whole food plant sources, they can be your best friends in achieving great health. Avoid added fats in form of oil, and don’t fuss over ‘getting enough protein’: plants have plenty of it.

 To conclude this post, I’d like to suggest that you should never be shy to conduct your own research to obtain even more information on WFPB diet. There is much more to be learned about the work of the above mentioned doctors and scientists, and it’s all up for grabs in their books and on their sites!

(Please keep in mind that I am neither a scientist nor a doctor myself, so I don’t intend to make any claims here.  This article is here for informational purpose only. As always, it’s not advisable to make any changes to your diet or lifestyle without consulting your doctor first.)


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Alina Zavatsky - Vegan Runner Eats
Alina first made a switch to a vegan diet in 2013 to optimize her athletic performance as a marathon runner. Eventually she embraced veganism as a way to be kinder to fellow living beings and the environment. Alina hopes that this blog helps its readers on their path to becoming vegan and making this world a better place.