Would The China Study Turn You Vegetarian?

“Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.”

– Aaron Levenstein, retired professor

For that matter, would any study turn you vegetarian, or change your diet in any particular way? The China Study came to my attention over dinner with one of my students, her husband, and a friend of mine, after a vegetarian cooking class. She, in particular, has been responsible for me teaching more and more such classes, and has been a steady student for more than a year. The two of them decided to “go vegan”, primarily after reading this book. So, despite setting out with a mindset that it would be highly unlikely that I would ever change to a vegan diet (been there, done that, wasn’t happy) as my sole fare, I wanted to see what the author had to say.

Now first, for anyone who’s spent any time studying nutrition, bluntly, there’s nothing new here. There’s more data, new data, but none of it is really revelatory. The author claims it is, and goes to pains to point out that he’s the only person out there, pretty much, who’s talking about this subject. I think he’s spent too much time in his lab and not enough checking out what’s available on bookshelves, magazine racks, etc.

And, he’s an annoying writer. Really annoying. He repeats phrases and information over and over again, until you begin to feel like a harp seal on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, being clubbed over and over again. By the end of the first couple of chapters the “whole foods, plant based diet” mantra became irritating to the point I was ready to put the book down and forget it. But I forged ahead. And that’s not to say there’s anything wrong with the idea, in fact, it is possible that such a diet actually is better for the average person’s health, and the planet… it’s just annoyingly presented.

My problem, however, with the book is not that. It’s the data used to back up the presentation. Now, I understand that this book was an attempt to distill a massive amount of data into a reasonably readable format for that same average person. There are graphs and tables of numbers, all designed to look very impressive and back up the core point of the book.

But here’s the thing. I’m a numbers person. I was one of those geeky people in high school that everyone liked but was still annoyed by because I did stuff like solve quadratic equations and matrices in my head, corrected teachers who made numerical errors, and never quite learned to keep my mouth shut about it. So numbers tend to catch my eye, particularly when some of them relate to information I already know.

And he misuses them continuously throughout the book. I’m not going to get into a deep analysis of it – there have been articles and blog posts across the internet delving into the same stuff. And responses from he and others to those critiques. And I don’t think he’s making the numbers up, he’s simply picking and choosing things that support his arguments and leaving stuff that doesn’t out.

A couple of things that caught my eye early on – a comparison between fat content in skim, 2%, and whole milk that was just blatantly wrong… unless, of course, you’re considering skim to be truly, completely, skimmed of all fat, which it never really is, and whole milk to still be “full cream” milk, i.e.,, straight out of the cow, not what is sold for whole milk in the supermarkets. When it comes down to it, the milk fat content that most of us get out of the carton for those three types run about .5%, 2%, and 3.5% – not a huge range and certainly not the “0, 28 and 64% of calories from fat” claimed.

He also quoted a nutritional study that I happened to be familiar with that he claimed supported his “whole food plant based diet” plan, but which actually didn’t study vegan diets, not even vegetarian diets, just simply diets that tilted towards more vegetables and fruit and less meat. And, he made the claim that the Chinese rural population that he was studying verified the same information – but then admitted in the endnotes of the book that none of the populations he studied actually had whole food plant based diets (see how annoying that starts to get?), but again, just less meat and more vegetables – primarily for economic reasons. And of course, they work at hard field labor all day, which gee, might just have had an effect on their health as well. (He compared their level of labor to that of office workers in a major city… Really??? On what planet?) In fact, virtually all of his conclusions seem to be extrapolated from the tenuous idea that if a diet that is higher in vegetables and fruits than the “typical Western diet” yields better health, then if you go all the way to vegan, it will be even better – a logical leap that has no evidence to back it up.

And finally, he picked out various national statistics to back up different chapters – Uruguay and Argentina show up in “high incidence of diabetes”, which he immediately equates to the high consumption of beef in both, but doesn’t give any thought, or at least text space, to the fact that both countries have among the highest per capita consumption of refined sugar in the world. And, he conveniently leaves both out of the discussion of “high incidence of heart disease”, since neither country makes it into the top echelon of places that do, and instead picks out countries that happen to have high rates of heart disease and meat consumption. He seems to ignore in the same vein that India, one of the countries with the highest rate of vegetarianism in the world, and the lowest beef consumption, has the highest rate of heart disease of any country in the world. He uses similar stats for cancers, but conveniently doesn’t, other than a couple of truly critical ones, separate out what sort of cancer he’s talking about. Some of the rates and places he uses have got to include things like skin and lung cancers, that likely are not caused by nutritional issues (even if they may be exacerbated by them).

So, that’s enough. It wasn’t a life changing book for me. It was an interesting read, despite the presentation flaws, and it brings up some good points, throughout, that anyone might want to consider to better their diet. But for me, at least, it doesn’t accomplish what the author sets out to have it do. It’s a binary, black and white point of view of how nutrition functions, when the reality, based on pretty much every published study, including the data behind this book itself, is laid out in shades of grey.


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