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Dr. Mercola attacks the China Study: clash of the titans

Robyn Openshaw - Sep 09, 2010 - This Post May Contain Affiliate Links

When Joe Mercola contradicts the basics of nutrition taught on and in my books, we get hundreds of emails.

Mercola’s newsletter yesterday supposedly exposes the “DARK SIDE” of the China Study. I’m not going to link to it and therefore give it a higher page rank. It doesn’t deserve it.

Before undertaking to explain what’s radically wrong with this article, let me say this: I agree with Mercola on some macro issues:

  1. That prevention and natural remedies are the best first-line treatments, rather than drug/surgery medical interventions.
  2. That far too much of our data comes from research that drug companies and agribusiness paid for.
  3. That sugar and processed foods are killing us. (Mercola implies, with the “false dilemma” logical fallacy, in yesterday’s newsletter that either animal proteins are killing us, or processed foods are, as if they are mutually exclusive.)

But we must use critical thinking skills to expose fatal flaws in his comments about Dr. T. Colin Campbell and the China Study.

(When you put yourself in the public domain, you invite dissent. Juxtaposition of ideas creates a climate for the truth to emerge.)

As I strongly disagree with Mercola here, I will invariably get some angry email. Most readers will appreciate that my only motive is to learn and then explain the truth (or as close as I can get to it) in this world of nutrition that has so many competing voices.

My own 12 Steps to Whole Foods is a compendium of the best nutrition practices. It advocates for eating much more plant food (especially raw food) than the average American gets and is a practical HOW-TO guide, more than a philosophical debate or meta-review of research. It purposefully doesn’t advocate for vegetarianism or veganism, although I am supportive of others who choose to wear those labels. My own family, except for two vegetarian daughters, eats a bit of homemade kefir, and occasional animal products when we are away from home.

Mercola attempts to discredit the joint effort of Oxford and Cornell Universities by calling theirs an “observational” study, which he infers is somehow inferior to having once had a medical practice.

The Oxford/Cornell China study is a very sound, huge, comprehensive study spanning over 25 years. My own advanced degree, background in research, and understanding of research principles, lead me to say this:

I am thankful, finally, for a vast piece of research in epidemiology that was not funded or influenced by the drug companies or agribusiness (which primarily hawks refined corn/wheat/soy products and processed and refined and GMO foods). I see no conflicts of interest in the Oxford/Cornell research. I see one of the purest voices in nutrition in Campbell and his team.

I interviewed him by phone as I wrote this, and he said, “I feel personally responsible to Americans to tell them what we did with their money,” because taxpayers funded the China study, not profit-motivated industries.

The research was the next natural step from methodical and rigorous animal studies. It’s a remarkable piece of research examining 6,500 adults in 130 villages of rural China where some populations eat lots of animal protein, and others eat very little. The book The China Study represents the totality of Campbell’s experiences. Those include his many years of work in the Philippines studying malnourished children, to his experimental lab research funded by the National Institutes of Health, to the human studies project in China.

Mercola refers to Campbell “forcing” everyone into vegetarianism. This makes no sense on two levels beyond the unilateral emotionalism of the word.

First, the two diets Campbell studied were 20% animal protein (which correlates to the Standard American Diet) and 5% animal protein. Neither groups studied were vegetarian. The 5% group correlates to a low-animal-protein diet, similar to Daniel’s Biblical diet, as well as the scriptural “Word of Wisdom” counsel to eat meat “sparingly, only in times of winter/famine/cold.”

Second, Campbell takes the tone of scientist. He reports and interprets the data. He doesn’t “force” or even recommend any specific diet. He allows the reader to infer from the data whatever diet they choose to follow. He isn’t an internet maven selling a philosophy; he’s a researcher who found the opposite of what he expected to. He grew up on a dairy cattle farm and thought, well into adulthood, that a high-protein diet was ideal. Like John Robbins, son of the Baskin Robbins founder, only data convinced him otherwise. I personally am thankful for honest and pure truth seekers, willing to turn another way, when data challenges popular culture and custom.

Mercola attempts to downgrade the massive China project as “an observational study,” which he says does not “prove causation.” This is puzzling to me based on a three logic flaws.

First, Campbell is a scientist and would never say his study “proves causation.” No scientist would. I’m not a scientist but know enough about it to be aware you never achieve or claim “proof of causation.” Mercola gives a two-sentence primer on how the scientific process works: initial study, hypothesis, controlled trial. Which is precisely what Campbell and the research team did:

For the rest of this report, click here.

Posted in: 12 Steps To Whole Food, Lifestyle, Whole Food

18 thoughts on “Dr. Mercola attacks the China Study: clash of the titans”

Leave a Comment
  1. Anonymous says:

    Message received through email:

    Thank you for your wonderful blog. I’m always curious about studies and discussions about health and have a girlfriend who is always keeping me on my toes about new information about health studies. My interest was definitely peaked about this particular subject and I couldn’t help but want to read the China Study for myself.

    I went ahead and picked up the book and have started reading it. So far I’m about 100 pages in and I am very interested in what I am seeing. Campbell has only just began to embark on his study in China but so far the research on the rats has my interest peaked. I’m a pretty opened minded person but I also require facts and this research so far is full of them. I have not looked at the Joe Mercola contradictions because you did a pretty decent job of debunking his claims mostly because he doesn’t give enough supporting information to back his.

    I did happen to come across a different site (when I was looking for information about the movie adaption) that was also similarly adamant about debunking Camplbell’s claims. The blog post was from a guy named Tom Naughton on a site for a movie called Fat Head which based on the pictures and the blog seems to support a diet high in meat consumption, link here.

    Regardless his claims seem pretty biased and based on personal experience with his diet (as well as he states he never read the book and never will) but he also links to a article written by Denise Minger who supposedly takes all of Campbell’s data and critiques it using her high comprehension of math and deductive reasoning and apparently finds a lot of flaws in his findings and research. I have not read it myself because I would like to read the book first and make my own conclusions before delving into a deep critique of it by someone else. I thought you might be curious to read its claims to have combed over the facts and finding flaws. Tom seems to think no intelligent Vegan will read this critique and I would like to prove him wrong having someone like you read it and comment on her findings. If you have time to check it out I would love to read what your impressions are. I’m also very interested in checking out the movie adaption of The China Study if you can keep us posted.

    Thanks again for sharing your wonderful insight, honest, intelligent opinion and personal experience with the world. I’m always working to better my life through diet and excercise and even though I sometimes struggle with the everyday roller coaster of life its always great to find guidance and support from caring people like yourself.



  2. Anonymous says:

    Message received through email:

    Did you even read his article? He clearly states that this diet is good for SOME people, but not ALL people. It depends on your Nutritional Type. All people are NOT the same. There is strong evidence that many people fare very poorly on a vegan/vegetarian diet. You can’t just turn a blind eye to that in order to promote your own agenda, which is selling books and products. That is totally unethical.


  3. Anonymous says:

    Message received through email:

    Dear Robin,

    Thank you so much for this intelligently written response to Dr. Mecola’s article. You made SO much sense! While I do admire Dr. Mercola and agree with many of his ideas, I have been highly skeptical as of late of many of the things he has written, and you very articulately gave me a voice as to why. I agree with all your points (I read the entire report) and you make good sense and are far more logical in my opinion. I, too, feel much, much better when my diet consists of almost entirely fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. I have more energy and vitality.

    Thanks for your well thought out comments. I look forward to more of your newsletters.



  4. Anonymous says:

    Message received through email:

    Dear Robyn,

    I want to respond to your message here as relates to The China Study and
    Dr. Mercola. Generally, Dr. Mercola is well respected in the health food
    industry, however I think his analysis here is flawed. He is correct that

    The China Study is an observational study, but so are many studies. It is a
    very extensive, well designed study done by a top notch team of researchers
    over many years. They studied 6500 people over diverse parts of China and
    came up with over 8000 statistically significant associations between
    lifestyle, diet and disease.

    I do think he may have generalized a little
    far from the associations found with casein, the major milk protein, and all
    protein. Nevertheless, it is hard to ignore the results of this study and
    the associations between high protein diet and diseases ranging from cancers
    to a wide range of autoimmune diseases.

    I also found Dr. Mercola’s
    experience of moving some fruit into his breakfast and supposedly that
    causing him to have triglyceride levels of 3000 a little hard to believe. I
    have done hundreds of lipid panels and have never seen a triglyceride level
    even remotely close to that, not that it couldn’t happen.

    There may be familial illness in his case but even those people generally don’t have
    levels approaching that. Another point is that high protein, meat based
    diets have for the most part been shown to be often quite harmful. Even the
    American Heart Association agrees with that. Dr. Atkins would probably also
    agree if he were still alive.

    I do agree that one needs to listen to one’s body, but people are often
    fooled due to the very strong addictive qualities of our modern food
    industry. A great resource for that is Dr. Kessler’s book, “The End of
    Overeating”. People are very fooled into what they think they need and
    want, food-wise. Dr. Mercola’s Nutritional Typing test asks a series of
    food preferences and how people feel with various food selections. How can
    one answer those questions realistically if they have no concept what true
    organic food is and how it operates in the body? Of course, more people are
    going to associate with the higher protein diets, that is what they have
    been eating all their lives and that is what they think they need and feel
    best on. They have never been detoxified from those foods and been in touch
    with what they could feel like if they only knew.

    Keep up your good work Robyn!

    Tim M., M.D., Ph.D.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Message received through email:

    Thanks Robyn!! I appreciate your factual argument. I read the China Study and it changed forever the way our family eats. I understand that you do not think soy is good for us, however I did not get that impression from reading the China Study. Do you think it is OK when it is non-gmo, and minimally processed?


    1. Robyn Openshaw says:

      Stephanie, in whole-food forms, soy is not bad food. The only problem with soy is how omnipresent in the food supply it is (bags, boxes, cans–bread, soups, salad dressings, protein products, health-food store bulk bins) . . . far too many estrogens. If you are MAKING virtually all your food, some non-GMO soy shouldn’t be a problem at all!

  6. Anonymous says:

    Message received through email:

    Hi Robyn,
    I don’t ususally bother to respond to these kinds of things but today I could absolutely not resist.
    I’m going to give you the “cliff notes” version of what I’d like to say.

    I was diagnosed with cancer almost two years ago. I ended up in Germany (no insurance here) for treatment and part of that treatment was traditional and part alternative.

    I survived the cancer and the treatments and I’m now healthier than I’ve been in many years.
    Why ? I took my bodies condition into my own hands and studied the problem, studied the various viable (to me) solutons and went for it. I managed my treatment(s), I determined what would be done – and not done and I survived. I have since gone about rebuilding my body to it’s current healthy state in much the same way.

    Before I go any fiurther I want to state here that a very wise physician whom I was wroking with some years ago taught me that what we do NOT put into our bodies is more important than what we DO put into them. Meaning that a clean, simple nutritious diet is far more beneficial than one that is full of aditives, extras, refined stuff, and even herbs, vitamins and all manner of “supplements”. Simple food – end of story. Unfortunately I didn’t heed his advice at the time – hence the cancer – but I never forgot it.

    When I was in Germany one of the alternative practitioners advised me to cut way back on the amounts of supplements that I had been taking. He said that Americans take way too much of the stuff and depend too heavily on it to maintain their health – another spin on the keep it simple philosophy.

    The nutrition program I adopted to build and maintain my health is the protocol developed by a German physicist named Johanna Budwig. She successfully treated cancer patients for decades. Her program made sense to me and has proved to agree with my body. Also it beautifully adapts to the Green Smoothie philosophy.

    I guess my point here is this. I believe that each of us must study, gather information, experiment and make decisions based upon our individual physiologies as to the optimum (and unique for each of us) approach to health.

    If we throw ourselves into the hands of anyone “out there” we’re asking for trouble. The claims made by many of the “guru’s” out there are so bogus I can hardly believe anyone would swallow any of it (pun intended).

    On top of all that – you Robyn have recent imperical evidence as to the benefits of your program in the form of a house full of healthy kids ! Who could argue with that ?

    Personally I’ve thought for a long time that many of the self procalimed “experts” out there have been bitten by the money bug and that’s really all they are about. All of their “studies” are slanted to sell their pills and tinctures – just like the drug companies. Sigh.

    Make me a smoothie please – I’m going to listen to my body and my body LOVES those green smoothies !

    Don’t pay any attention to the nay sayers Robyn. Don’t give them a moment of your attention. We all know what their agandas are. Well, many of us do and more are waking up every day thanks to folks like you. New thinking isn’t new at all.

    I think it was Louis Pasteur who had to campaign hard to get surgeons to wash their hands only about a hundred twenty five years ago. A quote of his: “I am utterly convinced that Science and Peace will triumph over Ignorance and War, that nations will eventually unite not to destroy but to edify, and that the future will belong to those who have done the most for the sake of suffering humanity.”

    So – we’re still a work in progress – we’re still waiting on some of his predictions to come to pass – but let’s not give up.

    Keep fighting the good fight Robyn. You are in very good company.
    Always grateful for you and your efforts, Kayt C

  7. Anonymous says:

    Message received through email:

    You are mistaken about the China Study by Campbell. He is a hard core vegan and PETA member and hardly an unbiased objective source. Although I agree that it is best to eat a primarily raw high vegetable content diet, Campbell’s conclusions are biased and not valid. Just because something is popular does not make it true. Casein is demonstrated to cause increases in cancer when they are a large percentage of the diet. He erroneously concludes/extrapolates that any animal protein is the problem, (which is not supported by the data) but conveniently for his predetermined conclusion, plant protein is safe. You should check out David Getoff’s (certified nutritionist and naturopath) video on nutrition as it makes the best recommendations on diet I have seen to date, including healthy oils, vegetables, juicing, healthy proteins like organic free range eggs, antibiotic and hormone free grass fed beef, lamb, bison, Alaskan salmon all cooked as little as possible. There is something that occurs in vegans called failure to thrive. As vegetarianism is usually beneficial to most that try it for a while eventually failure to thrive occurs. There are no multigenerational (3 generations or more) healthy vegans anywhere. Nutrition and Physical Degeneration By Weston A. Price is also an excellent book based on many years of research on societies that have no health issues due to being isolated from modern processed foods. None of them are vegan. I appreciate that you are running a business and promote raw vegetarian foods for health. However exclusive veganism long term will not lead to thriving. I would recommend that you stay out of any public argument or comments on the validity of The China Study.


    1. Robyn Openshaw says:

      Dear Michael, please read my writings. On this blog. In my newsletters. Nowhere have I advocated for “exclusive veganism,” and in fact very clearly and specifically and repeatedly I avoid that.

      And Campbell joined the vegans only after research led him there. He was raised on a dairy farm with lots of animal products.


  8. Anonymous says:

    Message received through email:

    Dear Robyn as someone who has utilized Mercola’s intenseive diagnostics program twice in the last 10 years, practiced raw and semi raw veganism for 10 years after experimenting for 30 years. I can say YOU ARE BOTH RIGHT! we are omnivoris. Amazing human bodies capable of living off of most of good and bad nutrition. Mercola and his staff are mostly raw paleos. His comments were, we never achieved this level of health until we consumed animal protein raw. After selling 2 cases of Colin’s book in my store my comment to Mercola would be, ” you never gave a balanced raw or semi-raw vegan diet the chance to show you the amazing gift it truly is”. Keep up the good work, waste little time with the nay sayers. Mercola is also in the business of healing as we know the forests, praries, ocean, and produce department hold the key to long term health and vitality. Blessigs Rich

  9. Anonymous says:

    Message received through email:

    Dear Robyn,

    I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your rebuttal to Mercola’s condemnation of The China Study and all things vegetarian!

    I’m a 67 year old guy who was introduced to the Natural Hygiene system of health care in 1976. That same year I adopted the Natural Hygiene lifestyle to the best of my ability, became a vegetarian, and quit using doctors and their drugs. That’s the year I discovered what being healthy is really all about!

    Mercola claims he tried the Fit For Life diet (which is based on Natural Hygiene) and suffered terrible consequences, saying he’d be DEAD now if he had continued on with it. BALDERDASH!!!

    I can say the exact opposite: if I had NOT followed the principles of Natural Hygiene and stuck with it (even though I fell off the Natural Hygiene wagon many times while trying to overcome some long-standing bad habits), I would be dead now! Through becoming a vegetarian, eating a raw diet and fasting, my body was able to heal itself from chronic ulcerative colitis. No medical doctors, no drugs, and no removal of the large intestine were needed! That was almost 30 years ago, and no sign of colitis has ever resurfaced. I also overcame the eczema I’d had since childhood.

    The Fit For Life book was (and probably still is) the all-time best selling book of its kind. Over the years, I’ve heard and read testimonies from so many people, attributing their health and recovery from disease to the principles laid down in that book. If Mercola were right in his assertion that it’s such a dangerous “diet”, how is it that all those people, including myself, are still alive and thriving?? How is it possible that sick people regained their health with it, while it was “killing” Mercola??

    Mercola admits he was wrong when he was following and practicing conventional medicine. I’ve got news for him: he’s wrong now about The China Study and vegetarianism, and in spite of all his “fame and celebrity”, the man still has a lot to learn.

    Best wishes to you, Robyn … keep up the excellent work!



  10. Anonymous says:

    Message received through email:

    Dr. Mercola protrays himself to be an honest researcher and in his mind this is probably true. However, his basis for rejecting the information on the China study calls into question his ablilities to do anything but discuss his own intuition. He rejection is anecdodally based on his own experience of eating “only fruit” in the morning. This is hardly the diet advised by you or in the China study or by your information. In addition he rejects the research done by others in the book such as Pritikin, Ornish, McDougal, and countless others. Mercola is no titan.


  11. Anonymous says:

    Message received through email:

    The primary question for me is this. Is the food clean? China is heavily polluted & has taken over Western practices of using pesticides & who knows what else. Is it meat or the poisons in the meat that make the difference. Weston Price’s research indicated that all of the healthy natives he studied around the world all had animal fats in their diets.

    Any comments?


  12. Robyn Openshaw says:

    Received from LIZ, who could not get her comment to post:

    Hi Robyn,

    I had to doublecheck after you brought up Pottenger’s cats, but did verify that the diet they were fed wasn’t SAD –

    instead, Pottenger ended up finding differences between the cats that were fed raw versus cooked/pasteurized (referred to as processed in the link below) foods, which consisted of cod liver oil, meat, and milk. The interesting conclusion wasn’t in regards to the quantity of meat, but rather whether the meat and dairy had been cooked/pasteurized. The cats who ate the heated foods ended up with the serious health problems, starting with the 1st generation and continuing and progressively deteriorating through the 4th generation of cats.

    WAPFers and others (?) use this study as support for human consumption of raw milk (as opposed to pasteurized milk), and while feline dietary needs are different from human dietary needs, it is interesting to note that throughout the world, indigenous cultures have experienced excellent health consuming raw milk and meats from animals living healthy lifestyles (i.e., not commercially raised), although significantly more cultures consumed the latter than the former. 2 additional points – almost every indigenous culture in the world consumes some part of their animal protein raw, as raw meat contains vital nutrients that are lost during cooking (I think B vitamins maybe?).

    Additionally, different cultures thrive on different quantities of animal protein – dictated by what options are available to them (for example,a large majority of the indigenous Alaskan Eskimo diet was animal protein and fat).

    To me, the issue seems to be quality – this applies to all food sources, but seems to be particularly important when considering meat sources. The quantity of meat is whatever is necessary to maintain good health, and this may vary from person to person, and again I don’t feel this is always evident in the short term. I don’t necessarily subscribe to Mercola’s food type, I haven’t even read it. I am suspicious of food fads, however, which I think it would be hard to argue that the raw food movement isn’t a fad at this point –

    I don’t mean to ruffle any feathers by this statement, just that the raw, vegan diet is very popular, and I don’t know of any solid evidence (i.e., the health of cultures that have been practicing this diet for hundreds of years) that can prove that this type of eating has excellent short term and long term health benefits, through multiple generations.

    Perhaps if I dug into Weston Price information I could find a culture that ate mostly raw, and while Robyn I hear you that you aren’t advocating true vegan, which sets you probably a bit apart from most raw foodists, I still am hesitant to feel comfortable with a 5% meat recommendation as a one size fits all for every population. I think this could be particularly inappropriate for expecting and nursing mothers, but everyone needs to do their own research.

    I realize I have included all sorts of “information” in here that I didn’t cite – sorry, I don’t normally post to blogs just because of time, but this is a topic I am really passionate about, and I am, again, really, really worried about the reproductive health of our generation and our children’s generation. Robyn – I agree, I am also worried about overconsumption of meat, and how that relates to reproductive health, but I guess to me it is primarily an issue of quality again. We can’t expect to have good health, or good health for our children, if the animals we consume had poor health and poor living conditions.

    Robyn, I am really interested to know if you have dug into Weston Price – his studies were latitudinal (studying many different cultures, worldwide), rather than the China Study’s longitudinal, however it is important to note that the cultures Weston Price studied, were indigenous, and had eaten basically the same diet for hundreds, if not thousands of years. And interestingly, the animal protein varied between cultures, based on what was available (back then, for those cultures, the quality was not an issue). Weston Price looked for different aspects to determine health, and always came to the same conclusion. We all agree about the processed foods – the SAD is bad for everyone. But he also found that some portion of the diet HAD to include some sort of animal protein – fish, meat, cheese, bugs, grasshoppers, slugs – or individuals would suffer a variety of health problems (including reproductive).

    Sorry for rambling on and on, again, but this topic is so important.

    Blessings to all.

  13. Robyn Openshaw says:

    Liz, I will have to talk about WAPF another time rather than burying it here. But yes, Pottenger’s studies are very old and weren’t “SAD” at least how we know it here–I should have said COOKED and RAW.

    (I blogged about this study quite a long time ago, if anyone cares to search for it.)

    I don’t necessarily think 5% animal protein is a one-size-fits-all for everyone. But those who ate this much lower animal-protein diet were much healthier than those who ate 20%.

    Quality has to be part of it. There’s a huge difference between range fed, truly organic chickens or eggs, and a chicken nugget!

  14. Anonymous says:

    The China Study IS flawed, and another poster has provided the link to Denise’s critique, so I don’t need to. There is no one way of eating that works for everyone. DH & I have read the Metabolic typing book and it is the one that makes the most sense to us. I happen to be a protein type, as I thrive on proteins and he is a carbo type. We eat as raw as possible, have a medium garden this year, which will expand next year and perhaps some chickens can be added; we use raw meats from quality vendors at our local farmers market and we pay attention to the quality of the veggies we buy – we go for local and organic as much as possible. There is no one size fits all diet – we come from many cultures in this country, and all those cultures developed dietary regimes built on what was available over time in their area. That is why the metabolic typing made sense to us, as it takes into account ones background and is working very well for both of us.

  15. Ricard, you nailed it, I agree that Mercola is saying choose what works for your body. I tried a 100% RAW diet, I looked pregnant, my body could not break down all of the raw food nor absorb the nutrients, it was not working. I have to do what I call RAW fusion and I love it! Also, Robyn since we are on the subject of Mercola what is your stance on agave aka HFCS and alkaline water being over rated, I am so confused?

    1. Robyn Openshaw says:

      Alisha, I addressed Mercola’s agave comments on this blog several months ago, and the blog is searchable.

      As for the alkaline water newsletter he just sent, I have a response written, so watch the blog. I am fact checking with a couple of experts. Thanks for your patience, but I will address it.

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