Review: BBC's Clean Eating— The Dirty Truth

Published 3.24.2017; reformatted 5.6.2017
On many Fridays, I offer a review of a book or movie that I've read or watched, or sometimes both. This Friday, I am actually giving my thoughts on a BBC television show that included an interview with T Colin Campbell.

Campbell feels hard done by the BBC. He was interviewed by Giles Yeo, a biochemist with a Ph.D., for BBC's Horizon series, which typically investigates (looking to debunk) popular health and fitness claims. The subject of this investigation was "Clean Eating," a category to which many whole foods, plant based (vegan) eaters claim membership.

The intent of the show was to highlight and "test" (though there was actually little testing in the end) the extreme diets that gurus tout (not just vegans) and the bad health effect that they can have on followers. The title of the show, which can be viewed at the link, is “Clean Eating — The Dirty Truth.”

Campbell is always willing to interviewed to spread his version of nutritional truth— that a whole food vegan (though he prefers the phrase "plant based") diet is best for health. However, Campbell was very unhappy with the editing of the show. The following admission is interesting, and I think a result of the previous blowback Campbell has gotten about his claims based on his China Study results.

For further background on the material in the documentary, my research findings (thanks to many graduate students and fellow scholars), gathered during the last six decades shows that 1) being a carnivore is not in our best interest and 2) genes are not the sole determinant of our health. I’ve repeatedly said “the closer we get to a whole food plant-based diet, the healthier we will likely be”, usually with the added caveat that for best results we should avoid added oil/fat (but not necessarily high fat plant based foods).

Also, I have often added that I know of no scientific evidence that proves that all people need to be 100% WFPB all the time. I prefer saying that going 100% is a “goal”, partly because—if done right—I know of no evidence there will be health problems, only health solutions. I also often say that going 100% WFPB without added oil, if continued for 2-3 months, gradually allows us to wean ourselves from our traditionally high dietary fat and sugar addictions. This allows us to enter a new world of dietary experience and exceptional health, where we gradually lose interest in returning to the old dietary lifestyle.

Having watched his presentations and read quite a bit of his online writings (I never did buy his book), I’m calling bullsnot on the bolded bit (which I added). Campbell’s presentations are built around the idea that eating a 100% plant based diet is the best human diet. There are vegans that will insist— in that aggressive vegan way— that Campbell did find all vegan villages in his China Study, and that is false. He did not find any all vegan villages because they don’t exist. A vegan diet is a modern invention, and is only possible because of supplementation and food fortification. I know I write that often here, but I don’t think it can be said too many times.

A vegan diet is a first world diet. Ironically, vegetarianism — which veganism is an offshoot of— is not a first world diet. Vegetarianism requires no supplementation or food fortification, and can be practiced in such as way that no animals are killed. I learned of this video after finding Campbell's response to it. Since he invited readers to view the footage and decide for themselves, I did just that.

The Show

The conceit of the show is to “expose” the clean eating “fad” as being unscientific. He starts with Ella Mills of Deliciously Ella. She now eats a vegan diet and claims that her rare malady was reversed from it. She avoids meat, dairy, gluten and refined sugar. Which cuts out most processed foods, I'm just saying.

Dr Giles Yeo (not an MD) is the host, and he claims to be a scientist. So he’s going after people for their anecdotes— which as someone with a science background I get, but seriously dude, you’re going to complain that people are trying to eat a bit better?

And there it is. At about the 9 minute mark, we come to the gluten free “fad.” However, he goes to Bill Davis of Wheat Belly fame and his grain free (not just gluten grains) nonsense. I’m beginning to see why Campbell is upset. But I’ll wait until I get to his segment before making a judgement.

Rather than gluten, Davis fingers gliadin protein. And Yeo challenges him, and Davis brings up Alessio Fasano and gut permeability. Fasano though is not faddist. And Davis goes beyond what the evidence is. Fasano has shown that gluten is only harmful if you have pre-existing issues — including unbalanced gut microbes, which might entirely explain my own experience. My experience, for those who don't read here often was that avoiding gluten helped me resolve my irritable bowel issues, and now I am able to eat gluten in moderate amounts without issue.

Yeo concludes that Davis has no proof that giving up grains can actually do what he claims. And with that, I think I can guess how Yeo assesses Campbell.

Next up is the alkaline diet. Honestly Healthy for Life by Natasha Corrett, someone whoe was inspired by Robert Young. Ooh, and the line “pharmaceutical companies can’t make money from prescribing vegetables” gets quoted.

Corrett isn't the inventor of the Akaline Diet, that "honor" belongs to Robert Young. Young claims the human body is alkaline in its natural state. He is building on the theories of some guy who was opposite Louis Pasteur as to the genesis of disease. Pasteur says germs, Young says it’s change within the body (cells turn into disease). A wise woman, Natasha Corrett wanted no part of this and declined to comment.

He goes back to Ella Mills. Why did Ella give up meat and dairy? She read the China Study and learned about plant based diets, Campbell says that animal based foods are dangerous.

Yeo is skeptical of advocacy and science together, and he suspects confirmation bias. He thinks that Campbell’s beliefs have colored how he frames his data, rather than letting the data tell the story.

Campbell tells the casein story where his data showed that a diet of 20% casein caused cancer, but a 5% casein diet caused no cancer. But that was in rats, and 5% casein is not zero. What’s the link to humans? Campbell said that’s why China Study was undertaken. The China Study is a population study using … wait for it… food recall surveys. So…

Campbell used cholesterol level as a proxy for meat intake. So higher cholesterol meant (by definition) higher meat intake. Then using the cholesterol levels, he went looking for a third linkage between higher cholesterol with disease. He used cholesterol as a proxy because the evidence from meat intake was far from clear cut. Campbell doesn’t disagree with this assessment— at least in the edit used in the show. Selective editing was one of Campbell's main complaints. Yeo points out that high cholesterol can be caused by more actors than just high meat intake. Genetics plays a role.

“The China Study was not strong enough to make broad conclusions.” That is a Campbell direct quote. But in his book he makes the broad claim that plants are healthy and animal foods are not. There is a scene where Campbell is tap dancing, at least in the edit that the BBC presents. He’s saying that eating more plants shows no harm. Basically, it’s not proven that giving up all meat is healthiest. The Campbell segment ends.

Part of Campbell’s complaint is that an interview with Caldwell Esselstyn was recorded but not used. Campbell was staying at Esselstyn's farm. It’s too bad that they didn’t use the Esselstyn footage— Yeo could have asked him about Pritikin’s protocol, which also clears arteries, and Ornish’s spectrum, which does not require a vegan diet.

In the next scene, Yeo questions Ella Mills again, and she winds up saying that giving up processed foods (which her chosen limitations would necessitate— at least the “traditional” ones, an entire new category of junk foods has arisen from “clean” eating) and eating more vegetables is healthier. Yes, yes it is. But you needn’t give up all animal products to get there. At least Yeo admits that eating more vegetables and cooking from scratch is hard to argue against.
Then we turn to social media effects, but that has nothing to do health effects of eating better. Ella makes the point that it’s not food on social media that makes people go to extremes.

After that we’re going to at what happens when people take the advice of gurus to the extreme, using Robert Young and his unscientific and nonmedical beliefs. So basically Young is a fraud, and is hurting people. Here again, I can understand why Campbell bristled at being associated with this guy. Unless you’re going to make the charge that Campbell is killing people. I don’t quite believe that Young allowed Yeo to come and interview him when he is being sued.

Overall, I think Yeo’s point that Campbell and vegans overstate what the China Study showed is correct. However, I think putting Campbell in the same camp as Robert Young is unwarranted and unfair. Young is actively injuring people. Even Bill Davis, quack that he is, isn’t injuring people. There’s plenty to eat on the planet, even if you avoid all grains. The BBC should know better than to conflate Young with the others.