The Scoop on Plant-Based Diets

By Segelken, Roger | Human Ecology, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

The Scoop on Plant-Based Diets


Segelken, Roger, Human Ecology


THE LONG-TERM health benefits to Chinese and other Asian people who have traditionally existed on a primarily plant-based diet might be lost as more people in Asia switch to a Western-style diet that is rich in animal-based foods.

That conclusion is being drawn by some scientists after reviewing results from the latest survey of diets, lifestyles, and disease mortality among Chinese populations-this one comparing current dietary habits in Taiwan and mainland China-and measuring them against a time when fewer meat and dairy products were available in rural China.

Preliminary results of China Study II, the follow-up to the China-Oxford-Cornell Study on Dietary, Lifestyle, and Disease Mortality Characteristics in 65 Rural Chinese Counties, or China Study I, were discussed on June 16 at the Congress of Epidemiology 2001 in Toronto.

"With the new data from mainland China, along with the fascinating new data from Taiwan now in hand, we will have the opportunity to explore dietary and disease mortality trends," says T. Colin Campbell, the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Biochemistry. "We will see how fast dietary changes in rural China--preceded by earlier changes in Taiwan-result in the development of Western diseases."

Some analyses of data from China Study I linked that population's low incidence of such Western health problems as cardiovascular disease, some cancers, obesity, and diabetes to plant-based diets that were low in animal products. China Study I is now regarded as the most comprehensive study of diet, lifestyle, and disease ever completed.

Planned since 1987, China Study II was designed to re-survey the same mainland Chinese population as China Study I, in addition to a few new sites in mainland China and a new population of 16 counties in Taiwan.

Both surveys afford an opportunity to investigate the effect of dietary change from the typical plant-based diet of rural China to a Western-style diet that includes more animal-based foods, as consumed in urban China and in Taiwan. "Even small increases in the consumption of animal-based foods was associated with increased disease risk," Campbell told a symposium at the epidemiology congress, pointing to several statistically significant correlations from the China studies:

* Plasma cholesterol in the 90- 170 milligrams per deciliter range is positively associated with most cancer mortality rates. …

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