Doctor’s Tip: COVID lessons from The China Study |

Doctor’s Tip: COVID lessons from The China Study

Greg Feinsinger

Nutrition research often involves epidemiologic studies, where scientists look at large populations of people, see what they eat, and determine what diseases they get and what they die from. The China Study was an epidemiologic study that took place in rural China during the 1980s, and is known as “the most comprehensive study of nutrition ever conducted.” T. Colin Campbell, PhD, who is a respected nutrition researcher at Cornell, was the lead scientist, and wrote a book called “The China Study.”

The China Study found that the people in rural China who were too poor to afford to eat animal protein had a low incidence of the chronic diseases that sicken and kill people on a Western diet — which is high in animal products, refined food, sugar, salt and oil. These diseases include obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol, dementia, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, inflammatory diseases, kidney stones, osteoporosis and many cancers.

Dr. Campbell also found that certain groups in the study area had more liver cancer — which is caused by the hepatitis B virus — than others. In a recent talk that was part of this year’s virtual International Conference on Plant-Based Nutrition, Dr. Campbell discussed his work on the hepatitis B virus and liver cancer. By way of review, Dr. Campbell defines viruses as “very small infectious agents made of genetic material (DNA, RNA) enclosed in a coat of protein.” He notes that viruses invade our cells, which enables them to multiply, destroying the infected cells in the process (or in the case of hepatitis B virus resulting in liver cancer). T cells, B cells, and natural killer cells “work together to create immunity (antibodies).” 

Viruses such as hepatitis B are antigens that rev up the immune system, resulting in protective antibodies. Immunizations do the same thing, and there is a vaccine against hepatitis B, which prevents liver cancer. Here’s what Dr. Campbell found about the relationship between nutrition, hepatitis B virus and liver cancer:

  • Animal protein diminished the number of natural killer cells, therefore decreasing immunity.
  • The more whole (unprocessed) plant food people ate, the lower their level of active virus/antigen, and therefore the lower the incidence of liver cancer.
  • The more plant food — especially vegetables — study participants ate, the higher the antibody level and therefore the lower the liver cancer rate.
  • Animal products, on the other hand, increased the level of active hepatitis B virus, the level of hepatitis B antigen, and the incidence of liver cancer.

How does this apply to the current COVID-19 viral pandemic? COVID-19 is new, and studies like the ones Dr. Campbell did on hepatitis B have yet to be done. However, in Dr. Campbell’s opinion, the same principles would apply: More intake of whole plant food results in less COVID viral load/antigen, and higher antibody levels/less severe disease.

And Dr. Campbell notes that there is also a second link between nutrition and COVID infection: People with underlying chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease are more apt to experience severe disease or die from COVID. Older people are also more susceptible to severe COVID disease, at least in part because they are more apt to suffer from these co-morbidities. Several studies have shown that plant-based, whole food nutrition can prevent and reverse these underlying chronic diseases.

Unquestionably, it’s important during this pandemic to avoid the virus by social distancing, wearing a mask, and avoiding other people who aren’t wearing a mask. A safe and effective immunization will also be critical in stopping the pandemic. What’s not talked about much, however, is the relationship of nutrition with COVID disease. Dr. Campbell’s final conclusion for preventing serious COVID illness and death: “(W)holistic Nutrition, with two dietary goals: Consume whole foods and avoid animal-based foods.”

Greg Feinsinger, M.D., is a retired family physician with a special interest in heart disease and diabetes prevention and reversal, ideally though lifestyle changes. He’s available for free, one-hour consultations — call 379-5718.

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