It's Time for an NIH Institute for Nutrition

07/09/2010 08:29 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

By T. Colin Campbell, Professor emeritus of nutritional biochemistry at Cornell University and co-author with his son Thomas Campbell, MD, of "The China Study."

Finally, a long overdue scientific correction is happening. The human genome project is failing to advance the cause of human health, as promised. There is a fundamental but frustratingly and long overlooked reason why this is happening.

Working out the details of the human genome was worth doing, on several accounts: monitoring environmental pollutants, evaluating evolutionary lineages, identifying criminal suspects. But initially promising great advances in human health was not and should not have been one of these promises. Hypothesizing that knowledge of the associations of specific genes with serious diseases like cancer, heart disease and related diseases would lead to great health advances (through drug development) was a superficial and costly oversimplification of disease causation.

Although genes and/or their mutated forms are fundamental to the initiation of all disease events, it is not their mere presence or absence that determines disease outcomes. Genes may start the job but they do not finish it. The far more important question we should ask is: what controls the expression of genes (to produce products, mostly enzymes) that lead to health and disease events? Experimental and extensively published research from my laboratory over several decades has long convinced me that nutrition primarily provides this control. We have failed to acknowledge this question or sought its answer for far too long because we have failed to understand the scientific fundamentals of nutrition. Not one medical school in the nation adequately teaches this science, although a few give it lip service.

Still worse is the failure of federal funding agencies to recognize nutrition as a legitimate medical science. The National Institutes of Health, the most prominent biomedical research institution in the world, since its founding has kept nutrition well hidden. Not one of its 27 institutes and related centers is dedicated to nutrition! Some NIH administrators say nutrition is embedded in other programs but do not be fooled. First, dedicated nutrition funding is meager (less than five percent of the heart and cancer institutes--the two largest). Second, this small amount has been used primarily to study single nutrient effects in randomized clinical trials, a seriously flawed hypothesis.

Nutrition should not to be defined by the effects of isolated nutrients. That's pharmacology, a strategy now known not to work, in spite of the $25 billion or so that we annually spend on nutrient supplements. Unequivocal evidence now exists to show that nutrition, when provided by the use of whole, plant-based foods, can control the expression of our mischievous genes that otherwise would lead to serious ailments such as heart disease, diabetes, certain autoimmune diseases and many lesser ailments. For many years, experimental findings from my laboratory have shown that genetic initiation of cancer (by a powerful chemical carcinogen) can be stalled even reversed by a modest nutritional modification that is consistent with this same whole, plant-based food effect. (This research was funded by NIH because of my interest in cancer but, eventually, we learned that it was the tail, nutrition, that wagged the dog -- cancer.) Physician colleagues of mine, including Drs. Caldwell Esselstyn, Jr., Dean Ornish, Roy Swank and Neal Barnard have now published peer-reviewed findings showing this kind of nutrition not only to prevent serious diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and related ailments but to treat them into remission.

There is no other strategy in contemporary health science or medical practice that comes close to the breadth and depth of health benefits achievable by nutrition. We must begin to understand, communicate and apply this knowledge if we ever hope to reduce health care costs by reducing the burden of disease. We will never do this by depending on outmoded notions of what single (or even a few) genes, single nutrients or single chemicals (i.e., drugs) will do to create health. That thinking generates wealth for a few at the expense of health for the many. It is time to recognize the natural and harmonious biological complexity of health processes, and choose the lifestyle strategy that best maintains and restores that harmony. Nature has had eons of time to work this out. It's also time to develop a professional science of nutrition that serves the biological health of the population, not the economic health of commerce.

As for health professionals who claim they cannot convince patients to change their dietary practices, this is not surprising when the professionals themselves are not educated in this field and are vested in a strategy that is the antithesis of good nutrition. It is time we recognize what nutrition can do and a good place to start is to establish an NIH Institute of Nutrition dedicated for this purpose.

-- The writer is professor emeritus of nutritional biochemistry at Cornell
University. He is co-author with his son Thomas Campbell, MD, of "The China