IF I SAY "vegan rock star," Chrissie Hynde or Moby or Jason Mraz might come to mind. You wouldn't immediately think of T. Colin Campbell, 79, professor emeritus of nutritional biochemistry at Cornell University.
But Campbell's half-century of research in nutrition, hundreds of peer-reviewed papers and a key role in the world's most comprehensive study of health and nutrition, the "China Study," have surely made him a rock star in the plant-eating world.
He summarized that groundbreaking study (which the New York Times called "the Grand Prix of epidemiology") in a 2004 book of the same name, co-authored with his son Thomas. He co-starred in the documentary "Forks Over Knives," and was part of the team that helped Bill Clinton go plant-based. So there's plenty of anticipation for his new book, Whole (BenBella), out this week.
A "whole-foods, plant-based" (Campbell introduced the "WFPB" term at a National Institutes of Health panel in 1978) eating pattern is the most scientifically sound approach for optimum health, he asserts, noting that plants offer unique antioxidant benefits while, conversely, animal protein is associated with a wealth of disease risks.
Campbell wishes that more people understood the basic science showing the WFPB benefit.
"If you took the best of medicine, it cannot match what this can do," he said in a phone interview. (More of that interview here.) He faults an emphasis on reductionism - red wine is good for you in this study, bad for you in another - for sowing nutrition confusion among the public.
Having started his inquiry as a dairy farmer looking to maximize yields, Campbell for many years "worked and researched on a nutrient-by-nutrient basis," but has come to see nutrition as "multiple mechanisms acting in concert."
Far from an animal-rights guy, Campbell went vegan on the basis of the evidence.
With decades of data and food-policy experience under his belt, Campbell speaks candidly and lets the chips fall where they may - even if it's in the compost heap.
Here's his kicker for self-satisfied vegans touting the meat-vs.-plants stuff: The optimal WFPB plan excludes all oil, all added fats.
Come a-whaaaa? Who is this crackpot? French fries? Onion rings? Margarine? "Heart-healthy" olive oil? Zero? Seriously?
Campbell's medical colleague Caldwell Esselstyn succeeded in reversing heart disease in patients with an animal- and oil-free eating plan. This stricter regimen also appears effective at fighting weight gain, diabetes and cancer.
But come on, how can Joe Average live without oily food?
Fortunately, along with Whole, BenBella is releasing The China Study Cookbook, showing how healthy WFPB meals can be delicious and simple to prepare. (Find two quick and easy recipes at phillydailynews.com/features/food/.)
There seems to be an entire spring campaign pushing WFPB, with May also seeing the release of Rip Esselstyn's My Beef With Meat (Grand Central). The younger Esselstyn (Caldwell's son) was an Austin, Texas, firefighter/EMT who got his whole firehouse to go WFPB with terrific results. He's also something of a vegan rock star, and in this book he delivers not just facts about the livestock industry but 140 WFPB recipes.
Probably the most established and popular cookbook chef in this field, though, is Lindsay Nixon, whose Happy Herbivore books have brought the WFPB ethos to millions, with added doses of fun and creativity. She recently released Happy Herbivore Abroad (BenBella) and is now working on her fifth book in the series.
Whole is a welcome volume - a rock-star follow-up that avoids the sophomore slump - but even if you don't want all the backstory, you can start with one of the recipe books and try these healthful dishes for yourself.
You have nothing to lose but your food chains!
V FOR VERBAL: Vegan comedy legend David Steinberg drops by next week: On May 10 and 11, "Might Be Something Big . . . Might Not" plays Bucks County Playhouse, 70 S. Main St., New Hope, $36 and $48, 215-862-2121, bcptheater.org.