Tom Campbell, MD, Nutrition Studies


Tom Campbell, MD, Nutrition Studies
tom-campbellIn addition to being executive director of the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies, Dr. Campbell is an instructor of Clinical Family Medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. A board certified family physician, he sees patients part time in an active primary care practice in Rochester, NY.


Caryn Hartglass: Hello everybody, we’re back. It’s Christmas Eve, December 24, 2013, and I really enjoyed just listening to “White Christmas” just now. It took everything I had not to sing along. It was really lovely!

All right, let’s bring on my next guest, Dr. Tom Campbell. He is the executive director of the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies, he’s also an instructor of Clinical Family Medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, a board certified family physician- he sees patients part-time in an active primary care practice in Rochester, New York. Welcome, Dr. Campbell, to It’s All About Food.

Tom Campbell: Well, thank you for having me, Caryn. I appreciate the opportunity.

Caryn Hartglass: Oh, thank you! I’m very excited to talk to you, because I’ve known your father for a very long time and have read about you along the way, and it’s kind of exciting to see the path that you’ve chosen to take.

Tom Campbell: Yeah, I’m excited by it. I’ve sort of followed a path of opportunity that presents itself whenever it pops up, following whatever seems interesting at the time. And here I am now. I certainly wasn’t doing fifteen years ago, or didn’t even think about doing fifteen years ago, but indeed it’s very fascinating to me, very interesting.

Caryn Hartglass: Well, we’re glad to have you doing what you’re doing, and I’m really enjoying to see in this plant based world, this plant-based movement, a few of the dynasties or royal communities are kind of coming out so we have your father, Dr. T Collin Campbell, and yourself, we have Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn and his son Rip Esselstyn, we have John Robbins and Ocean Robbins, Frances Moore Lappé and her daughter Anna Lappé, and there’s a few more probably that I’m leaving out, but very exciting. And so necessary. Now, you were involved with your dad in the China study?

Tom Campbell: Yes, I started working on that in about 2001. He asked if I wanted to help him write the book, and initially I was going to just do some editing, help him sort of shape his voice and his writing, and as we got into it, I took on a much larger role. I did an awful lot of library research, and I did a lot of writing myself. Very intense learning experience for me, and three and a half, four years later we finished a manuscript of the China study, and that really sort of set me on this path that I’m on now, promoting optimal nutrition.

Caryn Hartglass: Now, when you were growing up and your dad was going through a lot of what we read about in the China study, did you know what was going on?

Tom Campbell: You know, I really was not terribly cognizant of his career, his successes, and exactly what he was doing. I remember sort of hearing, there were things that were exciting now and I remember some big magazine coming to take some photos, this was after he was on the National Academy of Science’s diet and cancer committee, and that’s, you know, “Oh, OK, someone taking photos,” and then that was about the amount of time that I spent on it. I think it was probably someone from People Magazine or something, and I just had no idea. And furthermore, as far as food choices went, I really just was eating what was fed to me, like most kids. I didn’t put too much thought into it.

Caryn Hartglass: And, in writing the book, did you change your diet? Or did that come later?

Tom Campbell: I did, I was mostly vegetarian. I was vegetarian from my adolescence, it was a slow transition, but from roughly fourteen, fifteen. Then, when I started writing the book, and by the time I finished the book, gosh, what was that now, ten, eleven years after becoming vegetarian, twelve years after becoming a vegetarian, I gave up dairy food through the process of working with my dad on the China studies. So, as we were writing that, and I became exposed to all that information, I made that decision to give up dairy food.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay, you were on a very different path when you went to college, and then when you wrote this book, in fact I think you were studying to be an actor?

Tom Campbell: Yes, I did training in theater and acting at Cornell University, and then I pursued it professionally for a couple years. Had some jobs, none of them enough to make a living at it, but some money here and there, and I was a paralegal to pay the bills, and then that’s when I had this opportunity to work with my dad on the China study.

Caryn Hartglass: Right, and then you became- you went to medical school and became a doctor. Something every parent wants their child to do. (laughs) And we need more doctors like you. So when you were going through medical school, you already knew a great deal about nutrition. What was going on around you in terms of the knowledge of other people about nutrition and health?

Tom Campbell: Well, you know, it’s unfortunate. It’s been cited many times for many decades, but the amount of formal training in nutrition that gets included in medical school curriculum is very, very small. We had, at my school, which I consider to be a good school, a decent school; we had just a couple days on nutrition as part of the lectures. It was not taught by anyone with any particular great knowledge or interest in nutrition. It focused mostly on the biochemical reactions related to protein metabolism, fat metabolism, etc. There was almost nothing, for example, about how diet interacts with obesity, how diet interacts with diabetes. The sort of public health urgent issues that need to be discussed were simply not taught or discussed in my education. And, I can say that that’s the norm, and that’s been stated as the norm for many decades now. So, I went into this with open eyes. I knew what I was getting into, and I just did the best I could to learn the world of medicine. It takes basically a full-time life commitment for at least seven years to learn all the stuff that you need to know to practice medicine. And you just put your head down, and I did it.

Caryn Hartglass: Sometimes you have to play the game in order to change the game.

Tom Campbell: Right.

Caryn Hartglass: Did you ever stir up any trouble while going through school?

Tom Campbell: No, I didn’t. I think, as a medical student, those first four years in medical school, you’re just absolutely swimming to keep your head above water, and learn everything you need to learn, and to do good on the tests. And then in residency, I went to the University of Rochester Family Medicine Residency program, and they were very supportive in my interest in nutrition and my plant-based message, and the China study, so I actually had the opportunity to give grand rounds at my hospital on a couple of different occasions and gave lectures to my colleagues and that type of thing, so I didn’t cause too much trouble because I tried to do as good a job as I could with the things I was tasked with, and my personal opinion is you don’t cause, in that situation, I wasn’t going to gain much by going out there and ruffling feathers. I just had a lot of stuff to put my head down and do my work.

Caryn Hartglass: And you have a part-time private practice now?

Tom Campbell: Correct, yeah.

Caryn Hartglass: And these people, your patients, do they know what they’re getting when they get you as a doctor?

Tom Campbell: (Laughs)

Caryn Hartglass: I mean, do they seek you out, or do you have some sort of surprised patients like “What? Broccoli?”

Tom Campbell: A few do, yeah. I’m with a university primary care practice, and it’s a new practice that I joined, so we’ve only been open for…gosh, going on six months now, five months. And I’m not advertised as a special nutrition doctor, or lifestyle doctor or anything like that, I’m just a family doc that takes care of belly pain, and older adults, kids, whatever. So, most of the people who come through the door do not know too much about my background or interest in nutrition. You know, I talk to everybody about it. Some of them want to hear more, some don’t, just as you might expect. But it’s always an interesting conversation.

Caryn Hartglass: So you’re not at the point, I remember hearing there were some doctors out there who wouldn’t take patients who smoke that weren’t trying to quit.

Tom Campbell: No, I have no interest in doing something like that. I find that the most, you know, it keeps me from a personal point of view actually; I gain so much by working with “normal” people. (Laughs) It keeps me grounded. It keeps me in touch with how people are living. We take all kinds of insurance, Medicaid, Medicare, and everything in between. So, I see the whole slice of society and it keeps me very grounded with how people are living and how people interact with the environment to either promote health or sickness, and what they know about that. And that’s just incredibly valuable. It keeps that grounding in that real word. I don’t want to exclude people who don’t follow the rules before they walk in the door, so to speak.

Caryn Hartglass: That’s good. And being grounded is really important. I know that when we spend a lot of time in our own community, like when I’m hanging out with all the vegans, you can lose comprehension of what’s really going on outside, and how people struggle with food, with diets, with their lifestyle, children, it’s very complicated and hard.

Tom Campbell: Absolutely. It’s easy to forget that most people have not heard anything about plant-based diets and the health benefits

Caryn Hartglass: It’s so hard to believe!

Tom Campbell: It’s so hard to believe. It’s true. And they have lived their entire lives with this incredibly personal, powerful set of habits. You know, eating, choosing the food that you eat. Challenging someone to think of food differently is a humbling experience, and very valuable to me, and something I cherish.

Caryn Hartglass: Let’s talk about the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies. What’s going on there?

Tom Campbell: Well, we have had a very exciting year. Over the past six months, I just started there about six months ago, as the Executive Director, and we got a Director of Education, our Associate Director all sort of started about six months ago. We have had just a phenomenal year enrolling people. Everybody from health professionals to the lay public who is interested in plant based nutrition in our certificate program. And we offer that in partnership with E-Cornell. A lot of health professionals can now get professional credit for taking that certificate program from a variety of different disciplines. The content is unique, people are excited who have heard something about T. Colin Campbell, or they’ve heard the China study, or maybe they read something about plant-based nutrition, and we really have a very good certificate program, so we’re pushing that. It’s going very well. We also have some new courses in the pipeline that we’re designing and going into the studio to film and write this winter. We changed our name from T. Colin Campbell Foundation to T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies to be a little more descriptive. We also made a new website, we’re putting a lot of content out there on our website. It’s We’re just trying to get bigger, better, more audience, and cater to our audience better.

Caryn Hartglass: Do you think at some point there will be a bachelor’s degree in plant-based studies?

Tom Campbell: That would be great, but not any time in the near-term. I think that online education in general has a lot of structural issues to work out before something like that happens. Obviously there are degree programs out there, graduate degree programs and undergraduate degree programs, but I think for nutrition, that’s not something that we want to offer. There’s just a tremendous value to the years of work that go into a traditional college experience that we’re just not going to replace anytime soon. So, we’re really looking at supplementing a traditional education, and offering something that, quite frankly, you can’t find at a lot of places. A point of view looking at plant based nutrition, and not only plant based nutrition, but asking really important questions like “How do we generate information?” and “Once we get that information, how do we disseminate it to the public?” You know, fundamental system questions that we get a chance to address. So, we’re happy in our little niche, and I think we’ll stay here for a bit longer.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay, and is plant-based certification, is this something people can do online?

Tom Campbell: Yes, it’s an online program. They can do it at their leisure. The details are all on our website, but it’s offered in two-week blocks so people have two weeks to complete the lessons and quizzes and so forth, and there’s three sets of two-week courses. It’s six weeks total, about eighteen hours of instruction along with discussions and quizzes. We have live instructors that answer questions that provoke discussion, provoke thought, that type of thing. It’s all online; it’s through the ECornell platform, which is a very nice system.

Caryn Hartglass: Very good! Well, more people need to be learning about plant-based nutrition. There’s no question about that. And I look forward to it being a requirement in most medical professions and dietitian professions. Now, what do you eat, Dr. Campbell?

Tom Campbell: (Laughs) No one is perfect. I adhere quite strictly to the plant based diet. I eat only plants. I’d say 99%. Occasionally, I slip up and I have a cookie or something, whether it’s a vegan cookie or something with actual butter in it. From a nutritional point of view, it’s probably junk either way. But most of what I eat, it’s fruits, vegetables, whole grains, oats for breakfast, lunch of leftovers which is usually some sort of vegetable casserole with a whole grain, and dinner with vegetables and whole grains and salads. Always trying to get some greens in as well. I try to eat more greens, always trying to eat more greens.

Caryn Hartglass: I’m a big believer in a green-based diet. And, do you have children?

Tom Campbell: No. We don’t. I’m married, but no kids yet.

Caryn Hartglass: So you haven’t dove into the challenge of feeding kids in this world. Which is a big can of worms.

Tom Campbell: It is. As a doctor, I counsel people, but I don’t do it myself quite yet.

Caryn Hartglass: It’s definitely challenging in this world with commercials and peer pressure. It’s really hard to feed kids well. But, more and more people are doing it, and that’s good.

Tom Campbell: I think it’s very important, the examples that you set, the consistency with which you offer any sort of guidance or “rule” or “habit” that you introduce. Consistency is very important. Allowing McDonalds for one week, and then going back and having a salad every night the next week, that’s never going to work. You’ve got to be really quite consistent in a dietary message, and firm, and kids will learn to respect that.

Caryn Hartglass: So, it’s December 24, Christmas Eve, but it’s also the deadline for people who have enrolled in the new Obamacare healthcare market to select their plans. Do you have any feelings about this new insurance program?

Tom Campbell: You know, it’s funny. I don’t know that there’s too many people that feel expert in the new program. And I certainly don’t count myself as feeling expert in the new program.

Caryn Hartglass: I don’t know how anyone could be one; it hasn’t really taken off yet.

Tom Campbell: Exactly. It’s pretty uncommon. My personal sense is that the goals are very good. Our health insurance system is deeply broken. I see people who are absolutely scrambling, bankrupt, have no money for healthcare have to make tough decisions for treatment and seeing doctors, etc. It’s just not working for too large a percentage of our population. The goals of it, to try to correct that, are very good. I do have concerns that the program is in some ways taking our current system and just trying to apply it bigger, more broadly to everyone, when what we really need is a healthcare system that pays and rewards and incentivizes personal preventive care. Personal responsibility for preventive care, and reimbursing preventive care. And lifestyle medicine. Really treating the cause. I don’t know the numbers off the top of my head, but some great majority of our healthcare expense is chronic disease, and largely that’s preventable. And treatable. Now, if you can just treat the cause with lifestyle. Yet, if I see a patient with heart disease, I cannot get paid adequately to sit down with them for an hour. I can’t get paid to take them to the grocery store, and show how to shop for food appropriately.

Caryn Hartglass: There’s something wrong with that picture

Tom Campbell: Someone else could get paid fifty thousand dollars for doing a stint or a bypass. We really need to turn the whole system upside down, and I don’t think the legislation can do that at this point.

Caryn Hartglass: No, but the best health insurance we all have is choosing the right foods to lower our risk of disease. That’s the number one thing we can all do. Well, Dr. Campbell, thank you so much for joining me on “It’s all about food,” and I really enjoyed hearing your story, and I’m glad you’re out there doing what you’re doing.

Tom Campbell: Well, thank you, I appreciate it.

Caryn Hartglass: A very Happy Holidays to you, and say hi to your dad. And your mom, Karen.

Tom Campbell: I will. And he said to say hello, actually.

Caryn Hartglass: Great, thank you. Alright we just a minute left, and I just wanted to say Happy Holidays everyone. Next week I’m going to be taking off, so I won’t be able to say Happy New Year, so I’ll say it now. Happy New Year! This is a time of giving, and I do have a nonprofit: Responsible Eating and Living, and appreciate your support. Go to and go to our donate button, and help us do all the things that we’re doing at REAL. And that’s it! So, very happy holidays and have a delicious end of the year.

Transcribed by Amy Koenig, May 21,2014

  4 comments for “Tom Campbell, MD, Nutrition Studies

  1. Great Interview — Well said Dr. Tom! Thanks for having him on your program REAL. Keep up the great work spreading the word on WholeFood PlantBased lifestyles.

  2. hi how are you? How is it possible for someone to make an appointment?
    Thank you,
    Mrs. Steinberg NC

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *