The China Study Diet Guide: Pros, Cons + What You Can Eat

Scrutinizing Plant-Based Health Claims

The primary goal of the China Study diet plan is to reduce the risk of disease and promote better health by following a specific vegan diet.

Therefore, unlike a fad diet, Dr. Campbell’s China Study diet plan isn’t intended specifically to be a weight loss diet or a short-term diet plan, but healthy eating habits for long-term health using plant-based nutrition.

In this diet guide, we will discuss the principles behind the China Study Diet meal plan, which foods to eat and foods to avoid, and potential China Study Diet benefits and drawbacks.

Let’s jump in!

A variety of healthy fruits, vegetables and grains.

What Is the China Study Diet Plan?

The China Study Diet is a strict plant-based vegan diet adapted from the largest and most comprehensive nutrition research study to date, known as The Cornell China Study.1Campbell, T. Colin., Parpia, B., & Chen, J. (1998). Diet, lifestyle, and the etiology of coronary artery disease: the Cornell China Study. The American Journal of Cardiology82(10), 18–21. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0002-9149(98)00718-8

Although the China Study diet plan is not as popular as it once was, The China Study book by T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D., is one of the best-selling diet books in the world, with total sales close to 2 million copies.

The China Study diet book details the relationship between a higher intake of animal products and various chronic diseases.

It explains how the massive study from which the China Study Diet was designed found that individuals who had a higher intake of animal-based foods had the highest risk of disease while those who ate primarily a plant-based diet had the lowest risk of disease and mortality.

The China Study Diet Cookbook was created by the researcher’s daughter, T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D., who authored The China Study. 

LeAnne Campbell synthesized the findings of her father‘s research and conclusions in The China Study to develop a plant-based diet that offers over 120 vegetarian recipes that are supposed to help improve your health and reduce your risk of disease.

A variety of healthy fruits, vegetables and grains.

What are the Potential Short- and Long-Term Health Implications?

The China Study demonstrated that there is a strong association between consuming more animal products and having a higher risk of disease while consuming more plant-based foods improves overall health.

Therefore, the China Study diet plan is a plant-based diet that removes all animal-based foods from the meal plan.

Leanne Campbell, the author of the China Study diet book, claims that not only will following the China Study diet plan help prevent chronic diseases and promote better health, but it may also even help to reverse current disease states and return you to a state of better health.

Campbell says that the benefits of the China Study diet plan reduce your risk of diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, cancer, multiple sclerosis, kidney stones, autoimmune diseases, macular degeneration, and cognitive dysfunction.

Fresh fruit.

How Do You Follow the China Study Diet Meal Plan?

The China Study diet meal plan focuses on eight different categories of healthy foods that should be part of your everyday diet.

Not only should you try to have foods from all of these categories, but the meal plan recommends having a broad range of foods within each category so that you get the full complement of nutrients and consume all parts of the plant, from the roots to the stems to the leaves to the flowers to the seeds.

For example, one of the China Study diet food groups is fruits.

Instead of having the same type of fruit, such as apples, every day or numerous times per day, you should try to have a swath of different types of fruits, such as berries, citrus, stone fruits like plums and peaches, apples, pears, etc. 

Per the recommendations in the China Study Project, the greater the variety of foods you eat, the better the micronutrients, antioxidants, and phytonutrients you will get in your China Study diet recipes.

Leafy greens.

The China Study diet study principles suggest that having all of the eight categories in your meals and snacks across the day is important because the unique nutritional benefits of China Study diet foods work in concert with one another to support optimal health.

Therefore, neglecting or avoiding certain China Study diet food categories can prevent you from achieving optimal health and may lead to nutritional deficiencies.

What are the Main Principles of The China Study diet?

All of the China Study Diet recipes adhere to three important principles:

China Study Diet Principles

  1. Focus on eating natural, unprocessed, whole food rather than processed food—the more natural state, the better.
  2. Try to obtain your nutrition from real food sources rather than supplements to optimize your health.
  3. Try to have local and organic food whenever possible.
Nuts and seeds.

What Can You Eat On the China Study Meal Plan?

As mentioned, you want to have foods from each of the eight categories on the China Study diet plan every day to get the full complement of all of the nutritious components of plant foods.

Each category of food provides unique nutritional benefits that work together with one another to support optimal health.

The China Study diet food list encourages the consumption of the following foods:

  1. Fruits: Fruits contain vitamin C and other phytochemicals, antioxidants, fiber, vitamins, carbohydrates, and certain minerals.
  2. Leaves: Leaves can be thought of as greens, such as spinach, beet greens, kale, lettuce, etc. Leaves contain antioxidants, fiber, and B vitamins such as folate and iron.
  3. Whole Grains: Whole grains such as wheat, barley, rye, quinoa, whole oats, brown rice, etc., are good sources of complex carbohydrates, fiber, and B vitamins. 
  4. Roots: The China Study diet meal plan encourages the consumption of root vegetables such as carrots, beets, and parsnips and tubers like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and turnips. Roots provide complex carbohydrates and carotenoids like beta carotene, vitamin C, and potassium.
  5. Legumes: Legumes include food such as beans, chickpeas, lentils, soybeans, and peanuts. These are some key plant-based proteins on the China Study diet meal plan. Legumes also provide dietary fiber, iron, and other vitamins and minerals.
  6. Mushrooms: Mushrooms and other fungi provide vitamin D, vitamin C, B vitamins, and fiber.
  7. Nuts and Seeds: The China Study diet fat content is primarily obtained from nuts, seeds, nut oils, seed oils, and nut butter. These foods provide healthy omega-3 and unsaturated fats,  vitamin E, fiber, and protein (when the whole nut or seed is consumed).
  8. Flowers: Flowers such as chamomile and dandelion have antioxidants and phytochemicals to reduce oxidative damage and support immunity.
Mushrooms.

The China Study diet recipes cover all of the meals and snacks.

Ingredients typically found in the China Study diet breakfast include rolled oats, plant milk, flaxseeds, blueberries, bananas, apples, and whole-grain bread.

China Study diet lunch recipes often include salad greens, chickpeas, black beans, hummus or tahini, avocado, tomatoes, broccoli, tempeh, tofu, and miso.

China Study diet dinner recipes have whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, and whole wheat pasta, and vegan protein sources such as tofu, edamame, beans, and lentils, and vegetables such as potatoes, pumpkin, squash, broccoli, leafy greens, carrots, avocados, and asparagus.

There are also spices, sesame seeds, and miso.

There are also China Study diet desserts with walnuts, flaxseed meal, fruits, peanut butter, almonds, and whole grains.

Root vegetables.

Is the China Study Diet Good for Weight Loss and Health?

As a vegan diet, there are several potential China Study diet health benefits, including the following: 

  • Potentially aiding weight loss, as several research studies have found that people who follow a plant-based diet may lose more weight than those following an omnivorous diet.2Huang, R.-Y., Huang, C.-C., Hu, F. B., & Chavarro, J. E. (2016). Vegetarian Diets and Weight Reduction: a Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Journal of General Internal Medicine31(1), 109–116. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11606-015-3390-7
  • Reducing the risk of heart disease.3Tong, T. Y. N., Appleby, P. N., Bradbury, K. E., Perez-Cornago, A., Travis, R. C., Clarke, R., & Key, T. J. (2019). Risks of ischaemic heart disease and stroke in meat eaters, fish eaters, and vegetarians over 18 years of follow-up: results from the prospective EPIC-Oxford study. BMJ366(8212), l4897. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l4897 Observational studies have found that people following a vegan diet may have as much as a 75% lower risk of developing hypertension,4Le, L., & Sabaté, J. (2014). Beyond Meatless, the Health Effects of Vegan Diets: Findings from the Adventist Cohorts. Nutrients6(6), 2131–2147. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu6062131 which is high blood pressure, and a 42% decreased risk of dying from heart disease.5Tuso, P., Ismail, M., Ha, B., & Bartolotto, C. (2013). Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets. The Permanente Journal17(2), 61–66. https://doi.org/10.7812/tpp/12-085
  • Improving markers of health. For example, numerous studies have found that transitioning to a vegan diet improves cholesterol, decreases blood pressure, and lowers the risk of developing heart disease or experiencing a stroke.6Wang, F., Zheng, J., Yang, B., Jiang, J., Fu, Y., & Li, D. (2015). Effects of Vegetarian Diets on Blood Lipids: A Systematic Review and Meta‐Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Journal of the American Heart Association4(10).
  • Reducing the risk of diabetes. For example, studies that have looked at the effects of following a vegetarian or vegan diet have found that these diets decrease the relative risk of developing type two diabetes by about 12%, with an even greater risk reduction seen in those who follow a fully vegan diet.7Lee, Y., & Park, K. (2017). Adherence to a Vegetarian Diet and Diabetes Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Observational Studies. Nutrients9(6), 603. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu9060603.
  • Decreasing HbA1c levels (3-month average of blood sugar readings) more than when eating an omnivorous diet in people who have type 2 diabetes.8Yokoyama, Y., Barnard, N. D., Levin, S. M., & Watanabe, M. (2014). Vegetarian diets and glycemic control in diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Cardiovascular Diagnosis and Therapy4(5), 373–382. https://doi.org/10.3978/j.issn.2223-3652.2014.10.04
  • Reducing the risk of several types of cancer, particularly colorectal cancer.9Orlich, M. J., Singh, P. N., Sabaté, J., Fan, J., Sveen, L., Bennett, H., Knutsen, S. F., Beeson, W. L., Jaceldo-Siegl, K., Butler, T. L., Herring, R. P., & Fraser, G. E. (2015). Vegetarian Dietary Patterns and the Risk of Colorectal Cancers. JAMA Internal Medicine175(5), 767. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.59 This may be because high-fiber diets help promote digestion and support the healthy gut bacteria.

However, just because you are avoiding animal protein and products does not mean that your diet is going to be healthy.10Satija, A., Bhupathiraju, S. N., Spiegelman, D., Chiuve, S. E., Manson, J. E., Willett, W., Rexrode, K. M., Rimm, E. B., & Hu, F. B. (2017). Healthful and Unhealthful Plant-Based Diets and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in U.S. Adults. Journal of the American College of Cardiology70(4), 411–422. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jacc.2017.05.047

A variety of legumes.

As with other vegan diet plans, one of the potential downsides of the China Study diet plan is the risk of nutritional deficiencies, such as vitamin B12, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids.11Fontana, L., Shew, J. L., Holloszy, J. O., & Villareal, D. T. (2005). Low Bone Mass in Subjects on a Long-term Raw Vegetarian Diet. Archives of Internal Medicine165(6), 684. https://doi.org/10.1001/archinte.165.6.684

Studies have found that vegans tend to have lower bone density, and this is likely attributable to the lack of foods with calcium and vitamin D.12Fontana, L., Shew, J. L., Holloszy, J. O., & Villareal, D. T. (2005). Low Bone Mass in Subjects on a Long-term Raw Vegetarian Diet. Archives of Internal Medicine165(6), 684. https://doi.org/10.1001/archinte.165.6.684

‌Moreover, the China Study eating plan discourages the use of dietary supplements.

Given the restrictive nature of the China Study diet meal plan, long-term adherence can be difficult.

Studies suggest that diets that are overly restrictive can be difficult to stick with in the long term if you enjoy animal-based foods, though the China Study eating plan is designed to be a lifestyle diet, not a short-term weight loss plan.13Gibson, A., & Sainsbury, A. (2017). Strategies to Improve Adherence to Dietary Weight Loss Interventions in Research and Real-World Settings. Behavioral Sciences7(4), 44. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs7030044

Overall, the China Study diet foods are healthy, unprocessed, plant-based foods shown to promote health.

However, given the potential risk of developing nutritional deficiencies with a vegan diet plan that is relatively low in fat, you should consider working with a registered dietician or nutritionist to develop the best healthy diet and meal plan for your needs.14R, P., Sj, P., S, R., D, C.-D., & D, L. (2013, February 1). How prevalent is vitamin B(12) deficiency among vegetarians? Nutrition Reviews. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23356638/

A nutritionist taking notes.

References

  • 1
    Campbell, T. Colin., Parpia, B., & Chen, J. (1998). Diet, lifestyle, and the etiology of coronary artery disease: the Cornell China Study. The American Journal of Cardiology82(10), 18–21. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0002-9149(98)00718-8
  • 2
    Huang, R.-Y., Huang, C.-C., Hu, F. B., & Chavarro, J. E. (2016). Vegetarian Diets and Weight Reduction: a Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Journal of General Internal Medicine31(1), 109–116. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11606-015-3390-7
  • 3
    Tong, T. Y. N., Appleby, P. N., Bradbury, K. E., Perez-Cornago, A., Travis, R. C., Clarke, R., & Key, T. J. (2019). Risks of ischaemic heart disease and stroke in meat eaters, fish eaters, and vegetarians over 18 years of follow-up: results from the prospective EPIC-Oxford study. BMJ366(8212), l4897. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l4897
  • 4
    Le, L., & Sabaté, J. (2014). Beyond Meatless, the Health Effects of Vegan Diets: Findings from the Adventist Cohorts. Nutrients6(6), 2131–2147. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu6062131
  • 5
    Tuso, P., Ismail, M., Ha, B., & Bartolotto, C. (2013). Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets. The Permanente Journal17(2), 61–66. https://doi.org/10.7812/tpp/12-085
  • 6
    Wang, F., Zheng, J., Yang, B., Jiang, J., Fu, Y., & Li, D. (2015). Effects of Vegetarian Diets on Blood Lipids: A Systematic Review and Meta‐Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Journal of the American Heart Association4(10).
  • 7
    Lee, Y., & Park, K. (2017). Adherence to a Vegetarian Diet and Diabetes Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Observational Studies. Nutrients9(6), 603. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu9060603
  • 8
    Yokoyama, Y., Barnard, N. D., Levin, S. M., & Watanabe, M. (2014). Vegetarian diets and glycemic control in diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Cardiovascular Diagnosis and Therapy4(5), 373–382. https://doi.org/10.3978/j.issn.2223-3652.2014.10.04
  • 9
    Orlich, M. J., Singh, P. N., Sabaté, J., Fan, J., Sveen, L., Bennett, H., Knutsen, S. F., Beeson, W. L., Jaceldo-Siegl, K., Butler, T. L., Herring, R. P., & Fraser, G. E. (2015). Vegetarian Dietary Patterns and the Risk of Colorectal Cancers. JAMA Internal Medicine175(5), 767. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.59
  • 10
    Satija, A., Bhupathiraju, S. N., Spiegelman, D., Chiuve, S. E., Manson, J. E., Willett, W., Rexrode, K. M., Rimm, E. B., & Hu, F. B. (2017). Healthful and Unhealthful Plant-Based Diets and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in U.S. Adults. Journal of the American College of Cardiology70(4), 411–422. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jacc.2017.05.047
  • 11
    Fontana, L., Shew, J. L., Holloszy, J. O., & Villareal, D. T. (2005). Low Bone Mass in Subjects on a Long-term Raw Vegetarian Diet. Archives of Internal Medicine165(6), 684. https://doi.org/10.1001/archinte.165.6.684
  • 12
    Fontana, L., Shew, J. L., Holloszy, J. O., & Villareal, D. T. (2005). Low Bone Mass in Subjects on a Long-term Raw Vegetarian Diet. Archives of Internal Medicine165(6), 684. https://doi.org/10.1001/archinte.165.6.684
  • 13
    Gibson, A., & Sainsbury, A. (2017). Strategies to Improve Adherence to Dietary Weight Loss Interventions in Research and Real-World Settings. Behavioral Sciences7(4), 44. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs7030044
  • 14
    R, P., Sj, P., S, R., D, C.-D., & D, L. (2013, February 1). How prevalent is vitamin B(12) deficiency among vegetarians? Nutrition Reviews. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23356638/
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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