Forks Over Knives: Is Eating Meat the Cause of Heart Disease and Cancer?

Forks Over Knives seeks to make the case that animal products are the root of all of the Western world’s health problems, and, backed up by quoted studies, compelling doctors, anecdotal stories of dramatic plant diet-based health recoveries, and fancy – if simplistic – animations that show plants cleaning out our arteries – the documentary just may be the Inconvenient Truth of the digestive system. And like the Al Gore’s movie about global warming, Forks Over Knives squeezes a scientific topic that some very smart people have spent their entire lives studying into an easy-to-stomach, 90-minute form. Which means you come out convinced of its premise, if a little wary of swallow the entire argument whole.

We start where any doc about health that is trying to scare you into better habits should start: with shots of shirtless pasty middle-aged white guys getting physicals. One of those patients is filmmaker Lee Fulkerson, who, after discovering his own high cholesterol and high blood pressure, decided to treat it not with drugs, but with a “whole foods plant-based diet.” It is a dietary strategy that surely makes one Austin-based grocer happy. But regardless, there is a certain common sense to the plan. Meat, cows milk, and eggs break down our cell walls and produce plaque, we are told. Green veggies remove plaque and repair our veins and arteries.

Not convinced? Fulkerson speaks with Drs. T. Colin Campbell and Caldwell Esselstyn, both of whom have spent their careers researching the nutritional benefits of green diets. Their efforts have examined dietary and disease trends in China and produced clinical studies where victims of cancer and heart disease have seen drastic remediation when treated not with drugs but with a balanced diet. Here I’m a slightly biased viewer. My mother-in-law had breast cancer and she tried a similar diet plan. It is probably impossible to conclusively prove that it was the organic greens that did it, but she beat the cancer.

That’s one of the problems with Forks Over Knives’ argument: there is likely little hope a clear objective answer. Despite the doctors’ passion and findings, official medical bodies are reluctant to promote a line of thinking that suggests we wean off drugs and just turn to healthy food. In one interview with a health official with the Department of Agriculture, the federally-employed doctor makes a compelling argument, saying that while there may be be financial conflicts of interest underlining some of our nation’s nutritional policies, all scientists possess some element of personal conflict with their research, namely, they have dedicated their entire lives to their position.

But at the end of it all, Forks Over Knives argument makes a lot of sense. Fast food can’t be good for us, and healthier nutritional habits will likely greatly improve health – and may help prevent the big killers (cancer and heart disease). So why not give it a try? My problem with the documentary is where it crosses into puritanical proselytizing about the value of a vegan lifestyle. Here food becomes something unappetizingly pragmatic, and elements of what eating means to a society – from cultural to religious to familial – are downplayed. To put it in other terms, I’m all about eating less meat, but as we know too well in Texas, there is something about the experience of smoking a hunk of meat for 9 hours while family and friends pack the backyard waiting for a summer feast. Sometimes food plays a role in overall human well-being that makes it hard to justify giving up eating animals all together.


  • Shaun

    ahhh man, You ALLLLLLLMOST had an completely intelligent article. Really, blew it at the finish line.

  • RuthAnn Funderburk

    I agree with Shaun …

  • Sorry to see the last sentence too. Cultures do evolve and this movie points out that now would be a good time to gather the family around some tasty grilled veggies, fresh fruit and a big salad. Really – it can be done! I recently converted to veganism along with my husband and we still have a social life. Some of the best food get togethers are with fellow vegans. No smoking hunks of artery clogging meat in sight and everyone leaves full and satisfied.

  • The last bit is indeed disappointing but I am glad you wrote the article.. I agree with the others. You should next read Jonathan Safran Foer ‘s book Eating Animals, because it speaks to folks who have deep emotional attachments & are hung up about the rituals and traditions surrounding food (he is candid about his own – afraid that by going vegan he was rejecting his grandma’s matzo ball soup with chicken in it.) . Foer posits that we can make new traditions and rituals that still honor the past. Attachments can shift and should evolve, especially if there might be even more joy waiting around the corner. i.e. you can still have that family picnic day, but instead of feeding your family and friends something that might be clogging their arteries or encouraging cancer, you can feel a lot of joy that the food is not just delicious but healthy too. What is BBQ after all but vegetables that people smear all over meat to make it taste good (LOL.) We BBQ veggies of a million kinds, veggie burgers, tempeh and more, in a variety of sauces (smoked, chipotle, etc.) and another benefit: you don’t go into a food coma the same way you do after eating a meat/fatty meal…. you have more energy for softball, hiking, etc. I was vegetarian for years but cannot believe how much better my health got when I went vegan (I was a “cheese-a-tarian” or a “pizza-tarian.” LOL.) Veganism was a whole new amazing culinary world. Try a lot of vegan restaurants, read cooking blogs – it is a fun journey.