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.