Revenge of the Herds
A new documentary suggests the animals we eat are getting us back big time
by Jared Peterson
I arrived at a screening of Forks Over Knives with a box of chocolate covered raisins, a large soda and the uneasy feeling that they could be my last. Lee Fulkerson’s documentary promised to drop a nutritional bombshell, so I figured I’d splurge at the concession stand and savor a last meal while learning the error of my ways.
One half of the film’s message is familiar, even old hat, to many Americans: that processed and/or animal-based foods contribute directly to some of the nation’s worst health problems—obesity, heart disease, type-2 diabetes, certain cancers. The film’s bolder claim goes even further, presenting some scientific evidence supporting the idea that a diet based solely on plants and unprocessed “whole foods” can stop, or even reverse, these insidious conditions. By extension, many invasive surgeries and drug therapies may in fact be expensive and temporary stopgap measures for largely preventable scourges.
Forks Over Knives focuses on the scientific and clinical work of Drs. Caldwell Esselstyn and Colin Campbell. Over several decades, and quite separately from each other, the two men sought to understand the biological mechanisms behind their observations in practice. Again and again, their findings led to the broad-based conclusion that, for the last century or so, we Americans have been eating ourselves to death. Brick after brick of the traditional food pyramid has been taken out, examined and, in many cases, tossed on the trash heap.
The film also follows several real people, including the director himself, as they attempt to address personal health issues from elevated cholesterol and obesity to diabetes and even breast cancer. These willing subjects drop their meaty and milky ways and switch to a “whole food, plant-based diet”. (That phrase is repeated often, while words like “vegetarian” and “vegan” are seldom used, perhaps to skirt some of their negative, elitist connotations.) Further bucking the status quo, they quit cold-turkey all of their medications—statins, diabetes meds, the cornerstones of the pharmaceutical economy—and trust in diet and exercise alone. (All of this is in consultation with real MDs versed in the new paradigm; the filmmakers make clear that no such moves should be made without legitimate medical advice.) All subjects show remarkable improvements—they lose weight, eliminate hypertension, lower cholesterol and even beat cancer into submission.
Fulkerson is at pains to demonstrate the seriousness and solidity of this claim, but he’s gentle with us, pointing out that this glut is not entirely our fault. Evolutionary wiring known as the “motivational triad” drives us to seek out pleasure, avoid pain, and conserve our energy doing so. Fried chicken feels pretty darn good and can be obtained by the bucketful through our car windows, so, you do the math. The worst food is also the cheapest to manufacture, locking many of us (and especially the poor) into unhealthful ways while enriching an entrenched agricultural-industrial complex. As things come together, the culpable or complicit parties come to light. Fast food, agribusiness, “Big Pharma”, the USDA—all appear to have a clear, vested interest in maintaining a system that profits from quantity over quality and illness over health.
None of this is fun to hear, of course. What makes it easier to swallow is Fulkerson’s tone of open, unassuming (though somewhat white-bread) earnestness. The film doesn’t feel like a stump speech or a scolding. Its personalities are not the stereotypical hippies and hipsters one associates with radical veganism—there is nary a whiff of patchouli-tinged acrimony or downtown hauteur here. Most of the films subjects are regular folks near or over 40; the two researchers are in their 70s (and looking great). If this is the revolution, then, historically speaking, it’s going the wrong direction—from the elders to the children. But these are people who have seen and lived with diseases that ravage more and more Americans each year and are trying to do something about it.
In its ninety-some minutes, the film doesn’t delve deeply into the practicalities of such drastic dietary changes. There are no recipes or shopping lists, and no discussion of the monetary burden—these, presumably, are left to the reams of cookbooks and hours of cooking shows already out there. All I can say—and this comes from a lifelong carnivore and casual vegan-baiter—is that the food in the movie looks fantastic. I still love me some chocolaty snacks, and I’m not ready to sneak granola into the theater just yet. But no one can say I haven’t been gently warned. Altogether, Forks Over Knives seems made to go down easy and intended, perhaps, both to tide you over and whet your appetite for bigger, bolder changes to come.
Forks Over Knives is rated PG for thematic elements and incidental smoking. One theme is people’s insides, and the film regularly features archival footage of various surgical procedures.