Forks Over Knives is a documentary by Lee Fulkerson, which chronicles the journey of himself, and a few others, in the pursuit of better health through a plant-based diet. It also showcases the work of Dr. Colin T. Campbell and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn.
You may be asking yourself why a low-carber such as myself is reviewing an obvious vegetarian-biased movie. The answer – because I was asked to, and I was curious. It’s true, I love my bacon. But I’m always interested in what others have to share in regards to health and diet. I was sure I could learn something from this film. Did I expect to love it? No, I didn’t.
Honestly, it was the most annoying 90 minutes I’ve had to sit through in a long time. Less than 20 minutes into Forks Over Knives and my head already pounded from the anti-meat propaganda (well, actually it was from smacking myself in the head every time I heard obvious propaganda). It didn’t come across to me as an investigative film, seeking the truth about health and disease. It actually felt more like “EAT PLANTS OR DIE IDIOTS!” It wasn’t even subtle. Throughout the film I kept thinking it’s purpose was solely to praise The China Study.
So here is my recap, full of my own special brand of cynicism and optimism. You can choose which to go with.
Forks Over Knives starts with a several news clips about obesity, fatty diets, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. They mention that 40% of the people in the US are obese, and 50% are on some form of medication. We spend an estimated 2.2 trillion in healthcare every year. I don’t think these numbers really surprise anyone who’s been paying attention.
We then hear about researchers who claim that if we reduce or eliminate refined, processed, animal-based foods, we can prevent and reverse disease. They recommend a whole-foods, plant-based diet. I was filled with hope when I heard refined and processed… then they totally lost me after that.
Next we follow Mr. Fulkerson on his visit to a clinic run by a very nice vegetarian husband and wife doctor team. His labs show he has a total cholesterol of 241. He’s obviously very concerned about getting his total cholesterol number lower. (We won’t get into why cholesterol isn’t quite the big whoop people think it is.) He is then told his CRP (C-reactive protein) test results were 6, and that means he’s at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease. They give us no other numbers at this time. So Mr. Fulkerson is put on a 12 week whole-foods, plant-based diet. Sadly, we have no real clue what his diet was like before this recommended change, although I do think I remember him mentioning Red Bull. Without that info, it’s hard to make any fair comparisons later. Was he an avid Hostess Cupcake fan? Did he eat processed pasta loaded with processed Ragu meat sauce and processed white flour garlic bread? Did he eat cholesterol loaded steak and eggs on a daily basis? I don’t recall them sharing that information, so I can only guess at his previous diet.
We then start getting statistics about meat consumption. In the early 20th century, we ate about 120 lbs of meat annually. By 2007, it was 222 lbs each. In 1914 we each consumed about 30 lbs of sugar per year, but by 1999 that number was up to 147 pounds. We also learn that in 1909 we each ate about 294 pounds of dairy products, but by 2006 that number was a staggering 605 lbs each. Now I’m confused. I thought it was all about the animal products. What animal does sugar come from again? If animal products are the problem, then why do we need to mention sugar? Okay, I’ll be the first to admit that, as a nation, we probably over do it on the dairy. Allergies are a real issue and dairy is a big offender. But if you take a look at todays dairy products, most don’t resemble the products eaten by the folks in 1909. And how much of the dairy in these stats are made up of sugar-filled, processed junk like milkshakes, chocolate milk, fake-fruit flavored yogurt, etc.? And how much of that meat consumption is likely highly processed hotdogs, spam, and who knows what else?
Forks Over Knives then attempts to give us an animated, yet pretty misguided lesson on the evil villain cholesterol. They push the idea that dietary cholesterol is the main cause of cardiovascular disease. (Inflammation and oxidation? Ptthhh. Why bother discussing those when we can make dietary cholesterol resemble a bunch of angry squatters taking over your veins?) We also get the whole “prostrate cancer” angle thrown in for good measure. Bad red meat! Bad!
One instance they used as evidence stands out to me. During the occupation of Norway by Germany, animal foods were scarce because the Germans took much of it to sustain their armies. The film goes on to explain that health in Norway improved almost immediately, because deaths from heart attacks and strokes plummeted – that is until the occupation was over and once again animal products were returned to the diet. Common sense tells me that we aren’t getting the whole story here. So I did some searching and came across another review of this film, from my talented friend Denise Minger, that gives us a more complete picture of Norway nutrition from 1940 to 1945. To make it short and sweet – during the first year of occupation, imported foods, sugar, breads, fats, cocoa, syrups, etc. were rationed. During the second year (late 1941), animal foods were rationed, but not completely cut out. Fish consumption also rose by 200%. To quote Denise “…it’s hard to blame the 1941 drop in cardiovascular disease on something that mostly happened in 1942.” I agree.
You will see a couple of appearances from “the other side”, such as past American Dietetic Association President Connie Diekman, who briefly speaks of the need for animal protein in the diet to avoid being deficient in amino acids. Of course you then hear from Campbell, who says that only happens if you are calorie deficient as well.
The other dissenter in the film, Daivd Klurfeld from the USDA, made a point that had me doing the slow-clap in appreciation. He discusses financial ties, and how someone can have such a vested interest in the outcome that they refuse to accept any other alternatives. This doesn’t just apply to big agriculture – researchers and scientists can easily fall into this category too. This is a sad reality that we all have to keep in mind when reading about the latest studies, pro-low carb included. Campbell claims he has no bias, despite his life’s work pretty much revolving around plant-based diet recommendations. We can hope, but it’s unlikely.
My ears perked up when they discussed the farm bill that passed in 1973, which allowed for widespread usage of high fructose corn syrup. But sadly they didn’t get into a lot of detail on that and its unintended consequences.
Another interesting idea posed in this film was something called the Pleasure Trap, which says it’s our nature to avoid pain, seek pleasure, and conserve energy. (That’s my day in a nutshell!) The point was made that foods are like drugs, with todays foods being more so because of their immediate rewards. This makes a lot of sense to me, so there’s at least one thing I learned.
And of course we can’t have a pro-veggie film without phrases like “Real men eat plants!”, and the obligatory old dude talking about his erectile dysfunction, or lack thereof.
I could probably go on and on about the things that made me scratch my head, or cringe, but I think it’s time I shared what I did like about this film.
I think the doctors in this film are sincere, well-intentioned, and truly want to help people avoid diseases. I also am thrilled for the patients in this film who changed their lives by dropping a craptastic diet and adopting something better, although in my opinion, not necessarily optimal. Mr. Fulkerson’s risk for cardiovascular disease decreased after his 12 week experiment, as did his weight. I can’t be disappointed in that! I’m a sucker for anything with a happy ending, even if the results were from a plant-based diet.
I think, in the end, we all want the same thing, we just have very different ideas of how to achieve it. Sadly, that makes it hard for the general public to make informed decisions. This battle of ideas will not likely end soon. I think viewers have to walk away from this film, or any other actually, with the idea that no one diet plan is optimal for everyone, and we need to do our own research.
If you are a plant-based foodie, you’ll probably love this film. If you are more of a carnivore, you will probably love it much, much less.
I give Forks Over Knives an A for effort, but a C for everything else. It just wasn’t my cup of beef broth.
Read more by Amy Dungan.