Forks Over Knives Review

The title says it all.  That is, if you get it.

I didn’t at first.  I figured “Forks Over Knives” was simply a reference to vegetarians’ choice not to kill animals for food.

forks over knivesBut an image on the film’s webpage leaves no doubt as to what the title really means.

In the upper left of the page, there’s fork with a tomato on it.  At the bottom of the page, there’s the knife.

Only, it isn’t a knife like you’d use to eat.  Instead, it’s an image that evokes far more emotion — it’s a scalpel.

The knife, here, is medicine and surgery. The fork is food.

Food over medicine

If the argument against a plant-based diet is that it’s extreme, then what do you call 500,000 people each year having their chest opened up on an operating table, and having a vein from their leg sewn onto their heart?

That’s one of many, many points raised by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, who, along with Dr. T. Colin Campbell, Cornell University professor and author of The China Study, presents evidence in favor of a plant-based diet for health.

Esselstyn and Campbell both grew up on farms believing that animal protein was essential to our well-being, but have since changed their beliefs in the face of mounting data pointing in one direction — that a whole foods, plant-based diet could be the answer to our country’s obesity epidemic and health crisis.

That evidence, and the theory which it supports, is the main subject of Forks Over Knives.  Among the evidence are several damning studies of the cancer-causing effects of casein, the protein which makes up 80% of the protein in cow’s milk.

A good portion of the film is devoted to a boiled-down version of the results of the large-scale statistical study conducted in China that is the subject of Campbell’s best-known work, The China Study.

And that’s a good thing, because when I excitedly picked up the book at the DC VegFest last year, I put it down after leafing through it and realizing just how dense it was.  Despite plenty of recommendations from friends, The China Study is something that’s still on my list to read “when I get a chance,” taking a back seat to quicker reads that I’ve been meaning to get to. I can only imagine that people who aren’t already vegetarian or vegan will find less motivation than I had to read it.

So to be able to get a condensed synopsis in an hour and a half, along with real-life case studies of people who have dramatically improved their health after just a few weeks on a plant-based diet, is something that’s invaluable for the spread of this message which could do so much to change our country’s health.

The non-preachy approach

What Forks Over Knives lacks is the shock factor that its predecessors like Food, Inc. and Earthlings possess.  Very few people, I suspect, will be so moved by the film that they are compelled to empty their freezers and go vegan the very next day.

And yet that’s also the biggest thing it’s got going for it, the thing that really could allow Forks Over Knives to have the impact that so many vegans hope it will.  By virtually ignoring the animal-friendly aspect and even avoiding the word “vegan” almost entirely, FOK positions itself as a documentary about health, and simply proposes the plant-based, whole foods diet as the road to a long, active life.

Not just plant-based, but whole foods

My favorite part of the documentary, actually, is the explanation for why whole foods (ideally plants, but not necessarily) are so vastly better for us than processed foods.  It’s an easy-to-follow, intuitive argument about how processed food takes advantage of our ancient, innate drive to consume fatty and sweet foods because, in nature, these qualities are signals of high caloric density.  And foods rich in calories, of course, were essential to our species’ survival when food was scarce.

Now that food is not scarce in industrialized countries, however, technology allows food manufacturers to exploit our drive to consume fatty, sweet foods, which for so long were rare in our diets.  Manufactured foods are now so concentrated with fats and sugars that they produce a state of hypernormal pleasure not unlike the effect of recreational drugs, and without even filling our stomachs to the point that we feel satiated.  The result, of course, is that people have to overeat, just to be satisfied.

Points like this will no doubt find space even in the minds of viewers who flat-out refuse to listen to arguments against consumption of animal products, and I’d say that’s far better than nothing.

Balanced?

Though the message is unmistakably pro-vegan, FOK gives at least an appearance of balance by strategically integrating the other side of the story.  Traditional dietitians and naysayers are given the chance to speak their mind, and they’re not mocked or denigrated.  They simply state their part, and the film moves on.

While these pro-meat and pro-dairy claims stand out, almost ridiculously so, against the pro-plant background of the rest of the documentary, the simple inclusion of these dissenting viewpoints does lend an air of fairness to the film, even if it’s not entirely balanced.  (On this note, there are many arguments against the findings of The China Study, though I haven’t read them in depth.)

Real people like us (not fanatical hippies)

Another virtue of FOK is that it brings to life the people who are doing so much to spread the plant-based diet, and whom you so often read about but rarely see or hear.  Pro mixed martial arts fighter Mac Danzig, Dr. John McDougall, firefighter and former collegiate swimmer Rip Esselstyn of Engine 2 Diet fame, Farm Santuary founder Gene Baur.

Even as a vegan, I still find that when I read about passionate and influential advocates of this diet, my defenses go up, as if on fanaticism-alert.  So I found it really great to see and hear these people speak and see that they really are normal people, just like you and me.

Where FOK falls short

I have but one criticism of Forks Over Knives, and it’s that the film doesn’t do much to grab the viewer in the first half hour.  But for the initial five-minute collage of news soundbytes about how horrible the standard American diet is, there’s little in the beginning of the documentary to really make you sit up on the edge of your chair and draw you in for the duration of the movie.

The most powerful parts of the film come in the second half, when we see the results of real-life case studies, and as the evidence for the plant-based diet builds.  My worry, though, is that FOK will lose a lot of skeptical omnivores in the first half hour, when there are a few too many medical animations and details, even for this already-on-board vegan’s taste.

Watch it (more importantly, get your friends to watch it)

In any other circumstance, that’d be a minor criticism.  For someone like me or probably you who doesn’t need convincing, FOK is an easy watch that will reaffirm your reasons for choosing this diet.

But for a film whose goal it presumably is to create massive, cultural change, I worry that FOK’s mildly slow start will prevent it from holding the attention of the very people who need to see it most.

And that’s where you come in.  I have no doubt that most of you will make a point to watch Forks Over Knives.  But you’re not the ones who need to see it, whose very life could depend on it.  So do the people you care about a favor — bring them to see it.  (Here’s a list of showtimes.)

Forks Over Knives paints the plant-based diet in a light that makes me proud to be vegan.  When a friend asks me why they should eat less meat or dairy products, I’ll be far more comfortable saying, “You should check out Forks Over Knives one night when you’re not busy,” than I am in recommending something like Earthlings that’s so violent and unsettling it’ll ruin their night.

This low-key, non-preachy shareability is, in my eyes, the biggest thing Forks Over Knives has going for it.  So please, do your part to encourage that.

Share it.

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Comments

  1. How ironic, I just started reading the China Study a few days ago. I agree though – it is very dense and a slow read. I can only read small portions at a time because it’s so technical. I’ve been a vegetarian since October and this book is pushing me to get rid of more dairy and animal products. I look forward to checking out this movie for a more brief look at the same study! Thanks!!

    • Jon Weisblatt says:

      Hi Suzie, if you want an easier read with the same gist, check out the book Skinny Bitch. I think of it as China Study Lite. A funnier read as well.

      • Loved the Skinny Bitch!!! But still think everyone should read The China Study, it just has a better foundation, with citations… references to point people to.

  2. Great review! I saw FOK this weekend and really liked it. I’ve read The China Study a couple of times (once you get into it, it really is fascinating) so a lot of the information in the film was not new to me. It was, however, new to my husband to a certain extent. I’m a vegetarian and my husband eats mostly vegetarian, mainly because I’m the cook in the house. He probably has meat once a month or less. I’ve mentioned the health benefits before in passing, but I’ve been more focused on tempting him with tasty plant-based foods. After the movie it seemed like he really had his eyes opened – he was talking about how eating meat doesn’t feel great anymore (especially when it’s greasy) and that he would like to limit dairy. I was so proud of him for being so open-minded and really taking in the message of FOK! I don’t think he’s ready to be a full-on vegetarian or vegan (yet) but he’s definitely thinking about the health benefits now. I agree with you that the way the filmmakers presented the information is so low key that I will be able to recommend it to non-veg friends and family and maybe some of them will actually decide to give this veggie thing a try – good stuff!

  3. I really want to see FOK when it’s in my town at the end of the month!

    I went from omni to vegan pretty much overnight (a year ago this weekend actually!) after reading The China Study. But before commiting to it, I checked out what the intrawebs had to say about it.

    I googled away for quite a while and found that the criticism could almost all be traced back to the Weston A Price foundation. If you omit that one source, there is very little out there.

    Anyway, I went into it for my health and I feel I’ll be staying for the ethics. Funny how that happens. :)

  4. Nathalie says:

    I look forward to FOK, hope it will be released in the UK soon. Once available I will definitely be spreading the word, or more the film. I think it will be a great way to present the advantages of a mainly plant based diet to the mainstream.
    I think informing people on what the benefits for them are and letting them come to their own conclusions without putting a huge guilt trip and thereby block on them is the way to go. That’s why like websites like NMA, Crazy Sexy Life etc. Yes, they promote a vegan diet/lifestyle, but they don’t scare non-vegans/non-vegetarians off.
    Earthlings is so powerful…but FOK will be a whole lot easier to recommend to people…I am glad I watched it and will never regret it, because it really changed everything for me, but some of the images are just so imprinted in my mind that it still upsets me and makes me too emotional. No documentary has ever had such an impact on me.

  5. Great review Matt. Pretty much exactly what I took away when I watched it back in January.

  6. Thanks Matt! I knew of this movie but forgot when its release dates were. I was reminded by your post to check that out. Looks like it starts in Vancouver (where I am) May 20. I will for sure be going in its first week. Check out Roger Ebert’s review as well!

  7. Great review Matt. I dragged my omni husband to see it with me this past weekend. I’ve read the China Study so the info wasn’t new to me, but my hubby got a good wake-up call. I’ve posted the movie trailer on my blog and am trying to encourage everyone to see it — it’s an important film (if you don’t want to read the long/dense China Study.)

  8. We had the opportunity to see FOK a few months ago and we met Rip Esselstyn. I became an E2 junkie the very next day. The movie is perfect in its soft sell and I think that is wonderful.

  9. Great review, thanks! I wish it was playing in more locations and bummed it’s not playing near me!

  10. Great review! I am watching it this Friday and cannot wait!

  11. Great review. I have been hearing so much about this film and am looking forward to seeing it.

  12. Thank you for the thorough and unbiased review of FOK. My husband and I have been wanting to see it and just haven’t found the right time!

  13. I had higher hopes for FOK than what you describe here. :-( I have enthusiastically read The China Study 3 times and hoped this documentary would grab the attention of my friends and family who are not willing to open the dense book. I’ll still get them to watch it, but it doesn’t sound like it’ll have the impact I was hoping for. Thanks for your honest review.

  14. Great review, Matt. Just watched FOK today. It is probably the best I’ve seen on the subject. I like that it’s not pushy or preachy. I wish I could buy DVD copies and send them to my family who won’t be able to watch it because of location. Hopefully it will come out soon.

  15. Great review! I saw this movie in February (Portland, OR was the first city it was released in). I really enjoyed the fact that it was not preachy, and really just laid out the evidence for you. I was not vegetarian going in to the movie, but it really got me thinking. Since then, I have only had meat twice and have not craved it at all! great to see that this is getting some national attention, it really does make some great points and will make you question your diet (especially the case they make against dairy. One of the doctors featured in the documentary grew up on a dairy farm).

  16. Just had the chance to meat Dr. Essylstyn and his Son Rip. I must say they are very motivational speakers and seem like average people. They present upfront the destructive nature of animal protein and show incredible proof of how plants are the strongest medicine. Check out “Heart Attack Proof Yourself” for some compelling research and shocking angiogram pics. Can’t wait to see FOK.

  17. I just finished reading The China Study yesterday. I am a bit of a science nerd so I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite it being “dense.” It really is fascinating, especially the last section talking about how industry is the one to hand out “nutritional” information. I remember learning about the food pyramid from a pamphlet put out by the dairy industry in elementary school. It is amazing that even if you think you’re eating healthy (lean meat, nonfat yogurt, skim milk, etc.) you’re actually eating harmful foods. I have been a vegetarian for about a year and decided to go vegan after finishing the book.

    I live in Alaska so the film hasn’t made its way up here yet, although I just sent an email to the independent theater in town requesting they show this. My boyfriend is an omnivore and I’m not sure I could get him to sit down and read The China Study for the same reasons others have expressed. I’m so glad they made this information into a more accessible movie form for non-science nerds!

  18. Michelle Pruitt says:

    Farm Sanctuary, Changing Hearts and Minds about Food is an AWESOME book. I just finished it this past week. Vegetarian for 5 years and now Vegan!

  19. Charles Bradley says:

    I watched Forks of Knives with my wife yesterday. I am a diehard meat lover. Any kind of steak, chicken, hot dog, BBQ you name it I eat it. Fast food, coke, Milk, cheese, etc. After watching this movie (and I agree the start of it almost lost me because it was so slow. I was on the computer doing something else but my wife stopped the movie to make me watch it with her) we cleaned out our frig, took food out our children’s mouths, and switched to a vegan diet right away. I think you’d have to be Suicidal to do anything less after seeing all the hard scientific evidence they have to support their arguments.

  20. I have been semi-vegeterian for the past 3 years and half. I used to eat dairy product and fish. Now that I watched FOK I am convinced to go vegan. My question is, is it okay to eat toffu made hotdogs or sausages that says made with organic soy. Or we should prepare everything from scratch. As for milk goes i read somewhere that we need to buy organic soy milk or toffu. Is that the way to go. Can we use oil in our cooking and what kind if so. I also watched the documentary movie called Tapped it’s a must see. They talk about not consuming bottled water. Do you guys think we should not consume anything packed in plastic?

    thank you for your advice

  21. I recently watched this movie and was so impressed I immediately emailed my family members (none of which are vegan) and asked them to take 140 minutes out of their life to watch it.

    None of them have done it so far. I try not to preach to them about my choice to be a vegan, but it’s so hard sometimes because I want them to feel as good as I do.

    Anyhoo, it was a great documentary. I even bought the book :)

  22. I came across this looking for critical reviews and commentary concerning the science in FOK, and after reading what I did, I feel compelled to at least post this: Please people, verify the research. Do not just accept and pass along because it fits your viewpoint or agenda.

    I would just encourge the reviewer and commenters to read this alternate review:

    http://rawfoodsos.com/2011/09/22/forks-over-knives-is-the-science-legit-a-review-and-critique/

    That isnt me- thats just what I ended up finding, and thank god (or whoever) for people like this that take the time to verify questionable conclusions. The science is BAD in this film. If you liked the dcience in this film then you probably love the political propaganda emails that are sent and circulated these days.

  23. just saw the movie and read your post. don’t know why the movie leaves out any reference to fish. would be good to know how it fits, or doesn’t fit, in a whole food, plant based diet. It also seems to leave the door open to having meat, but very little of it, as part of your diet.

  24. This documentary had an impact on me large in part because it was, NOT, in your face. The delivery of the case is very comfortable and gives the viewer the ability to make their own decision. Making a life decision under these circumstances can sometimes have a more lasting impact. Also, the in your face documentaries many times do not lend themselves well to “word of mouth advertising” such as this one. Discussing slaughter houses at church with a group of people is just not going to happen, but discussing Forks over Knives will take place tomorrow night.

    I’m now 1 week down the road of a plant based whole foods lifestyle and hopefully many more to come! All from word of mouth advertising from a friend at church.

  25. I am an engineer who works with statistics on a daily basis.
    I agree with Denise in some aspects of her critique (http://rawfoodsos.com/2011/09/22/forks-over-knives-is-the-science-legit-a-review-and-critique/), namely the legitimacy of the China Study itself. It’s a set of observations, not a properly conducted scientific experiment with control subjects and consideration for risk factors outside of food. I traveled extensively through China a few years ago and observed many toxic environments (polluted rivers used for drinking water, smoggy urban air, etc.) which The China Study does not consider or leaves out, not even mentioning them (Denise points this out very well in her critique).

    I also have to disagree with Dr Esselstyn’s diet plan that isn’t mentioned in full during the film, the exclusion of plant based fats from nuts, avocados, etc. I am a highly active person and healthy fats like these have kept me in excellent shape (5’11”, 200 lbs, 5% body fat, and I get this big body across the finish lines of marathons in ~3.5 hours running barefoot). If my physical activity were to diminish, yes, I would eat less calorie dense foods to compensate. If Dr. Esselstyn is correct in that ANY fat damages blood vessel linings, then I guess the joke’s on me (my cardio and blood numbers are all top notch).
    Keep in mind, my diet is probably 95% plant based. I eat animal-based food in small quantities (4 oz or less) and not every day. I eat absolutely ZERO dairy products as I’ve thought for years that humans have no use for another animal’s milk. I eat processed sugar twice a year (piece of cake on my birthday, and dessert on Christmas Day, that’s it). I do, however, eat raw nuts, soy nuts, and use vegan protein powder occaisionally after hard workouts. My goal is complete nutrition, and I will stick to my belief that very limited quantities of lean, organic, free range/grass fed animal protein is helpful in maintaining a lean body.

    I just think that “science geeks” out there ought to be able to read The China Study and understand how flawed the conclusions presented, based on the data that’s right in your face, really are.

    As for the movie itself, I liked it very much. The average American is a fat and sick, and would be much healthier to ditch all the crap they eat (huge pieces of meat, junk food, etc.) and stick to whole foods. Learning to cook wouldn’t hurt, either. Still, the movie presents lots of flawed data and conclusions based on evidence that is ignored or never existed in the first place.

  26. Matt, I really enjoyed your review (I liked it so much I’m linking to it). It distilled all the key points of the movie. There is so much health information out there. I find it sad that it seems we all share the common interest of living a healthier life yet there are still groups out there that bash certain ways of living/eating. I think criticism is healthy, but we should all be working to get everyone on board. Even getting everyone to take baby steps in the right direction is better than what we have now.

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  1. [...] Here is a review that I think sums up the movie pretty well: http://www.nomeatathlete.com/forks-over-knives-review/ [...]

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