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.
But 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.
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.
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