In the opening sequence of Forks Over Knives, we see Lee Fulkerson, the film's writer and director, hopped up on two Red Bulls, go in for a check-up. He doesn't look in any way unhealthy; he looks good to be middle-aged, he's barely overweight and he tells us that, to his knowledge, he doesn't have any diseases. To his surprise, his bloodwork shows that he is at high risk for a heart attack. Instead of prescribing pills, however, his doctors put him on a strict whole-foods, plant-based diet.
The film, which is in theaters today, follows the research of two men: Colin Campbell, a Cornell University scientist, and Caldwell Esselstyn, a surgeon. Both men say that changing from an animal protein-rich diet to a plant-based diet can stop or even reverse many diseases ranging from cancer and heart disease to indigestion and fatigue.
Fulkerson's work on the History Channel is evident: In a lot of ways, the film reads as a history lesson, tracing for us the American obsession with meat, fast food and overconsumption via 1950s government films and cheesy Burger King commercials. There's also footage of a large piece of plaque being pulled out of an artery for all you gross-outs who reveled in the vomit scene of Super-Size Me.
But the film is largely dedicated to the research of Campbell and Esselstyn. In a phone interview, Esselstyn said he suspects he and Campbell were chosen as the lead subjects in the film not just because of their ground-breaking research, but because they shared a common history. "We also had a unique characteristic in that both of us sort of grew up on dairy farms, and here we were sort of rejecting our roots through our research," Esselstyn says.
Esselstyn says he became interested in diet and nutrition as a treatment when he was on the first breast cancer task force at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. While he was treating patients, he says, "I was not doing a single thing for the next unsuspecting victim, and that led to sort of a global thing."
Esselstyn wanted to know why the breast cancer rate in Kenya once was 82 times less than in the U.S.; why only 18 men in Japan died of prostate cancer in a given year; and why second- and third-generation Americans had progressively worse health than their forefathers. He linked it all to nutrition and the presence (or lack thereof) of meat in diets.
Esselstyn went on to complete a study of patients with advanced heart disease and put them on a plant-based diet. Seventeen of them, including five who were originally told they wouldn't last a year, survived the duration of the 12-year study.
"We're not just treating the disease, but it's causation: The foods that damage the lining of the artery every time they pass our lips. Namely, oils, dairy, meat, fish and caffeine," he says.
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Filmmakers also followed patients of Esselstyn and other doctors who are pro-plant-based diet. Like Fulkerson, they lost weight, kicked their diseases and, because they kicked their prescription drugs, got rid of pesky side-effects like insomnia, coughing and nasal drip. But these stories are told in fleeting snippets, not long enough for us to connect with them on a human level.
And when presented in the film, complete with entertaining animation (shark sex, anyone?) the stats are pretty hard to argue against. Still, you kind of wonder why the USDA spokesman shows up only halfway through the film, or why the former president of the American Dietetic Association, who advocates including animal protein in the average diet, only gets about five or 10 minutes of screen time. (The film does come with a disclaimer that you should talk to your doctor before starting a new health regimen). Further, the film only touches on the problems of poor nutrition in low-income neighborhoods and the laughable lunch programs in public schools.
Overall, Forks Over Knives does a great job of explaining the history and science behind our skewed, modern nutrition standards. As a documentary, it's informative and compelling. But emotionally, it fails to connect.
Forks Over Knives is now playing at Greenway Palace Stadium 24, 3839 Weslayan Street