CC Issue 37 / Film / TV

Forks Over Knives

Somebody close to me recommended that I watch the documentary “Forks Over Knives”. I am usually dubious about watching these kinds of documentaries, ever since somebody else told me to watch “Supersize Me”.  I find that most “persuasive” films about “issues” are extremely biased, whereas I feel that you have to show both sides of an argument and let the viewer make his own opinion.

For example, my conclusion from “Supersize Me” was that I, too, could prove a point like “highways are dangerous” by standing in traffic and refusing to leave the middle of a road. However, this kind of demonstration won’t provide a sound argument.

But today at the library I saw that they had “Forks Over Knives”, and the person who recommended it is generally astute in their conclusions, so I borrowed it. What follows is my review, based on my notes as I watched the film. I should be honest and say that I went in with the suspicion that the claims on the DVD case would be difficult to present fairly.

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“Forks Over Knives” begins with sound bites and clips about the current state of American health. The stats seem grim. Half of Americans are on prescriptions drugs, healthcare costs are skyrocketing, and the population is chronically ill. Of course, the filmmakers are quick to offer their solution. “All we need to do,” they say, “is to adopt a whole-foods, plant-based diet.”

I am skeptical. In my experience, if something is presented with “All we need to do”, then the following argument presented for or against that something will tend to leave out key facts.

The film then introduces two doctors, let’s call them Dr. A and Dr. B, who are, seemingly, the only people ever to have noticed the benefits of a whole-food, plant-based diet. Their research indicates that the cause of all the horrible things shown so far is the animal protein in meat and dairy products, and the “bad” protein in processed foods. Their claim is that by cutting out the protein from non-plant and processed sources, humans can eliminate almost any health problem you can imagine.

This bold claim is another sign that perhaps the main thrust of the piece will be one-sided. The plant-based diet is presented as a magic potion, akin to something you’d buy on late-night TV.

21 minutes into the documentary, I note the first account of something that could be considered quantifiable evidence. According to the film, during the Nazi occupation of Norway, the Nazis confiscated the Norwegians’ livestock and forced the local populace to eat a plant-based diet. Allegedly, the occurrences of heart disease and cancer decreased significantly during this period and then rose again after the war when access to meat returned.

I am intrigued. Perhaps, I think, I am the one who is wrongly biased.

By the 35 minute mark, I am bored, and have lost any optimism I might have had about an even-handed presentation. The same message is repeated over and over again, “Meat bad! Plants good!”  I am all for watching documentaries, but there was very little substance to this argument. The primary tactic of this film is fear-based, and lays entirely in the testimony of the two doctors. If we believe what they say, that’s fine, but beyond being told their histories by the narrator, we don’t have any outside sources telling us that these guys are legitimate.  Can’t the filmmakers find another person to speak to the doctors’ qualifications? An old co-worker? Somebody who works in the same field? There must be more nutrition doctors out there who are familiar with veganism.

But the filmmakers must be reading over my shoulder, because they finally get to the basis for their plant-based-diet theory. In the 1970s, China undertook a national health survey of 880 million people about cancer. The result was a “cancer atlas,” showing the rates of various cancers distributed in the population by region. It showed that certain types of cancers were more prevalent in certain areas, so Chinese doctors began to ask the question, “Why is this so, if the population is genetically homogenous?”

Soon after the survey was published, Dr. A found out about it and went to China to work on the answer. The narrative, in my opinion, becomes a little bit hazy at this point, because we are told that Dr. A immediately assumed that the cause of the variations was diet, and begins to test a further 6500 people, specifically, for cancers caused by diet.

The filmmakers do not explain why Dr. A jumps to the conclusion of diet-based illness, and do not say if he considered any other causal factors. So I am left with questions. Is the population really entirely genetically the same? Don’t different parts of China have slightly different ethnicities? Is pollution a concern? What about other local issues? Perhaps one group works outside, and therefore gets more solar radiation. I’m just watching the film and coming up with possibilities off the top of my head. It’s also confusing because the “atlas” charts several different kinds of cancer, which would, again, suggest reasons beyond “consumption of meat”. Wouldn’t multiple reasons cause multiple kinds of cancers?

Rather than addressing these concerns, the film cuts away to another series of examples. Several people who have high cholesterol or diabetes are profiled. Each begins the plant-based diet, and within weeks, they’re feeling better and able to cut out their prescription medications. They’ve all lost weight, and actually do appear much healthier.

I note, however, that they are also shown exercising, which is a lifestyle change not mentioned by the film as a causal agent, and that, although they all began a plant-based diet to improve their well-being, none seemed to have practiced any self-control or attempted to eat anything healthy prior to the switch. Again, the miracle healing is presented as being the result of solely the plant-based diet, but couldn’t moderation or other lifestyle improvements have also helped?

Next, we return to Dr. A’s more in-depth Chinese survey. The result is that, after examining 367 variables, a Chinese doctor who worked with Dr. A in his study posits that diet “could” cause certain cancers, strokes, and heart disease. He does not say that meat protein alone is the cause, and hedges the conclusion with the word “could”.

This makes Dr. A’s conclusions seem almost credible, but again, the filmmakers present a far broader interpretation of the results. The film continues on with its message that any and all meat or dairy causes nearly every kind of illness from diarrhea to impotence. In fact, one of the patients profiled had a list of 27 ailments that his doctor assured him all are curable by adopting the plant-based diet.

Dr. B came to the same conclusion as Dr. A at around the same time. In his case, he did a study on disease caused by animal protein after reading an Indian journal article about cancer in rats. He conducted his own experiment by finding 18 people who were terminally ill with cancer or heart disease and put them on a whole-food, plant-based diet. In all cases, progress of the disease was halted, and in four the disease reversed itself. They all survived to the time of the filming, some 20 years later.

Like the Norway evidence, Dr. B’s experiment has a positive correlation to the message of the film. The results have even been published in a medical journal. However, I was nearing the 55 minute mark and wrote in my notes “Where is the rebuttal? Are there any other views?” The results appear too good to be true. If this diet is so transformative, why doesn’t everyone know about it already?

The filmmakers seem to be reading over my shoulder again. The “opposition” is shown immediately after I write that. Somebody says,“This diet seems extreme.” Perhaps, at last, we’ll hear some debate, or at least have some of our more pointed questions answered.

The reply from Dr. A and B is “No, it’s not.” That’s it. That’s as far as the filmmakers go in response to a critique of their theory.

But the diet is extreme. It advocates cutting out all meat and dairy, which are seen as staples of modern nutrition. Why don’t the people in this film address this? For anybody, transitioning their diet to eat entirely and exclusively plants would be a massive lifestyle change.

Why we eat what we do, though, is only because, as the film says, “the dairy industry and government say we need milk”.

I write in my notes, “Uh oh. Fear language.”

Then the narrator drops another bombshell. Milk consumption causes the same amount of cancer as cigarettes.

This statement is presented without a source, or any data to back up an assertion that, if true, would be more than enough to make a documentary about on its own. The “fact” is incredibly unlikely and it’s from here that I begin to tune out.

The final 30 minutes cement my thoughts about the editorial slant of the message.

The final act suggests that we are conditioned to eat the way we do by the government, who is, in turn, beholden to “industry”. The United States Department of Agriculture and various corporations are the evil entities behind illness. Everything from the food pyramid to school lunches is, apparently, a vast conspiracy where, along with the medical providers, shadowy bigwigs are profiting handsomely by making us eat foods that are also making us sick.

Allegedly, Doctors A and B have been “marginalized” for their contrary views and “persecuted” for trying to spread their message of truth. This would explain why they can’t get anybody to endorse them. One of the doctors estimates that all healthcare costs could be reduced by up to 80 percent if everyone switched to the whole-food, plant-based diet. It is implied that the secretive cabals would never allow that.

Even the environment is suffering under the American meat-and-processed-food diet. Raising livestock destroys the rainforest, causes global warming, and consumes enough grain to feed 8.7 billion humans, 1.7 billion more than are alive today. That might actually be true. I seem to remember hearing similar statistics from other sources.

By the 1:20 mark, I have written “I don’t care anymore, and want the video to end.” It’s been 80 minutes of the same message over and over again.

At 1:32 it is finished. And I’ve got a conclusion to make.

It’s a difficult one. The film, as a documentary, is poorly made. It is distinctly biased, and does not offer much tangible research that I could follow-up with if I chose to. Almost all of the evidence is anecdotal, and the last part about conspiracy borders on the paranoid and absurd. We are left unable to discern if the problem is that any amount of animal-based protein is bad for you, as the filmmakers would have you believe, or if overindulgence and poor lifestyle choices are to blame for the rise in diseases. We don’t know if the same medical benefits would be attainable by exercise, and perhaps reading a label now and again, or by doing what Doctors A and B suggest, and cutting out meat and dairy altogether.

I have no doubt that a whole-food, plant-based diet would be beneficial to one’s health, but I also know that eating exclusively at McDonalds and drinking only Red Bulls is bad for me. Did I need to watch a 90 minute propaganda video to realize that? Like “Supersize Me”, the answer is “no”.

“Forks Over Knives” ends with an exhortation to “Give [the diet] a try, there’s nothing to lose. You’ll feel better in a couple of weeks”. And I buy that. It’s a good suggestion. Everybody could probably stand to examine what they eat and get a little exercise. Unfortunately, I’m not convinced by the documentary that I should move to the solely plant-based diet. To that extent, the filmmakers have failed.

The bottom line is that “Forks Over Knives” presents a deeply flawed argument. I believe that the underlying message might be true, but most of the claims made in the film are not. It is probably useful as a tool to begin a proper discussion about how we eat. I just wouldn’t use it to make my case.

2 thoughts on “Forks Over Knives

  1. I saw this doco, too. You make some good points. Interestingly, my post this week is pretty much about me living both of your extremes: the whole-food, plant-based and the McDiet.

  2. I noticed that when I read your post.
    I have a feeling that a moderate, balanced diet is probably one of the hardest things to pull off. Skewing to either extreme actually seems easier. On one end you have deliciousness, and at the other, healthy living.
    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some leftover pizza to finish…

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