A US documentary made for the mainstream, Forks Over Knives begins by presenting statistics that highlight the health crisis currently facing the US: 40 percent of Americans are obese, with around half taking prescription drugs of one kind or another. This post-war increase in obesity has come with the attendant health problems of diabetes, heart disease and stroke. With the UK suffering from similar levels of obesity and obesity-related illnesses, the film has much to offer British audiences too.
Forks Over Knives argues the solution to the health time bomb is simple: we need to stop consuming animal-based, refined and processed foods and adopt what it calls “a wholefoods, plant-based diet.” Which basically means becoming vegan.
This straightforward conclusion is based on the work of Dr Colin T Campbell, and Dr Caldwell Esselstyn, along with a number of other medical professionals given screen time. Campbell, Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University, was one of the directors of the famous China Study. Published as a book in 2004, the study found that Chinese people who adopted a Western diet had a higher incidence of ‘Western’ diseases such as heart disease and various cancers.
Esselstyn, who treated Bill Clinton after he underwent cardiac surgery in 2010, slowly came to the same conclusions as Campbell through his own research. Heart disease “is an absolutely toothless paper tiger that need never, ever to exist”, he argues. The film cites the example of the occupation of Norway by Germany in World War Two. With the German Army confiscating livestock and farm animals to feed themselves, Norwegians were forced to eat a diet high in plant-based foods. Esselstyn notes death rates from cardiovascular diseases such as strokes and heart attacks decreased dramatically, only to rise again when meat and dairy was eaten in large quantities after the war.
Interspersed with the scientific evidence are case studies of several individuals, including the director Lee Fulkerson, who have used a vegan diet to significantly improve their health. Arguably, this focus on individual diet runs the risk of individualising a problem that requires societal and cultural changes. However, the film takes time to explain why poorer people tend to have poorer diets. The strong influence of the farming industry and corporations on the Department of Agriculture, the government agency that sets the national nutritional guidelines, is also explored.
Forks Not Knives is a persuasive and compelling documentary, if a little too ‘American’ at times. There is a niggling feeling of complex issues being simplified for a mass audience. Also, fish is verboten but no explanation is given as to why the popular understanding of fish as a healthy food is wrong. However, there is no doubt the film will lead many people to think deeply about their diet, and perhaps some will change their eating habits. With the status quo so damaging to ourselves and the environment, this can only be a good thing.
Forks Over Knives is released in the UK on 14 January 2013. www.forksoverknives.com.