09 May 2011

Movie Review: Forks Over Knives Dietary Diatribe

The film Forks Over Knives was heavily promoted in coordination with Whole Foods Markets.  So I expected the subject matter to appeal to Birkenstock wearing foodies who are happy to spend their Whole Paycheques (sic) striving to eat better.  But instead of being a simple screed against omnivores, Forks Over Knives was a case of culinary counterculture agitprop to convince us that diet can overcome disease.

The film profiled two men of science who grew up on farms which produced high protein and dairy diets, but whose professional experience led them in a different direction.  Dr. T. Colin Campbell, a nutritionist at Cornell University who produced “The China Project” that pinpointed extensive dietary data in the Peoples Republic of China during the mid 1970s to a variety of cancer rates in particular regions. Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr is surgeon at the renowned Cleveland Clinic who published a long term study on how nutritional changes can arrest and reverse coronary conditions in severely ill patients.  The scenes showing coronary bypass operations are meant for the squeamish.

Unfortunately, these profiles seemed more like hagiographies that obscured the main messages.  Another famous nutritionist, Dr. John McDougall, had far less story set up and screen time but his message about how drastic dietary changes can be beneficial had far more impact.  The McDougall diet eliminated added oils, processed foods, refined sugars, dairy and of course meat, but he had extensive studies of how those on the diet mitigated if not eliminating adverse outcomes in breast cancer patients.

What was far more effective than the paens to Campbell and Esselstyn were some of the graphics illustrating studies.  The graph that showed a correlation between the forced elimination of dairy and meat based diets in Norway under the Nazi occupation and the drop in coronary disease was dramatic. The illustration of how processed foods trick the stomach into not feeling satisfied despite the caloric intake was influential.   The study that showed how switching the diets of two groups of lab rats with higher dairy diets could cause immediate and noticeable differences certainly raised some eyebrows.

The filmmakers were clearly trying to dissuade skeptics that those on a “Whole Food plant based diet” were just some skinny wimps hanging out at the co-op.  The film refrained from calling the recommended regimen as vegan even though essentially that is what a whole food plant based diet is.  The film profiled a seventy something year old marathoner who had been running for 20 years after suffering from breast cancer and this was because of her vegan diet.  There was another segment which featured an Ultimate Fighter on the diet.  The scene where an Austin firefighter who was raised on the vegan diet climbing a firepole just by using his upper body strength while chanting “Real Men Eat Plants!” prompted the Prince Valiant coiffed vegan hipster sitting in front of me to cheer.

Forks Over Knives did dutifully include a dissenting dietician, but after announcing her ties to the Dairy Council, a viewer could discern that the filmmakers wanted to dismiss this data.  It is unclear if it was serendipitous or seditious that the dissenting dietician was filmed as she looked into direct sunlight and her eyelids constantly fluttered, which also served as a visual cue of her mendacity.

For a film that was premiering, I was surprised at the low quality of the print shown during the advanced screening.  Technically, there were varying sound quality in the interviews, which was distracting and took away from the message.

Forks Over Knives did make me consider making some dietary changes.  The graphic about how high fructose corn syrup can trick your stomach’s satiation barometer made me think about the importance of portion control and being deliberate about drinking one’s calories. Despite the championing of the vegan diet, the eating to live mantra through a vegan diet requires drastic dietary changes that impact socializing, such as scrutinizing everything one ingests as well limiting social dining.

Forks Over Knives did hint at how poor people do not know better so they have poor diets that leads to poor health.  There have been news reports where progressive cities, like San Francisco and New York are regulating fast food establishments on the type of cooking oil that is used, sodium content, toys in happy meals and where convenience food chains can be established.  Then there is the example of some Chicago Public Schools, which prohibited children from bring in their lunches from home because they might not be healthy.  Instead, the kids were forced to buy (or receive subsidies) for cafeteria lunches that they didn’t like and ended up being wasted food.

The interview with the Dr. Terry Manson, Chicago Commissioner of Public Health along with allusions to First Lady Michelle Obama’s food initiatives left me with the impression that our elected “betters” would be happy to be food fascists and impose this vegan regime to improve overall health.  Educating the public is important, but taking away choice is antithetical to the American ideal of freedom and pursuing happiness. Besides the ever changing nutritional guidelines come through the government and they show politics.  And science changes, as seen in fluoridation standards.

It is unclear if the health benefits of having a plant strong diet are conveyed on people who have not stopped cold turkey being omnivores.  Forks Over Knives presented some provocative information but I can’t say that I will be scared starved.

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