‘Forks Over Knives’ offers simple solution to serious problem
August 4, 2011
ASPEN – “Forks Over Knives,” a documentary about the links between diet and health, doesn’t pussy-foot around its topic. When the film mentions, as it often does, a “whole foods, plant-based diet,” it doesn’t allow wiggle room for meat, dairy and eggs. Meat is depicted visually in a most unappetizing way (there’s a repeated clip of meat on a grill, one slab of which I found impossible to identify). Milk gets surprisingly severe criticism – everything but a set of devil horns over the bottle.
When I used the words “strict” and “severe” to describe the overall presentation, Brian Wendel, the executive producer of the film, went on the defensive. “A lot of people would say having a heart attack is pretty severe,” Wendel, a 39-year-old who hasn’t eaten meat in more than 10 years, said while navigating Beverly Hills traffic.
Wendel’s statement gets to the point that maybe severity, and the film’s subtly lecturing tone, are appropriate, given the set of facts brought up in “Forks Over Knives.” According to the film, maybe half the American population is on prescription medication, hundreds of billions of dollars are spent on heart and cancer surgery – and none of it is actually making us healthy, just allowing us to go on eating and medicating another day. A third of the population is obese; diabetes and hypertension are practically epidemics – even among children. And we’ve become exporters of disease: Japan, China and Africa have seen their rates of cancer skyrocket as they adopt our culture of packaged foods and KFCs.
“It’s bad,” Wendel said. “We’re looking at triple digit increases in obesity rates over 10 years. Cancer, stroke, heart disease – we spend so much money, and we’re not making any progress.”
“Forks Over Knives” tempers the seriousness of its message with some gentle faces and inspiring stories. The narrative arc centers on two 70-something physicians, Dr. Chad Campbell and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, both of whom grew up on farms with the belief that milk and meat were the safe route to good health, before adopting a different view of diet. The doctors are easy to like: accomplished (Campbell is a professor of nutritional biochemistry at Cornell; Esselstyn works at the Cleveland Clinic), cheerful, and, obviously, in good health. Among the good examples is Lee Fulkerson, the film’s director, who turns the camera on himself: he changes his diet, loses weight, cuts significant points off his cholesterol.
Perhaps the brightest point of “Forks Over Knives” is the ease of the solution. At one point, Wendel brings up “An Inconvenient Truth” as a model of bringing vital information into the mainstream through documentary film. But the upbeat ending to “An Inconvenient Truth” was like slapping a smiley-face emoticon on a death threat. “Forks Over Knives” offers a relatively easy path out of our health mess. Subjects in the film reverse their afflictions quickly after altering their eating habits.
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“You take away that diet and it all goes away very quickly. It’s that simple,” Wendel said.
Wendel, a native of Staten Island, N.Y., had lived on the standard American diet – “Meat, multiple times every day,” he said – before attending a conference on nutrition and hearing a panel discussion that featured a vegan.
“I decided to give it a try for one week,” he said. “It was an a-ha moment. I felt so much better. All the stuff I’d learned about protein and calcium was false – yes, you need them, but not necessarily from animals. There was no question in my mind I didn’t want to live in that false thinking anymore.”
Part of that false thinking is the idea that eating a plant-based diet is unsatisfying. A meat-oriented diet, Wendel says, is based on a few foods. But he has found a relatively wide world of vegetables.
“You talk to people who eat this way and they learn about all these other foods they haven’t been eating,” he said. “It’s liberating. It’s an incredible variety. It doesn’t seem strict or restrictive to the people who eat it.”
Wendel, who had formerly been in the real estate business, was inspired to make “Forks Over Knives” after reading Dr. Campbell’s “The China Study,” an extensive 2005 examination of the links between diet and certain diseases in Chinese populations. Wendel was upset that such views weren’t getting into the mainstream.
“Enough is enough. We need to get this information out there,” he said. “It’s sad that only a small number of people are benefiting from this information. I wanted to put a visual presentation to this concept.”
Wendel believes that the dialogue is shifting. He notes that later this month, CNN will broadcast “The Last Heart Attack,” a one-hour report on heart disease and the benefits of a vegan diet that featured Bill Clinton and Dr. Esselstyn. “It’s creating this maelstrom that the mainstream media can’t ignore,” Wendel said of the growing conversation about diet and health.
More evidence of that maelstrom: The screening of “Forks Over Knives” scheduled for the New Views: Documentaries and Dialogue series, in Monday, Aug. 8, at Paepcke Auditorium, sold out in advance, and a second screening, at 4:30 p.m., has been added. Wendel and Dr. Campbell will be in attendance for a discussion.
“As a country, we’re really heading in this direction,” Wendel said. “We really have no choice.”