Forks Over Knives: Eating Your Way to a Healthier Future - Nutrition Week

ADDITIONAL CONTRIBUTORS Mary Kate Polanin

It’s no secret that Americans have poor eating habits, but is it possible that we are eating ourselves into extinction? Our obesity rate among adults 20 and older is that of 33.9%, and the western diet celebrates convenience over quality. Heart disease and diabetes run rampant in public health, but it’s okay as long as we’re saving $.99 on the dollar by upgrading to the extra-large value meal, right?

To be fair, fast food is not the only culprit of America’s health deterioration, but our national obsession with food may also be the key to getting back on track. If we can eat our way into this problem, is it possible that we can eat our way out of it, too?

At least, that’s the idea behind the documentary Forks Over Knives, which presents a whole food and plant-based diet as preventative and in some cases causing a reversal the effects of diseases like heart disease and cancer. By avoiding all processed and animal-based foods, the diet (“forks”) may prevent the need for invasive surgery (“knives”). The movie debuted in 2011, but for creator and executive producer Brian Wendel, the story was long overdue.

“Before the movie, I had been into plant-based nutrition for about 8 or nine years, and I knew about the power of plant-based nutrition. I was aware of some of the work out there, like John MacDougal [a physician and nutrition expert who also espouses the benefits of a vegetarian diet], and the whole food concept, which is eating food that is largely intact. Then in 2008, I read The China Study and that really brought my awareness to a whole other level. I started to think that there was a significant news story was not being told. Like, we have these degenerative diseases and a way to prevent it.”

The China Study, a lifestyle guide based on the findings of a 20-year study of nutrition in rural China, found drastic connections between nutrition and degenerative diseases like diabetes and cancer. In the words of Dr. T Colin Campbell, one of the authors of the study, “People who ate the most animal-based foods got the most chronic disease … People who ate the most plant-based foods were the healthiest and tended to avoid chronic disease.”

The overwhelming message of the study as well as the whole food nutrition movement, according to Wendel, was deserving of the silver screen.

“I saw what The Inconvenient Truth did for climate chance, and I wanted to get the message out there. I though a feature film was the best way to do that. I wanted it to be The Inconvenient Truth of nutrition.”

The message of the film, that degenerative diseases were preventable and even reversible by the elimination of animal-based products in one’s diet, is supplemented by testimonials from real people who saw positive health changes in themselves after adopting the FOK diet.

“Evelyn Oswick’s story was the most impactful for me. Doctors had given up on her 20 years ago…” – who said this?

Oswick suffered her second heart attack and doctors told her it was untreatable, which led to her starting on a plant-based diet. “So many people have been in her situation, and have passed away as a result. Everyone has a relative like Evelyn, and it makes an impact that the disease is so treatable.”

Very famous for his health transformation is former President and fast-food lover Bill Clinton, who was featured in the CNN special The Last Heart Attack. In the report, Sanjay Gupta sits down with Clinton, who after showing symptoms of heart disease and undergoing heart bypass surgery, says what really changed his health was switching to a plant-based diet. Clinton had a long history of battling his health and heart disease, and having seen how success of diet with no-meat, no-dairy, and very little oil, he tells Gupta he is optimistic about getting back to his “law-school weight.”

More astonishing is the assertion that if everyone were to adopt the same nutritional path, we may very well see the last heart attack in America. Ever.

Why aren’t more people on this diet? For one thing, the parameters of the FOK diet are (if you’ll excuse the pun) pretty tough to swallow.

No dairy, meat, fish, or chicken, and virtually no oil. Or, as Gupta puts it, “Nothing with a mother. Nothing with a face.” If you’re thinking to yourself, “This sounds awfully familiar… isn’t this just a vegan diet?” you’re almost right. Forks Over Knives actually avoids using the term “vegan” when talking about the plant-based diet.

“There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the word ‘vegan,’” says Gene Stone, editor of the book Forks Over Knives that accompanies the film. “… but people who make vegan choices aren’t necessarily eating well: a diet of potato chips, diet soda, pretzels, and dairy-free cupcakes is vegan, but that’s not a diet that’s going to nourish you.”

It’s completely possible to adhere to a vegan diet and yet malnourish yourself if you don’t make the right choices. Wendel says, “This issue is that a vegan diet is about what you can ‘never’ eat.” Eliminating animal-based food products is only part of the equation.

“What the people in FOK are saying isn’t that you should be eating just plant-based foods, but that you should be eating plant-based whole foods,” says Stone. “That’s an important distinction because you must eat whole foods, meaning whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, to obtain all the nutrition you need. Processed foods, even if composed of non-animal sources, are often very poor dietary choices.”

Just as the CNN special predicts we will see the “last heart attack,” Wendel looks forward to a healthier culture of nutrition. He says, “I think we’ve hit a pivot point in the Western diet, and I see it heading towards a more plant-based diet within the next ten or twenty years.”

Stone also sees an attitude adjustment towards the nutritional movement.

“Only five years ago, when I switched to a plant-based diet, people thought this was an odd choice to make. In fact, a lot of my friends made fun of me and my “rabbit food” diet, but in the last few years things have changed… Just today in the New York Times, there was a large article in the sports section about a vegan body builder. Fives years ago, the Times would never have run such a piece.”

Wendel shared with BTR seeing the conversion happen before his very eyes, as most of his production crew and team eventually made the switch to a plant-based diet. “I really only wanted to put the best team together possible. I wasn’t looking people already on the diet. Sure enough, without really pushing, everyone from the editors to our music composer was turned on to it. It became this kind of joke among the team, like ‘Yeah, it’s only a matter of time…’ ”

Whether or not the rest of America will be on board with the FOK food revolution, however, remains to be seen. It’s a New Year, and as resolutions to get into better nutrition and fitness habits are put to the test, Forks Over Knives offers a solution that doesn’t require invasive surgery or expensive gym memberships. If anything, the documentary brings the nation’s health focus back from ab-blasting and body sculpting glamour to plain and simple strategies of taking better care of what goes into your body.

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