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Forks Over Knives (2011)

May 17, 2011

written & directed by Lee Fulkerson
rated PG (for some thematic elements and incidental smoking)
U.S. release date: May 6, 2011 & May 13, 2011 (limited) 

Upon learning what it’s about, many Americans will scoff at this documentary and immediately dismiss it. Here is a film that provides evidence that a diet absent of meat and dairy, consisting solely of a “whole-foods, plants-based” diet, can save your life.  Right there, I lost the cheese steak and milkshake lovers. Knowing such information, you’re likely to move on. But, if you’re curious as to how ditching the typical Western diet can potentially reverse diseases, provide a pill-free life and a longer one at that, well take a seat and read on.
Heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol have made their home in the bodies of countless Americans. We have become a “growing” nation, where instead of changing what goes into our bodies, the solutions have become a vast array of prescription drugs or bariatric rescue tactics, which have only sky-rocketed health insurance rates. “Forks Over Knives” claims that these “diseases of affluence” as well as cancer and strokes can be prevented by a straightforward solution….a vegan diet. 
Writer/director and television documentarian, Lee Fulkerson leads by example as he decides to volunteer himself over to such a plan, taking viewers on an investigation into this co-called better life. He meets with a husband and wife physician team, Dr. Alona Pulde and Dr. Matthew Lederman (authors of Keep It Simple: Your Guide to Optimum Health), and a plan is mapped out to get Fulkerson’s cholesterol levels in shape simply by changing his diet. Wait? No pills? Over the course of the film (several months in real time), a renergized and rejuvenated Fulkerson is seen as he encounters others who have received similar benefits.
The diverse people that we meet have some of the same health issues, even graver problems than any Fulkerson had. Landscape owner Joey Aucoin was on countless meds and even self-injected twice daily for extremely high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes. He also met with the same doctors and over a period of time and quite a life change, is now free of medication and has completely reversed his ailments. Seeing Aucoin and others face the repercussions of bad decisions head-on is one of the inspiring aspects of the film. Too many times, we are given the problems in documentaries but rarely do we ever see the solutions. In a rare turn, we not only view the solutions lived out but also the dramatic, life-altering results.
The most fascinating part of  “Forks Over Knives”  are the two doctors (one clinical, one scientific) the film focuses on, whose separate career research led to the same findings. Dr. T. Colin Campbell (author of The  China Study: Startling Implications for Weight Loss and Long-term health) spent 20 years on the China Project, one of the most comprehensive studies on health and nutrition ever conducted. Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn (author of Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease) started out as an army surgeon in Vietnam and would eventually wind up in his native city, at the Cleveland Clinic where he played an integral part in breast cancer and thyroid research. Their research results led to the same conclusion, that the elimination of animal-based and processed food can control many diseases and in some cases see them reversed.           
It’s ironic that both doctors grew up on farms and now firmly back the opposite of what they knew to be true. They believed what we were all raised to believe that “milk does the body good” and is needed for calcium and meat is needed for protein. Turns out both are untrue and over the years such promotion has primarily come from corporations and departments of health who are paying more attention to monetary gain than they are weight gain or unhealthy statistics. No surprise there, since cozy images of the milkman of yesteryear and the friendly drive-thrus from the 50s, have been embedded into our social consciousness like folksy Norman Rockwell paintings.
The facts are provided in typical modern documentary style here, complete with 3D graphic charts, animation and street interviews.  Some of them are redundant and repetitive, while others are quite informative. One animated segment detailing how humans are like sharks in that our nature is to seek out what is pleasurable or easy, such as food and sex (or in a man’s case, as the film states, “sex and food”) is quite clever. These needed filmmaking elements mix up the talking heads, but the real draw is seeing people talk about how they’ve changed their lives based on what they’ve learned and put into action.
For anyone thinking a vegan man is a nature-loving wimp, Fulkerson gives us two men who will kill that stereotype. Rip Esselstyn (Dr. Esselstyn’s son) who was a professional triathlon athlete for years before becoming a firefighter in Austin, Texas, revitalized those in his engine company by kicking off a vegan diet plan after they all took physical exams. The results were dramatically positive (impressive considering this is the Lone Star state) and Rip wound up writing about it in The Engine 2 Diet. We also see prize-winning UFC fighter, Mac Danzig as a full-fledged vegan, which is more proof that a man can be in peak physical shape and not get protein from animals.

Many of the people Fulkerson spotlights were part of a research group under the guidance of Dr. Esselstyn and his wife, who held them accountable to the life change they committed to. All of them are quite inspiring. Seeing Ruth Heidrich, an Iron Man triathlon finisher now in her 70’s who was diagnosed with breast cancer in her 40’s, is both impressive and humbling. It was also a hoot to hear Anthony Yen, who survived quintuple bypass work for cardiovascular disease, joyfully proclaim that this diet has helped him “raise his flag” again (figure that out on your own).  These aren’t just success stories, they’re great examples of determination and resolve in that they wouldn’t let their conditions dictate their lives.
Bacon lovers and cheese connoisseurs will slam this movie or ignore it all together, yet they are the ones who really need to see this movie. Sure, like many documentaries, there is a slanted perspective here, but I didn’t mind it at all. I didn’t need to hear from meat or dairy defenders, mainly because I’ve already seen movies like “Super Size Me” and “Food, Inc” that have spelled it out for us. Plus, I’ve known for years that shunning a Western diet is a recipe for a smart life. The challenge is to get everyone else to see it, regardless of their current lifestyle, and let them decide to improve their own lives. 

For once, we have a film that isn’t perpetuating a health scare like the media so often does and instead we’re handed a menu for a rewarding life. It may not be for everyone (consult your doctor and all that) and it may not solve all illnesses, but it certainly can’t hurt you. What it comes down to is a mental shift really, a different way of looking at food and life that can be most beneficial in the long run, if you let it.

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