Monday, May 23, 2011

Forks Over Knives

Last night my friend Mudpie and I went to see the new documentary Forks Over Knives at the Kendall Square theater in Cambridge. It was a Sunday night at 9:30, so I shouldn't have been surprised that there were only a handful of people watching. Still, it was kind of a shame, because the movie was so incredibly moving and inspiring.

I was braced to see heart-wrenching footage of factory farms and gory images of sickly hearts undergoing surgery, but there was actually much more of the latter than the former. This isn't a film about animal rights, although it touches upon the subject briefly when the filmmaker visits Gene Baur, the founder of Farm Sanctuary in Watkins, NY. Its subject is nutrition and the indisputable science behind the fact that a plant-based diet is the most beneficial diet for humans from every perspective: warding off disease -- including cancer, heart disease and diabetes -- lowering incidences of depression, lowering the cost of health care on an individual and institutional basis, stabilizing the economy and contributing to the health of the planet. Seems like tall order for a salad, no?

The film explores why we seem to favor surgery and pharmaceuticals over such a simple answer to our national health crises. (Hint: The same people who created the food pyramid represent Big Agro and sit on the Dairy Council.) There's fascinating footage from the fifties and sixties showing ads encouraging people to drink lots of milk and eat meat for protein. And all those messages are still lodged firmly in the consciousness of the American people even as meat and dairy over-consumption continues to make us sicker and sicker.

The two stars of the film are T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D. and Caldwell Esseltyn, M.D., whose work provides much of the decades-long research and clinical experience to back up the therapeutic claims of a plant-based diet. But they are joined by many other medical professional whose work also verifies these claims. (There are, of course, dissenting opinions gathered by representatives from the American Dietetic Association and the USDA, but these are pretty easily dismissed when their ties to Big Agro are exposed.)

Some surprises in the film: the only person to ever use the term "vegan" was Mac Danzig, an ultimate fighting star whose physique should put to rest forever the false claim that you need animal protein to build muscle. Danzig takes great pains to portray his dietary choice as personal, not political, saying that it's what works for him, and that he did it for totally selfish reasons to get into optimum shape. Still, watching him in action is a pretty compelling argument for becoming vegan! (Abs to rival Phil Collens's, y'all!)

The animal studies highlighted in the film that test links to dairy and cancer used groups of rats fed a diet of 5% casein (dairy protein) and 20%. The rats in the 5% group had negligible cancer rates, whereas the rats in the 20% group had skyrocketing cancer rates. But when the rats in the 20% group were brought down to a 5% casein diet, their rates dropped back down to the levels of the rats that had been fed a 5% diet all along. Now, I have to admit, animal studies (even for such a good cause) make me cringe. Still the idea that cancer triggers can be turned off just as easily as they can be turned on is pretty exciting. Even more exciting is that the no-cancer group didn't have casein removed entirely, just lowered to a 5% rate, which supports the idea that we can leave room in our diets for the occasional indulgence, and still enjoy health as long as the majority of the time we're consuming the stuff that's good for us. (Vegetables, grains, fruits.)

We also got to see some regular people with the usual diseases (heart, diabetes, breast cancer) who switch to a plant-based diet under the supervision of Dr. Esselstyn and the results are pretty astounding. Diabetes is completely reversed, heart patients given less than a year to live thrive for the next 20. And then there's Ruth Heidrich, a woman who was diagnosed with breast cancer in her forties, who is still running Ironman triathlons in her seventies. There's a particularly clever shot of her running through a crowded park, past a bench where two elderly people -- probably her age -- are sitting, hunched, while she trots by in her form-fitting shorts. Almost like the viewer is given a choice: which person do you want to be? The sickly, tired one on the bench, or the one that's still vital well past an age when we expect people to have the energy for long walks, never mind running marathons.

Drs. Campbell and Esselstyn are also living examples of why a plant-based diet works. Both these men (born in '33 and '34, respectively) are in their seventies and healthy and active in their fields. Go see this movie! And if you don't want to take my word for it, take Roger Ebert's. He says it'll save your life.

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