We the people of the United States, in order to form a more healthy Union, need to wean ourselves the hell off meat and dairy. It's a point that's driven home constantly by food-policy firebrands such as Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan, but their trumpeting often comes off so broadly, it's difficult to embrace. To borrow an infomercial phrase, what speaks to us most is real people and real results. That's precisely what makes Lee Fulkerson's new documentary, Forks Over Knives, fascinating.
The film, which opens in Philly this weekend, explores the power of the "whole foods plant-based diet," one at odds with two long-accepted pillars of Western eating: consuming meat (gotta get your protein) and milk (gotta get your calcium). Forks posits that America's poor-health epidemic can be remedied by permanently avoiding all animal protein, dairy and processed foods.
The movie's primary subjects, Drs. T. Colin Campbell and Caldwell Esselstyn Jr. (pictured above, left, with director Fulkerson), refute entrenched American dietary beliefs, supporting their arguments with multiple modes of research — Campbell headed up a groundbreaking study in rural China, gauging the long-term health of close to half a million citizens, while Esselstyn's dietary treatments takes place in the States — and bringing multiple success stories to the fore.
There are graphs and stats and M.D. sit-downs throughout, but you'll connect most with the people. Before taking on a plant-based diet (perhaps intentionally, the term "vegan" is barely uttered in the film), diabetic Joey Aucoin's life was dragged down by multiple prescriptions and injections; after overhauling how he eats, he's halted all his medications. San'Dera Brantley Nation, a mother of two, reversed hypertension and diabetes with the diet. Esselstyn's claim that heart disease, the No. 1 killer of Americans, is "a toothless paper tiger" comes off bold — until you see just how scientifically taut such a statement really is.
Forks falls into the classic docu-trap of casting its net too wide, at times weakening its powerful message. Though relevant to the discourse, Fulkerson's indictments of Big Agriculture come off as hasty leftist tangents, and the director (who takes on the plant-based diet himself in the film) is also guilty of fetishizing the eating habits of Asians, backing each broad-stroke segment on the Far East with wailing Chinese-buffet-style string music.
It's an imperfect documentary, but the big message sprouts untarnished — they might not persuade you to drop meat and dairy altogether, but they'll plant a seed. Changing our food philosophy is easier argued than executed, but Forks Over Knives ensures we're exposed to that argument.
Forks Over Knives opens Friday at Ritz at the Bourse. Head to Meal Ticket for a Q&A with Rip Esselstyn, author of The Engine 2 Diet and one of the subjects of the film.