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Diet for a long life?

(article, Rebecca Kessler)

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'"Forks a provocative new documentary by director Lee Fulkerson, starts by reminding viewers of some grim facts. We Americans are getting fatter and fatter, and we’re increasingly afflicted by so-called "diseases of affluence," including heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. Half of us depend on prescription drugs to keep us alive, and at least partly as a result, our nation’s health-care costs are bloating like our waistlines.

“Could there be a single solution to all of these problems?” the film intones. “A solution so comprehensive, yet so straightforward that it’s mind-boggling that more of us haven’t taken it seriously?”

The solution, according to "Forks Over Knives," is twofold. The first step is cutting out, or at least drastically decreasing, the meat, dairy, eggs, and processed foods (white flour, refined sugar, oil) that we eat. The second step is switching to a plant-based diet of fruits, veggies, whole grains, and legumes. (The film shies away from using the word “vegan,” although a vegan diet is essentially what it proposes.)

[%image colincampbell float=right width=400 caption="Colin Campbell has carried out decades of research on diet and health."]

Through case studies, statistics, and research, "Forks Over Knives" lays out a convincing case that this kind of eating can prevent, and sometimes even reverse, some of America’s most deadly diseases. 

Two avuncular and well-credentialed medical researchers — both of whom grew up, ironically, on dairy or beef farms — provide the research muscle for the film. Colin Campbell, a professor emeritus of nutritional biochemistry at Cornell University, and Caldwell Esselstyn, Jr. (aka “Dr. Sprouts”), a surgeon for many years at the Cleveland Clinic, independently carried out decades of research demonstrating a positive correlation between the kind of eating they advocate and low rates of “affluenza” diseases. 

One compelling example: Before World War II, deaths from stroke and heart attack were rising rapidly in Norway. When the Germans invaded in 1940, they appropriated all farm animals for their own use, and the Norwegians’ circulatory-disease deaths declined abruptly — faster than modern medicines and surgeries have accomplished in any population. The deaths declined right up to 1945 — that is, when hostilities ceased, and the Norwegians got their animals back.

Esselstyn has successfully treated more than 250 heart-disease patients, including some deemed lost causes, with this kind of diet. “Heart disease, as far as I’m concerned, is an absolutely toothless paper tiger,” he says. “It need never ever exist. And if it does exist, it need never ever progress.”

An all-veg-all-the-time menu probably won’t immediately appeal to either foodies or the average American consumer. But then again, the stakes are very high, especially for the very ill. 

[%image caldwellesselstyn float=right width=400 caption="A surgeon for many years at the Cleveland Clinic, Caldwell Esselstyn, Jr., treated hundreds of patients with a plant-based diet."]

Take the case of Joey Aucoin, a landscaper in Tampa, Florida. To manage his Type 2 diabetes, skyrocketing cholesterol, and the imminent threat of a heart attack or stroke, Aucoin starts out on a regimen of nine prescription pills and two injections a day, at a cost of nearly $200 each month. As the film shows, the drugs’ side effects and Aucoin's general poor health have driven him to the brink, and he enters the care of a pair of Los Angeles doctors with a litany of 27 complaints ranging from regular diarrhea to sleeplessness to fatigue. 

The docs abruptly discontinue his meds, switch him to a strict plant-based diet, and start him on an exercise program. After five months on the diet, the transformation is visible: Aucoin has lost 28 pounds and his blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, and inflammation markers have all plummeted, in some cases to normal levels. All but one complaint has vanished, and Aucoin seems to be rid of his meds for good. He couldn’t be happier. 

"Forks Over Knives," and the doctors and patients it follows, are surely onto something — something big. But there can be no doubt that it’s a movie with a motive. While accusing federal agencies like the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Science Foundation of kowtowing to agribusiness in setting national diet recommendations and research agendas, the film digs only superficially into whatever arguments there may be against promoting this wholesale dietary revolution as national policy. It brings in just two interviewees with a different viewpoint, and they mainly offer easily debunked platitudes along the lines of meat and dairy being essential sources of protein and calcium without which Americans would shrivel up and die. 


h1.Related information
'"Forks runs 96 minutes (Monica Beach Media).

The T. Colin Campbell Foundation website features a user-generated recipe section.

Bill Clinton is on a plant-based diet; check out this video of him telling Wolf Blitzer about it.


It’s hard to imagine there’s much research contradicting the health benefits of a plant-based diet, but are there really no credible alternate opinions? The doctors in the film are teetotalers, threatening to boot their patients out of the program if they fall off the wagon with an occasional meatball sub. But what about Mark Bittman’s more manageable proposal, outlined in his book Food Matters, of eating “vegan until six” p.m., after which the menu is open? Thoroughly vetting a range of opinions, and especially the opposition, would have strengthened the balance and credibility of “Forks Over Knives.”

Still, the skeptical aftertaste I experienced was hardly a dealbreaker. There’s no doubt Americans’ waistlines, disease burdens, medical expenses, and carbon footprints would all be much lighter if we kicked our animal-fat-heavy, junk-food diet to the curb.

p(bio). Rebecca Kessler writes about science, the environment, and food. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island.

colincampbell, l

caldwellesselstyn, l

reference-image, l