Forks Over Knives: The Vegans Are Coming, And They Are Bringing Data

If you were to boil and mash the food documentaries Super Size Me and Food, Inc. together, then add a dash of An Inconvenient Truth, and serve on a bed of pro-vegan rhetoric, you'd get a film like Forks Over Knives.  

Following a familiar documentary path that films a change of lifestyle and the eating habits of its writer/director, Lee Fulkerson turns the camera on himself at the doctor's office as he is diagnosed as overweight and out of shape. 

​Rather than focusing solely on his own health and habits, he includes several others as well. As we hear from his doctors and watch him slim down, we are bombarded with data. Yes, bombarded. 

The facts and figures and graphs come at you so fast, for a moment I thought I was in a 3D film. Perhaps this 3D effect was in part because I was in the front row, the only row where seats were still available in the surprisingly packed theater. 

The film is data heavy- charts and graphs and numbers, oh my. Forks Over Knives bases its argument for a "plant-based diet" (read: VEGAN, however, the film rarely uses the word vegan, instead, cloaking its rhetoric in the term, "plant-based") on work done by two now septuagenarian doctors. 

The doctors are Dr. T. Colin Campbell, whose life's work includes a critical study on plant-based diets in China, as well as efforts to use this research to help feed hungry children around the word in a low cost way, and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, a doctor based out of the famed Cleveland clinic. Dr. Esselstyn began his study by working with a group of near death cancer and heart patients, whom he sets out to cure with food, many of which give testimonials in the film. In fact, this film has more testimonials than a Proactiv infomercial. And while the results of both doctors' work are swirled into the lake of data that comes at us, none of this information is completely new. 

Mixed into all of the data and testimonials to the benefits of a "plant-based diet" are clips of meat being processed, and surgery footage from the past decades, to hammer home that knives means scalpels, people. The bloody meat and bodies are enough of a smack over the head to make even the most die hard carnivore want to avoid meat for a while, or at least an hour.

More meat after the jump.

Drs. Caldwell and Esselstyn themselves are incredibly interesting. Both born in the early 1930s on farms, both alive during America's switch of lifestyles from local and home grown foods to processed supermarket and fast foods, each doctor has accumulated decades of results proving plant-based diets save lives and the environment. These men are well into their 70's and visibly healthy, energetic, vibrant even. Every vegan pictured in the film has this look, especially Mac Danzig, UFC mixed martial arts champion. He is really the only one featured who uses the word vegan.

​So what can possibly be wrong with a film that just wants you to be healthy? They are right about just about everything. It is what they don't say. First of all, why not mention the other diet craze that came out of the same clinic as Dr. Esselstyn's "plant based diet"? You know the one, the Protein-Sparing Modified fast, which eliminates all fruits, most veg, and stresses the importance of animal protein. Maybe you have heard of its wildly popular spin-off, the Aikens' Diet, which promoted an almost all meat protein diet. I found it an important tidbit, considering, that for years now, people have known about and been following the animal based diets, while out of the same clinic, comes the polar opposite of that. 

While everyone included in the film touts how easy and delicious a vegan diet can be, there are no recipe how-to's, shopping guides, or sample menus, other than quick shots of Fulkerson and his doctor in a Whole Foods grocery store. In addition to that, they say "whole foods" many times, but do not define it, leaving one to wonder if they are just plugging the market chain. Fulkerson doesn't recommend any cookbooks, show us how to order at restaurants, or let us follow him around while he forages for plant-based food all day. Instead, they direct viewers to the website for more info at the very end.

What is compelling about this documentary are some of the many patients that it follows. There is the single mother of five in Cleveland who was obese, diabetic, and works for a diabetes clinic yet rebukes their treatment and meds for Dr. Esselstyn's "plant based diet" and gets well. There is the middle aged Florida man who was an overweight diabetic heart attack waiting to happen, the breast cancer patient, the group of firefighters in Austin, and even Fulkerson himself. We watch as they all get thinner, healthier, visibly happier.

Forks Over Knives feels longer and slower than its 90 minute run time. And it is repetitive; we hear the same things over and over. And what we hear is nothing remarkably new. What felt new to me, however, is just how long these men have been collecting this data and how long its been out there. But Fulkerson doesn't tell us why it has been buried. Maybe we are supposed to guess. Maybe we are supposed to make the connection between big agribusiness, the government subsidies to the industries that support corporate cattle and corn syrup, ourselves. These get a quick mention, but a mention is all. 

Fulkerson brings up a lot of information, and then just leaves it there, in a very ADD sort of way. Maybe for his next project, he can make a documentary about what to eat to cure ADD.

Follow Chow Bella on Facebook and Twitter.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michelle Martinez