I’ve been catching up so far this summer on my Netflix instant queue, including watching some of my backlog of food-oriented documentaries, so expect occasional reviews in the coming months (and feel free to make a request if there’s a movie you’re thinking about seeing but want to know whether it’s worth your time). Up today? documentary about the vegan diet Forks Over Knives.
The documentary focuses specifically on the relationship between dietary choices and health — by which I mean both daily levels of comfort, but also chronic illness. In examining the connection between the consumptions of meat and dairy products and serious conditions like cancers, heart disease, and of course, obesity, the film explores and ultimately, advocates for the benefits of a whole-foods, plant-based diet (yes, by which they mean vegan).
What I liked
I particularly enjoyed that, despite the fact that they were refering to a dietary plan with a name — vegan — the doctors and filmmakers refrained from calling it such. This suggests, first, a flexibility on the part of those advocating for this diet. They did mention several times that reducing or minimizing the consumption of animal products was the goal.
And they also were careful to clarify the whole foods part of the dietary plan several times — that is, they were not suggesting a sharp increase in tofu or other meat substitutes, but rather a diet, focused on plants that were cooked but minimally processed, if at all.
What I learned
A lot of the health connections between meat and chronic disease were not a mystery to me (though I know they would be to some audiences) but the research in the film relied on international dietary models to form the basis of comparison, and I hadn’t heard much of that. Since science tends to be (rightly) focused on proving the causal connection between diet and health, American medicine doesn’t often look to other countries to see what might be different elsewhere, both in terms of what we eat and how it supports our body’s functions.
One especially striking statistic was this: the average annual number of prostate cancer — a disease causally linked to overconsumption of red meat — diagnoses in Japan is 18, compared to the American average of 16,000.
I also learned that rat-based studies have found an inverse relationship between diet and cancer tumor growth. That is, rats fed a diet high in red meat protein experienced growth in cancerous tumors. But when those same rats were fed a plant-based diet, they experienced a reduction in tumor size.
All of this is to say that the arguments for fueling our bodies with plant food, rather than animal food, is compelling. Not only in terms of avoiding serious illness, but also in terms of what works best for our bodies. (The film profiled several high-performance vegan athletes including professional triathletes and an MMA fighter!)
What was missing
When the film was over, I went back and checked what year it was released and was surprised to find that it was just 2011. I remembered it being recent, but after viewing the documentary, I wondered if I had been wrong. Because the information — but more than that, the perspective — seems dated.
I kept waiting for the point when the narrator and filmmaker, or the doctors who were at the center of the film, would discuss non-industrially produced animal products, and that moment never came, despite the fact that the ills of animal foods, according to the research, was mostly focused on the presence of hormones and steroids.
The notion of organic dairy and grass-fed meat are addressed on the film’s website, but not in great enough detail for me to be able to discern whether I believe the information is accurate. The registered dietician on that site writes that “Even organically produced dairy contain naturally occurring steroids and hormones, which can promote cancer growth,” but that is the extent of the detail. She goes on to note that there is no significant nutritional difference between grass-fed and grain-fed meat (which is true) but doesn’t address the notion that grass-fed meat is absent much of the fat and therefore, cholesterol of grain-fed meat, and is also absent synthetic chemicals, toxins, antibiotics, etc.
If the film addressed these ideas, and had the research to suggest that it would be better to reduce or eliminate meat than to simply eat antibiotic-free, pasture-raised meat, I could accept that. I wouldn’t eat that way, but at least I would know where they stood. But for a film made in 2011 to ignore the alternatives completely seemed strange to me.
Overall, some interesting info, but a pretty snooze-worthy approach to documentary storytelling with not much new for a reasonably-informed food advocate. Watch if you’re interested in learning more about a plant-based diet, and the science therein. But if you want an engaging film about the dangers of the western diet, try Supersize Me instead.
If you’ve seen Forks Over Knives, or have some perspective on the dietary plan, I’d love to hear what you think! Leave a comment and share your thoughts below.