FORKS OVER KNIVES is not a sophisticated piece of filmmaking, but it is a very effective one. Filmmaker Lee Fulkerson was not out to make art. He was out to engage in advocacy journalism, the which he does with great success, balancing facts, theories, and case studies, his own included, in pursuit of teaching his audience the facts of the great American diet. Much of this information, about meat being bad, plants being good, has been covered before, but Fulkerson brings a precision and a clarity to his presentation that hits hard as it explodes myths while also introducing startling facts, comforting and not.
He starts out with a summary of everything thatís wrong with the current state of Americaís health. Obesity, hypertension, heart disease, etc. Nothing new, but lively graphics do a remarkable job of, for example, explaining why empty calories from refined food lead to overeating without ever quite leading to a feeling of satiation. A graph showing the incidence of osteoporosis occurring in populations that indulge in dairy is followed by the scientific explanation for it, and accompanied by images of bones ravaged by the condition. Itís enough to make the dairy section of a grocery store singularly off-putting. As for meat, it never been photographed in a more unappealing fashion. Perhaps itís the lighting. Perhaps itís the narrative thread inexorably linking it to everything from heart disease to cancer. Perhaps itís the clips of open-heart surgery in all its glory that seem a little too much like the clips of animals being butchered. Whatever it is, Fulkerson turns what should be mouthwatering shots of huge slabs of beef and sausages grilling on a barbecue into outtakes from a splatter film.
New information, and itís startling, comes from the ability of a proper diet, whole foods and plant-based is the mantra, to not just stop the decline of a personís health, but in some cases to actually reverse the damage. There are graphics for that, too, but the strongest image is that of Fulkerson himself. He and another subject, Joey Aucoin, start out in pretty bad shape. Aucoin, in particular, is on several meds and giving himself two shots a day, is sluggish, fatigued, and yet canít sleep more than four hours a night. By the end of the whole foods, plant-based program a supervised by a doctor dedicates to a whole systemĎs approach to health, heís fit, alert, and off the meds entirely. As for why this isnít the norm in the mainstream medical world, Fulkerson introduces the reaction of same to another subject, overweight and diabetic. She describes her doctorís reaction to the lowered blood sugar that resulted from her dietary changes supervised by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn. Itís odd. The doctor is alarmed that Dr. Esselstyn is going to take her off her meds even though she no longer displays the symptoms that prompted them. The conclusions, never stated overtly, are troubling. Is this doctor so devoted to meds rather than lifestyle changes that she is unable to appreciate a patientís recovery, or is it something else?
The heroes of the film are Drs. Colin Campbell and Esselstyn, who working separately eventually through research and novel thinking came to the same conclusions about diet reform. For one, it was a correlation between meat-eating and liver-cancer in children. For the other, it was a revelation about his calling to surgery not treating the cause, but only the symptom of many illnesses. Both turned from received wisdom despite the disapproval and worse of established medical institutions.
The more extreme cases, a woman who had been told that she should go home and prepare to die outliving that diagnosis by 20 years, a breast cancer patient recovering using only a change it diet. It seems like there should be a disclaimer about those results not being typical, but there is no getting around Fulkersonís drop in his cholesterol count when following the whole foods, plant-based diet. Lab results that go from knocking on deathís door, to ones that are to die for, in strictly the metaphorical sense, are not to be taken lightly.
There are many facts and figures in FORKS OVER KNIVES, as well as the smiling faces of people who have recovered their health and sense of well-being, including as one elderly gentleman puts it, the ability to still raise the flag. But it also poses unsettling questions about the motives behind the nutritional guidelines recommended by the Department of Agriculture, to the reality, or not, of free scientific inquiry in academia. But the best question it poses is the one asked posed in the film itself, the one about whether following this diet is too extreme. No more than having a vein, or veins, cut out of your leg and grafted into your chest is the pointed reply, and, ahem, food for thought it certainly is.