Forks Over Knives

Forks Over Knives had gotten quite a bit of buzz, so I put my name on the waitlist at our local library. It’s a damning indictment of animal products and processed foods. According to this documentary, our diet is responsible for many of our health problems, especially heart disease and prostate cancer.

Heart disease and prostate cancer? I was particularly susceptible to this message because this film became available at the library very shortly after my dad’s cardiac event and open heart surgery. This was a few months after he had completed treatment for prostate cancer (p.s. My dad loved 2011. It kicked ass). I watched the segment of Forks Over Knives showing coronary bypass surgery less than a week after my father had undergone this procedure. They had my attention.

Speaking of my dad, I made cookies for his heart party recently. What cookie platter would be complete without heart bypasses and gingerbread men with chest scars?

Graphically gratifying for the sweet tooth

People in this film told their stories of reversing heart disease with a plant-based whole foods diet. They had heart scans to back this up. Filmmakers showed us doctors who got their patients off of tons of medications used to treat lifestyle-based illness (like heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension) using diet and exercise. Then, medical professionals shared their research reviews and their own findings in this area.

And this is where Forks Over Knives took a terrifying turn for me. Cultures in the world that have a different diet than we have also seem to have much lower incidences of cancer and heart disease. The big differences in these diets? We eat a lot more processed foods, meat, and dairy. Let that sink in: this film shows very compelling evidence that we need to cut out ALL animal products. I got a little dizzy. Yes, we have been trying to reduce our reliance on cheese, but no cheese? Ever? No eggs? These bitches are talking about veganism! And even if I was cool with that (which I am trying to be), the one-two punch is that oils, flours and sugars have to be out, too. I’m grateful that Little Hippie was not watching this with me, because I think she would’ve had her own heart attack. I don’t even want to tell her where this leaves macaroni and cheese. Even the made-from-scratch kind.

Forks Over Knives made a lot of sense. I approached it like I did The South Beach Diet back when everyone was south beaching. I read the book, thought that it made a lot of sense, and adopted some of the lifestyle changes and recipes without signing onto the whole program. It seemed like a much more sustainable plan than trying for the two carb-free weeks. Thus, we are trying new whole grains, eating less dairy, and cutting back on meat, oil and sugar.  Even if the movie ended up being total BS, these changes seemed reasonable and intelligent based on what I’ve read over the past 6 years. .

Something kept nagging at me. The Hippie Husband came into the kitchen while I was watching part of Forks Over Knives (most of the media I watch happens while I am cooking or cleaning the kitchen), and he made a snarky comment about the misleading use of statistics in that particular segment. It reminded me that I should probably check out the science behind these claims before proclaiming my new-found veganism to the masses. This was a busy time for me with my dad, the kids, and life in general, so I did not invest any time in fact-checking. I just made a few small changes to our diets and kept “Research Forks Over Knives” on my to-do list for a couple of months.

Finally, I got around to checking the film’s accuracy. It seemed like a good idea at the end of December, when so many people are considering changes to diet and lifestyle for the upcoming year.

First, I spoke with our pediatrician, who gave a ringing endorsement to Forks Over Knives. She is a big believer in foods over pharmaceuticals, which is one of the many things I love about her. Our doc had cautioned us about dairy products in the past, telling us that the Ear, Nose and Throat surgeon in our medical group had kids cut out dairy for a month before he would schedule them for surgery to place ear tubes. The practice has seen a huge reduction in the need for this procedure as a result. Baby Hippie had a nasty run with recurring ear infections, especially after starting cow’s milk. BH hates cheese, so cutting out dairy was not a painful step, and we haven’t had an ear infection since then (furiously knocking on wood as I type this). More anecdotal evidence that the folks in Forks aren’t just whistling dixie.

Next, I hit the InterWeb to see if anybody else had done my homework for me and fact-checked Forks Over Knives. I found a couple of sites, but the most thorough one was from Denise Minger, at It is lengthy. It is witty. It explains statistics in a very approachable manner. It is well worth the read if you have time – I laughed out loud more than once.

According to Minger, Forks Over Knives plays fast and loose with the statistics. Some of her examples are shocking. One of the quotes in the movie leaves out important information that can be seen on the screen when they show the excerpt from the study they are quoting. You can see it right there! Minger gives an awful lot of examples; enough that I am approaching Forks Over Knives with a bit more caution.

A big point Minger makes is that “The American Diet” is not synonymous with animal products. There are lots of other issues with how we eat. Also, a lot of the research cited in Forks Over Knives leaves out some important factors – many of the studies showed that increased fish consumption happened at the same time that meat and dairy consumption decreased. We also tend to see a drop in flour and sugar consumption in the studies showing a diet-based reduction in heart disease. A lot of intervening variables are ignored, and that leaves holes in the research.

Luckily for me, Minger pokes a LOT of holes in the study used by Forks Over Knives to condemn dairy products (well, one particular protein found in milk that quickly becomes a proxy for all animal proteins over the course of the film). This study showed that eating a diet high in dairy protein “turns on” cancer in lab rats. The takeaway from this in the movie is that animal protein lets cancer through the door. The takeaway for me was that we need to cut out milk protein. Looking more carefully at available research, the takeaway is not so cut-and-dried. Certainly not clearly enough to justify throwing out the eggs and milk products. Vegan avoidance accomplished. God bless Denise Minger.

Some points on which Minger and Forks Over Knives seem to agree:

  • Processed foods, especially the sugars and wheat flours, are doing terrible things to our bodies.
  • Eating more vegetables is a good idea.
  • So is eating less fat.

It’s tough to argue with these ideas. I can enthusiastically recommend seeing Forks Over Knives and reading Denise Minger’s critique thereof. All things considered, my big takeaways from the film are going to be:

  • Seriously reduce the number of convenience foods we eat.
  • Start counting sugars, oils and flours as processed foods.
  • Ramp up the number and variety of whole foods.
  • Stop counting fruits and vegetables equally – more veggies, please.

I don’t do New Year’s Resolutions, but I do set a list of things I’d like to try and things I’d like to learn in the upcoming year. For 2012, we will be learning lots about nutrition, and we will be trying lots of recipes that involve whole foods and plants. Stay tuned for the results!


9 thoughts on “Forks Over Knives

  1. Thanks for this, RH. A considered review – and one I like, at that. As I believe you know, I fully concur with the sugar and flours as processed food viewpoint. If I had my druthers, I would be grinding my own spelt berries as needed in my not-as-yet-acquired grain mill, thereby seriously reducing their processed nature (fewer nutrients lost in the oxidizing shuffle, or something like that). Eliminating all wheat and all sweeteners except honey and maple syrup have worked wonders for us. Whenever I “cheat” and eat something with sugar or wheat, I can tell the difference in a major way, and the difference isn’t pleasant. Life feels good without sugar, especially.

    I still don’t understand why we as a species drink and eat the fermented/preserved milk of other species. It seems that if we could get yogurt and cheese made out of human milk, we’d all be on the right track, but somehow I just don’t see the economy of scale materializing. Plus there’d be all kinds of restrictions or wishes about the milk-producer’s diet and lifestyle. It really just doesn’t pan out. But I try.

    Thanks again! And happy new year!

  2. Thanks for doing the research — I’ll check out Denise Minger’s website. Since I am vegan already, I still need nutrition information and am still working on decreasing sugar and flour consumption. I also occasionally stray into eating wildly processed frozen vegan food — which I can totally live without.

  3. You might want to read Dr. Campbell’s reply to Minger. He was very respectful, but basically pointed out how naive her critiques of his research were.

    • Thanks for the tip. I’m having trouble finding Dr. Campbell’s response without tons of editorializing by the bloggers who are posting it – do you have a link that just has his writing? Did he publish his response somewhere?

  4. Another statistic that Denise Minger pointed out, that was ignored in this documentary, was that more of the mice with the low dairy protein intake died early, so even though the mice with the low dairy intake didn’t have cancer, it may have been that they didn’t live long enough to develop it. All the mice with the high dairy protein intake lived to a ripe old age, for mice anyway.

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