Thursday, November 17, 2011

On the Film "Forks Over Knives" and Plant-Based Diet Advocacy

With Thanksgiving, a holiday centered around food coming up, it seemed most appropriate to write about Forks Over Knives, one of the latest of many documentaries (not to mention books) about the role of diet in health.

This film advocates for a heavily plant-based diet. At least mostly vegetarian (using meat and other animal products very sparingly as flavoring, and big increases the whole grains, legumes, fruits, and veggies), and ideally strict vegetarian (no meat, dairy, or eggs.) Normally I have avoided films and books that have advocated for vegetarianism, especially strict vegetarian (vegan) diets.

A recent speaker advocating such a diet at one of my local humanist group's program meeting reminded me why. Too often, advocates of vegetarianism, especially veganism, support their message with a bunch of self-righteous moralizing about a level of animal rights that simply doesn't jive with my (or most people's) moral compass. I would happily stab a thousand cows in the face if it would cure a loved-one of cancer. And while I am concerned about the inhumane conditions of much factory farming, there are alternatives of buying and consuming meat from local farmers, and these are becoming more and more accessible. The animal rights approach swiftly dismisses the cultural, psychological, and practical hurtles many must overcome to be vegan, and likens even the occasional meat-eater to puppy torturers. The lecture I recently heard definitely took this approach, and I left the meeting highly annoyed and desiring a cheeseburger just out of spite.

Forks Over Knives does NOT take this approach. Animals rights aren't even mentioned. In fact, the term "vegan" seems to be deliberately avoided in exchange for the phrase "plant-based diet", presumably to distance itself from the association with groups like PETA. Instead, the film focuses on the personal health benefits of a plant-based diet, particular a whole foods, plant-based diet. And it backs its claims up mainly by profiling the research and conclusions of two doctors: T. Colin Campbell and Caldwell Esselstyn. Campbell is a biochemist and one of the lead researchers in the China-Oxford Cornell study that looked at nutrition and disease in 65 rural counties in China over two decades. Campbell wrote about his research and findings in a best selling book The China Study, published in 2006.  Esselstyn is a physician at the Cleveland Clinic who had success treating heart disease patients through diet and wrote about it in Prevent and Reserve Heart Disease, published in 2008. I had previously read both of these doctors' books and had been heavily persuaded by them, while maintaining a few grains of skepticism. After all, the role of nutrition in health is incredibly complex and difficult to study, and both Campbell and Esselstyn make some pretty far-reaching claims about how well a plant-based diet can eliminate many "diseases of affluence" (as Campbell puts it in his book), in particular heart disease, stroke, and cancer.

After reading the books in 2008, I attempted to eat a diet that was mostly in-line with what they advocated. Indeed, I felt good, still enjoyed food, and combined with regular exercise I dropped 25 pounds over 6 months.

But then I got pregnant. (Indeed, the reason I was trying to get all healthy was in anticipation of pregnancy.) It was amazing how much months of persistent nausea and vomiting, as well as hormone-induced cravings for ham salad, cheeseburgers, ice cream, and a total disgust for all things vegetable quickly converted me back to my old way of eating. Actually, much worse than my old way of eating. Things improved a bit after the first trimester, and after having my baby, my love of vegetables returned and I started replacing processed foods, meat, and cheese, with more fresh fruits, veggies, and legumes. But while breastfeeding and eventually introducing a baby to solid foods, I also kept butter, milk, and eggs in the fridge at all times, and made meals with meat at least once or twice a week.

I read Michael Pollan's book In Defense of Food, which can be summed up in his mantra "Eat food (as in not overly-processed Frankenfoods). Not too much. Mostly plants." And I was feeling pretty darn good about my family's diet. Then comes along "Forks Over Knives" to remind me of all that stuff I read and started to believe 3 years ago, and I started questioning whether I should be buying a dozen eggs and some sort of free range meat or fish every week.

After watching the film, I poked around the Internet looking for criticisms. I am automatically skeptical of these sorts of documentaries that heavily push a particular political, social, or philosophical point of view. They have a tendency to gloss over important criticisms and utilize a good number of fallacious arguments. And indeed, I found this lengthy but humorous, even-handed, yet heavy critique of the film's scientific claims. The author, Denise Minger, is a young person without any academic credentials in a related field. However, her research and arguments are rather thorough and startling, and I found them quite persuasive. Once again I'm feeling pretty good about allowing my daughter her meatballs and "eggie pie" (quiche) a couple times a week since, after all, she eats just as much beans and brown rice, oatmeal, a wide variety of steamed vegetables, and whole fruits on a daily basis.

For this Thanksgiving I have pre-ordered a free range, local turkey. As a couple of my guests are vegan, it will be accompanied by a wide assortment of plant-based side dishes including strictly vegetarian green bean casserole, mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy, sweet potato casserole, cranberry salad, and pumpkin pie - all made with fresh ingredients.

But I gotta say, I'm looking forward to that bird.

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