In December of 2008, I was hospitalized for high blood pressure. Through an unfortunate combination of medication swapping and poor lifestyle choices, my blood pressure had shot up into the danger zone for stroke. Though I follow the exercise philosophy that it’s best not to run unless chased — and only then by a bear or equivalent land shark — I’m not exactly a sedentary individual, and I had been on a simple exercise regimen at that time. However, my blood pressure was so high that they couldn’t give me the simple treadmill test to determine it, since it was spiking well into the 200s. Upon leaving the hospital, the ER doctors had given me six prescriptions — for blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, stress, etc. I went to my personal physician and said, “Look, I’m not taking this shit. And I’m also not taking this shit lying down. I just spent four days in a hospital bed. Fuck that. If I promise to change my diet, which of these do I need to take?” Knowing what a stubborn bastard I could be when I was determined, he scrapped every scrip but the blood pressure meds. And from that day I started on a whole foods diet — whole grains, no dairy, low portions of meats, five meals a day, high fiber. And I’m not going to lie, it was fucking delicious. I was eating more than I did before, and it didn’t take long to prepare the foods. I shopped at farmer’s markets, and we weren’t spending more on groceries than we were before. I returned to my doctor, two months to the day. My cholesterol had reversed 100 points — all the bad was swapped out for good. My diabetes — gone. Completely fucking gone. My blood pressure had dropped not just out of danger, but I was able to reduce my medicine. Instead of the seven or eight pills I’d have to pop, I was taking one small pill. And my weight had dropped 30 pounds. My doctor was shocked — he wanted to know how I did it. I told him, a whole foods diet.
I don’t share this personal success story as some sort of Eric Cartmanesque “BEEEFFCCAAAAAKKE” like braggadocio. I tell you this because I want you to understand that I believe in this lifestyle. It does work — I’m living proof. And I was excited about seeing Lee Fulkerson’s documentary Forks Over Knives because it supposedly was espousing the virtues of a plant-based, whole foods vegan diet. I wanted to bring word of this down to you, because if you are having health concerns or you just want to make a lifestyle change — even following this diet halfway can help you. But Forks Over Knives isn’t what I had hoped. It’s a really poorly made infomercial — a group of success stories framed together to sell the vegan diet module. And it’s not even informative. Every time they bring up a moderately interesting point, they immediately discard it. There’s the beginnings of six or seven much better documentaries buried in between the “Lose Diabeetus Now, Ask Me How” victory stories of various people who undertook the effort to give up animal-based products. But it doesn’t express any new information, it doesn’t really do a proper job defending the various concerns most people have with adopting a vegan diet, and it doesn’t get into the actual nuts and bolts of how you would eat healthier. It’s a glossy brochure for vegan diet cookbooks and health clinics — and while it’s a bit like The Secret when it comes to the concept of reversal of cancer and heart disease. While these claims are pretty accurate, it’s a bit insulting when they espouse it as, “Stupid prostate cancer victim! All you had to do was eat some zucchini!”
The frustrating part is taking apart something I fervently believe in, like a Christian circling typos and logic errors in the Bible. Yes, the USDA and the Congress are working with farming interests rather than the health of their citizens. Yes, eating healthier makes you healthy. Yes, doctors are encouraged by pharmaceutical companies to use pills rather than food to modify your health concerns. All of this is common knowledge, it’s not telling me anything new. And if you didn’t know it, you’re not going to get more beyond that simple statement. A major portion of the film is dedicated to the scientific research of two doctors: Caldwell Esselstyn, a Cleveland doctor who did a clinical study on 24 patients following a strict vegan diet over 5 years, and T. Colin Campbell, who was part of a revolutionary study on the effects of animal-based proteins and the various types of cancer in China. They show rafts of statistics, and they show old people who are still alive thanks to the vegan lifestyle. But they don’t go beyond those. They just say, “Look! It works! Don’t eat any meat or dairy! Or you will die!”
I’m being glib, but it bothers me that they show several people going to the vegan diet supporting clinics and adopting the lifestyle. In between shots of greasy, VCR scanned old clips of huge sizzling hunks of charred meat, they show these gorgeous magazine shots of the vegan dishes. True, when you’re doing it right and eating more vegetables, your dishes are colorful. But this shit — there’s a shot of all the positive stories sitting around a beautiful wooden table, a lush bushel of apple sitting in the center of the table, while each of them eat a vegetable salsa like slaw complete with an avocado or squash filled with a dollop of wild rice and mushroom risotto. C’mon, Propagandhi, vegan food more often than not is a brown and green mess. It tastes fucking terrific, but it looks like baby shit. That’s why you want tomatoes and peppers.
They don’t ever tell you what they are eating. They don’t give a sample menu. They don’t explain the benefits of vegetable nutrition and what’s good for you and where you can get nutrients. They don’t say, you should eat these superfoods for proteins and whatnot. More importantly, they don’t explain whether or not the clinics are covered by insurance. Because they aren’t. Preventative medicine is not covered by insurance companies. I wanted them to do the math. The one guy was spending $250 a month on his meds. So while you might incur a higher grocery bill trying to find fresh and tasty plant-based foods in some of the less fertile regions, the money will be there because you’re cutting costs elsewhere. But they don’t go there. They’re too busy saying, “If you don’t go vegan, you will go to hell and you will fucking die.”
By virtue of their own study, you don’t have to give up meat entirely. You just need to eat less of it. The study showed that by eating a diet of 5% protein, instead of the decadent western diet where we eat upwards of 20% or more, you can turn off certain cancers and heart disease risks. That means if you make a salad, and throw in a little bit of chicken, instead of eating a plank of chicken, you can still get the benefits. The average American restaurant portion is enough for four or five servings. But I only know that from other things I read. Not Forks Over Knives. I don’t know much of anything from the documentary that I didn’t know already. Except a few nice people are healthier than they’ve ever been and don’t have diabetes, cancer, or heart disease anymore. And that’s good. But as my everwise fiancee put it, “I judge documentaries by how much I more research I want to do afterwards.” And this didn’t open my eyes to anything new. Aside from the fascinating statistic that we spend exponentially more on health care in America than we do on the defense budget.
I feel like 2004 when my friends and I were chanting “Anyone But Bush!” and they gave us John Kerry, and we said, “Well. That’s anyone. But yikes.” I support most of the thinking behind Forks Over Knives but the end result is a muddled mess of stock footage and propaganda. Can adopting some form of whole foods, majority plant-based, diet save your life? Undoubtedly. And even knowing that, I still eat bacon cheeseburgers, and my health is starting to wain for it. I said to my new doctor, “I’m a little embarrassed at how damn easy it is to change my life, and how I won’t.” Fatty meats and sugars are drugs, as addictive as heroin and just as dangerous. Right now, there are students conducting that very study. But simply stating that doesn’t change anything. Colin Campbell believes that if everyone adopted a vegan lifestyle, “70-80% of health care issues would be eliminated.” It’s a nice thought. But so’s a bacon cheeseburger.