Today, in 2020, everyone seems like they are going “plant-based.” But just a decade ago, the plant-based diet was practically revolutionary — a foreign concept to millions of people who considered meat a staple food.
The mainstreaming of the plant-based diet has much to do with Forks Over Knives, an eye-opening documentary released in 2011. The film brought the plant-based diet to the fore and fundamentally changed the way many people eat.
Traversing hundreds of years of diet trends and nutrition data, the shocking film breaks down the ways food can optimize health or make people sick. If you haven't seen it, the time is now: It leaves Netflix Wednesday, July 15.
Forks Over Knives was among a slate of game-changing food films like Super Size Me, Food, Inc., and Fed Up, which called out big food companies and United States food regulators for “poisoning” consumers.
Its filmmakers link the Western diet — highly processed and heavy in sugar, fat, and animal products — with astronomically high rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. It presents as either a massive buzzkill or a liberating opportunity to improve your life with food, depending on your relationship with meat.
The documentary follows two physicians who have pioneered the health benefits of a plant-based diet for decades, nutritional scientist T. Colin Campbell and surgeon Caldwell B. Esselstyn Jr. Both take a folksy, back-to-basics approach to medicine and emphasize the power of plants to prevent and even reverse disease.
Their claims rest on landmark nutrition research summarized in the 2005 book, The China Study, which outlined the connection between nutrition and heart disease, diabetes, and cancer after following 6,500 people across China over two decades.
The documentary mixes this research, other nutrition studies, first-hand accounts from doctors and public health professionals, and crucially, stories of people on a quest for better health. The people profiled were each able to resolve their health problems by changing their diet.
For example: A young mom named San'Dera Nation changes her diet, loses weight, and improves her diabetes. A boxer named Mac Danzig hails going plant-based for accelerating his muscle recovery and giving him boundless energy during training. An older endurance athlete, named Ruth Heidrich, describes surviving cancer with the help of eating plants.
These characters become the beating heart of the film, providing vital breaks from the torrent of grim, dizzying statistics. Each manages to reduce their reliance on medications for their health troubles, seemingly proving the ancient adage, "let food be thy medicine."
The actual science — While the film was released nearly a decade ago, many of its claims — thought not all — still ring scientifically true. Going plant-based can help you lose weight, stave off some diseases, improve athletic performance, and lessen your carbon footprint. It may even help you reverse coronary heart disease.
However, changing how you eat isn't always a matter of choice, a reality the documentary creators fail to fully recognize. The film skates over the complicated economic and societal barriers preventing people from going plant-based.
It touches on the structural issues preventing people from accessing nutrient-rich foods like government regulators' conflict of interest, high food prices, and so-called food "deserts." But it doesn't outline clear ways to dismantle those systems.
Generally, the film was well-received by critics. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film three out of four stars and wrote: "Here is a film that could save your life." Loren King of The Boston Globe also gave it three out of four stars, arguing: "What An Inconvenient Truth did for global warming, Lee Fulkerson's persuasive documentary does for a vegan diet."
But, ultimately, the film lags with seemingly endless interviews with health professionals, nutritionists, and scientists. By the end, these layered soundbites add up to a glaring wake up call for viewers — you may just doze off before they get to that message.
Importantly, as the film notes in its opening slide, the doc isn't offering medical advice, nor should it be. Any dietary shift should be carried out with the advice of your doctor.
Almost a decade after Forks and Knives premiered, the world is still dealing with the same problems: dangerously high rates of diet-related disease and early death. The documentary helped spur a global reckoning with the food system, but it hasn't yet manifested in better widespread, collective health outcomes.
It remains as a sobering reminder that what we eat shapes the trajectory of our health. Yes, you'll never eat a slice of bacon the same way again, but you could improve your life.