Sunday, January 22, 2012

667. Film Review: Forks Over Knives

By Kamran Nayeri, January 22, 2012
One the most comprehensive nutritional studies show
the benefits of a plant-based diet

The Context
Advances in human health and longevity are due more to the progress of public health than to the advances of Western Scientific Medicine.  While the former is based on a holistic methodology that places individuals in their larger social and natural contexts and seek preventative measures to maintain health, the latter follows a reductionist approach to disease and aims to be “curative.”  Human illness is seen as caused by pathogens that can be combated using advances in scientific knowledge and medical technologies. 
Of course, the methodological movement from the whole to part is necessary to study basic biological processes and understand biological basis of pathologies. However, the opposite movement, to go from such understanding of biological basis of disease to the social and natural contexts that create and enforce the conditions for ill health is an often forgotten part in Western Scientific Medicine.
And then, there is the political economy of health care. There is a large literature that documents how modern medicine as a capitalist industry has been more focused on “cure”  than prevention.  Medical industry has been a growing sector in industrial capitalist societies. A smaller but more effective health care system where prevention of disease becomes paramount undermines their profits.  This perverse logic holds whether we consider the energy industry and requirements of clean energy to stop climate change or if we consider combating major chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer and stroke. 
In the U.S. two out of every three of person is overweight. Cases of diabetes are exploding, especially amongst our younger population.  About half the population is taking at least one prescription drug. Major medical operations have become routine. Heart disease, cancer and stroke are the country’s three leading causes of death, even though billions are spent each year to "battle" these very conditions. Millions suffer from a host of other degenerative diseases.
The Movie
Forks Over Knives (2011, 1 hour and 36 minutes, rated PG) examines the claim that most, if not all, of the degenerative diseases that afflict us can be controlled, or even reversed, by rejecting animal-based and processed foods. The major storyline in the film traces the professional journeys of a pair of pioneering researchers, Dr. T. Colin Campbell and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn.
Dr. Campbell, a nutritional scientist at Cornell University, was concerned in the late 1960′s with producing "high quality" animal protein to bring to the poor and malnourished areas of the third world. While in the Philippines, he made a life-changing discovery: the country’s wealthier children, who were consuming relatively high amounts of animal-based foods, were much more likely to get liver cancer. Dr. Esselstyn, a top surgeon and head of the Breast Cancer Task Force at the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic, found that many of the diseases he routinely treated were virtually unknown in parts of the world where animal-based foods were rarely consumed.
These discoveries inspired Campbell and Esselstyn, who didn’t know each other yet, to conduct several groundbreaking studies. One of them took place in China and is still among the most comprehensive health-related investigations ever undertaken. Their research led them to a startling conclusion: degenerative diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even several forms of cancer, could almost always be prevented – and in many cases reversed – by adopting a whole foods, plant-based diet. Despite the profound implications of their findings, their work has remained relatively unknown to the public.
The idea of food as medicine is put to the test. Throughout the film, cameras follow actual patients who have chronic conditions from heart disease to diabetes. Doctors teach these patients how to adopt a whole foods plant-based diet as the primary approach to treat their ailments – while the challenges and triumphs of their journeys are revealed.
From the Part to the Whole
It is understandable that the documentary tries to focus on presenting its case for a plant-based diet—after all that is its purpose.  However, it also refers to the political economy of American nutritional diet. Viewers learn how the food industry has been on a relentless campaign to associate good nutrition with an animal-based diet (“for protein eat meat,” “for calcium drink milk”) and how the Department of Agriculture's nutritional guidelines have reinforced the industry’s campaign. Viewers also learn how Drs. Campbell and Esselstyn have become marginalized from the mainstream medicine even in their respective workplaces despite their much respected research that generated large grants (typically, an important measure for professional/academic advancement).  
The movie also alludes to the connection between an animal based diet and world hunger. At one point, the documentary alludes to the inefficiency of meat-production industry—for every pound of beef sixteen pounds of grain is required.  In 2011, more than 49 billion pounds of red meat was produced in the United States alone.  Grain saved from moving from an animal-based diet to a plant-based diet could feed well over a billion people worldwide.
The documentary also alludes to the methane gas created and release in cattle production. Globally, ruminant livestock produce about 80 million metric tons of methane annually, accounting for about 28% of global methane emissions from human-related activities.  Livestock industry produce more global warming gases than transportation. A plant-based diet will reduce risks of unstoppable global warming and catastrophic climate change.
But, of course, a plant-based diet is also ethical whereas an animal-based diet subjects hundreds of billions of farm animals to cruelty, torture and death (see, for example, Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, chapters 3 and 4).
As a vegetarian since 2000 and a vegan since 2007 (for health and then ethical reasons), I have experienced the merit of a plant-based diet first hand.  I can also attest to the cultural barrier to such a shift.  

Forks Over Knives has a message that will contribute not just to a healthier society but also to a more ethical one. 

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