Film Review: Forks over Knives

Enthusiastic but scattered documentary advocates a plant-based diet to prevent and reverse chronic disease. Sure to inspire lots of post-movie chatter.

What to (not) eat cannot be a more talked-about, inflammatory subject in the U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama has taken on childhood obesity as her cause. The “News at 11” is likely to include a comically ominous teaser: “Coming up, what you don’t know about apples.” Forks over Knives fits nicely into the dialogue about diet in a country that’s facing alarming levels of type II diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. What it advocates is something both simple and difficult. Eat a plant-based, whole-foods diet. That means no meat and no dairy, the lifeblood of a protein-obsessed America.

Despite this simple thesis, Forks over Knives can’t help but get bogged down with too many talking heads, statistics and case studies. There’s a reason there’s a book called How to Lie with Statistics, but many documentarians insist on setting the stage with frightening statistics that we’re expected to accept at face value. A quibble, but Forks over Knives also slants its opening “scare stat” fest by mixing facts with personal assertions. “One in three Americans will develop diabetes…and millions more of us are so stimulated by sugar, coffee and energy drinks that we’ve masked our chronic fatigue.” In a later scene, we see writer-director Lee Fulkerson chugging Red Bulls to remedy his low energy. Must every personal story be a sign of a national epidemic?

The movie’s main advocates for plant-based diets are Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, a clinician who works with heart-disease patients, and, Dr. Colin Campbell, a researcher who has studied the effects of diet on disease, most significantly in a population study of China. Fulkerson supports their work with a dizzying amount of chime-ins from other health professionals. Then there are the “diet makeover” stories. We hear testimonials from Dr. Esselstyn’s patients, his son, and a former breast cancer patient/Ironman competitor. We also follow Fulkerson and two type II diabetes patients as they adopt a plant-based diet. It’s too much, and it undercuts their journeys to hear accounts of progress limited to superficial discussions about weight loss and increased energy. Super Size Me did the “diet makeover” story much better, in part by focusing on just one man’s account. Besides trying to cover too much, the editing adds to the confusion. Mid-thought, the documentary will ungracefully shift to another story, then back again.

Though Forks over Knives lacks finesse, it’s never condescending to or judgmental of its audience, many of whom presumably eat animals and dairy with gusto. Anyone who’s looking to kick-start a healthy eating plan should look no further, as the movie will provide ample motivation to eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The strictness of the movie’s diet recommendations should spark intense conversation after the show, as will some of the documentary’s more controversial arguments. There’s an interesting thought piece here if you look past the movie’s stumbles—the sound recording in some spots is just plain terrible. Forks over Knives will feed the minds of those who are thinking intensely about what actually nourishes the body