Forks Over Knives

My wife Miki is vegan. Years ago, before I started dating her, like most people I treated veganism as a joke: What a bunch of kooks! Meat's great! Nowadays, although I still eat meat once every two weeks or so, my own diet has become primarily vegan simply because Miki is an excellent cook. So I have a rare vantage point: not being vegan, but having to defend veganism whenever a friend or stranger makes the usual glib, insulting remarks about it.

But the times they are a-changing, as evidenced not only by the rapidly expanding availability of vegan-friendly restaurants across the world (trust me, this is something I research deeply whenever we go traveling) but by the large audience who saw the pro-vegan documentary Forks Over Knives with us yesterday. Though it's likely that many of them were already converts, the film serves a secondary purpose, which is to keep vegans committed to the diet (it's easy to fall off the wagon, often because of the inconvenience), behind its primary purpose, which is to scare omnivores away from animal products.

The argument in Forks Over Knives is something I've heard for years, but it may be news to others: never mind the whole "save the animals" stuff; you should stop eating meat and dairy because they make you fat and unhealthy.

More eye-opening is the film's premise that a "whole foods, plant-based diet" can actually reverse damage to your body, faster and more safely than all those high-price drugs (namely Lipitor) can. In other words, you may be at risk of a stroke, diabetes, or a heart attack, but by eating a vegan diet for even just a couple of months, you can turn all that around. (The "Knives" in the film's title refers to surgeons' scalpels; the idea is that it's preferable to save your life by eating right instead of having to go to the hospital.)

Thought-provoking, but I found the film a little repetitive, and wished that it could have explored all the gray areas. For instance, how do you fare if you cut out only red meat or dairy? Is someone who eats chicken once or twice a week significantly worse off than a vegan, or not so much? Could a cheese- and milk-loving vegetarian be less healthy than someone who disdains dairy products but eats lean meat once a day?

These questions aren't addressed, but obviously it's because Fulk - a seasoned documentary filmmaker who serves as one of his film's test subjects, Morgan Spurlock-style - wants to stay on message: Eating meat and dairy will kill you, so don't do it. (The threat from processed foods is briefly discussed, but perhaps Fulkerson is leaving that to other documentaries such as Food, Inc., so we're left wondering whether tofu and rice milk count as "processed" or not. Forks Over Knives cannily sidesteps the issue by showing its interviewees enjoying impossibly healthy-looking salads and whole beans; not a scoop of soy ice cream or slice of seitan in sight.)

Most interesting, for me, is how the V-word - not just vegan, but vegetarian - is barely uttered in the film. Only one interviewee, professional fighter Mac Danzig, dares to call his diet vegan. Everybody else keeps saying "plant-based diet". A couple of months ago, former President Bill Clinton declared, in an interview, that he too is eating a mostly "plant-based diet" these days. (Daughter Chelsea is vegan.) In a time where one left-leaning identifier after another is vilified by conservatives - and then the mainstream - in order to marginalize its proponents, this is another example of how forward-thinking people have to alter the terminology to make their beliefs less vulnerable to attack. So "liberal" becomes "progressive", "atheist" becomes "secular humanist", and "vegan" becomes "one who eats a plant-based diet". Well, if it makes it more difficult to treat these people as punchlines, then more power to them.