By Jordan Leibowitz
The vegan diet is a debated topic among those concerned with sports performance and health in general. Several documentaries, including What the Health and Forks Over Knives, have discussed its various benefits over a diet that includes animal products. Forks Over Knives claims that one can reverse or positively affect many health-related problems with a plant-based diet. Collegiate Upper School Capstone teacher and Torch adviser Rhiannon Boyd, who has taught a Senior Seminar class in food ethics, said, “What I like about the phrase ‘plant based’ diet is that it’s different from vegan … the phrase ‘plant-based’ diet means exactly what it says. You base your diet off of plants. It’s beneficial for us as human beings to base our diets off of plants. So many of the preventable diseases are based off of having a disproportionate amount of animal products in our diet. They’ve been well established to be linked to cancer, to heart disease.”
The 2011 documentary Forks Over Knives begins when the director, Lee Fulkerson, discovers that he is at risk for a heart attack and a stroke after a visit with a highly regarded nutrition doctor. Fulkerson, who was in his early 50s at the time, begins a twelve-week plant-based diet plan. He works with Dr. Matt Lederman, who helps his patients learn how to both buy and prepare food. Fulkerson describes Lederman’s expertise by saying, “He makes his patients feel better, and also improves their health.” At the end of the film, Fulkerson returns to Dr. Lederman to find that his he lost twenty pounds, and his blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and heart rate have dropped significantly, and he is no longer at risk for many diseases.
Forks Over Knives focuses on the journeys of several people similar to Fulkerson who have significant health problems and who commit to a plant-based diet and see significant improvement. The documentary shares riveting personal stories and gives evidence of significant changes in health from professors and doctors, who describe the potential impact of a change in diet. They also illustrate how simply eliminating animal products can affect specific aspects of one’s health. Animal products increase risk for several conditions, including diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.
This film offers the perspective of people who use a plant-based diet; not because of a weight-related problem, but because of a need for improvement. The two most riveting examples are MMA fighter Mac Danzig and Ruth Heidrich. Danzig said: “I tried the diet for my own personal reasons, and it worked for me.” He was allergic to dairy and simply needed to cut out chicken and fish from his diet, and he was pleased with the result, so he continued to use it. He claimed: “I feel like I have more energy, now that I don’t eat the meat products, and I also feel like I recover better in between my workouts.” Heidrich “had been a runner for fourteen years, in fact a marathoner.” She was later diagnosed with breast cancer and, with the help of Dr. John McDougall, turned to a plant-based diet, as well as continuing her active lifestyle, and she was able to overcome her disease. Now in her seventies, Heidrich continues to train for and run triathlons. She said, “I felt so good… I wanted to maintain that level of fitness, and I felt sure if I had a healthy body, and I was putting the right food into it, then I could beat this cancer.”
In addition to personal stories, Forks over Knives describes different studies conducted by professors and doctors in the nutrition field that prove the benefits of a plant-based diet. The most notable study was on coronary artery disease by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn. He put patients on a plant-based diet with small amounts of dairy, as well as minimal cholesterol-reducing medications. Many of the twenty-four patients in this study were in dire health situations. Esselstyn said: “The ones they sent me were a little sicker then I thought… There were five who were told by their expert cardiologist that they would not live out the year.” Before she met Dr. Esselstyn, Evelyn Oswick was one of these people, who was told by her doctor to “prepare for death” after her second heart attack. Because of her diet change, Oswich was able to recover and continue her life.
The plant-based diet has made headlines in recent months in the sports world. NBA star Kyrie Irving decided to make the change to a plant-based diet and is now playing the best basketball of his career. He said to the ESPN NBA Countdown crew that he’s “been on more of a plant-based diet, getting away from the animals and all that … My energy is up; my body feels amazing.” Portland Trailblazers guard Damian Lillard also went to a plant-based diet and dropped ten pounds over the offseason. He said: “I wanted to eat cleaner … Also I wanted to play lighter and be easier on my joints and feet.” Irving, Lillard, and several other professional athletes who have made this change are among examples of another primary message of Forks Over Knives. Not only can a plant-based diet help the sick, but it also can improve the lives of even those at the highest level of physical fitness.
This documentary used riveting examples and heart-wrenching stories to convince the viewer of the many benefits of a plant-based diet. While I still eat animal products, this documentary caused me to think deeply about the effects of different diets.