arnab gupta

‘Forks over Knives’

November 16, 2011

I recently found this very interesting documentary, called ‘Forks over Knives’, that deals with the idea that much of our modern health problems can be solved by changing our diets. This in itself is, of course, not a revolutionary idea—most of us are quite aware of what we need to do to stay healthy. (That we don’t actually do it is another matter entirely!)

What piqued my interest (and great dismay) was some of the views in the documentary—were some of the ideas that I currently have so wrong? And the theses were from respected doctors, who seemed to have done quite a bit of research, and extensive research at that, in coming up with their ideas!

Some of the ideas that I already had, before watching this movie:

  • Processed foods are worse than ‘natural’ foods
  • Veggies and fish are ‘healthier’ than platefuls of red meat.
  • Refined sugars are certainly pretty bad
  • Fast foods are certainly bad.
  • Balanced diets, based on veggies, small portions of meat and fish, and dairy products are good.

With this background, I was dismayed to hear that:

  • ANY animal proteins are apparently bad
  • Even milk is bad!
  • “Plant based diets” are the way to go (no animal foods)
  • Animal proteins can cause cancer (and tumors)!
  • … and other ‘facts’ along these lines.

While I’m no dietician, and have no background in nutrition sciences, my senses were troubled because of the following:

The movie’s point of view veers extremely close to the textbook definition of “being a vegan”. No animal products, period. They chose to use the less controversial “plant based diet”, but the idea is pretty much the same. This is not a problem in itself, but–

I don’t think “vegan” diets are natural to homo sapiens (i.e. evolutionarily consistent). Historically, evolutionarily, it seems to me extremely unlikely that we’d have adapted to using nothing from animals in our diets. Indeed, most sources caution that “careful planning”[1,2,3] is needed to ensure that all nutrients are present in a vegan diet—it’s apparently easy to miss out especially on the essential Vitamin B12 if you’re not mindful.

It seems much more natural that given our hunting-gathering backgrounds, we’d much rather be the omnivores that most of us are—eating whatever we found (and hunted down), and being extremely pleased with such a diet. I’m perfectly comfortable with “vegetarian” diets that add milk and other dairy products, but I found it dubious that simply coming from animals made certain foods harmful.

And so I looked it up, and came across this extremely detailed critique of the movie–well, at least the science in the movie. And after a few minutes of glancing through the article, I’m a little more relieved—according to this author, the movie does gloss over certain additional information that would be helpful, and does sometimes mistake correlation for causation.

And it does overstate the harmful effects of animal products on our health, sometimes going to the length of being inaccurate.

As of now, my takeaway is this: certainly watch the movie—it’s a nice overview of the effect of a balanced diet and nutrition on our bodies. But remember the word “balanced” more than the words “plant based diet”. Also, read through the blog article above for a thorough discussion, after you watch the movie.

Do you know of other sources of information that either support or detract from the ideas in the movie (and the blog)? Can you point to relevant research?