Think Critically and Don't Believe Everything You Hear. Example: "Forks Over Knives"

Recently, I decided to watch “Forks Over Knives,” since it’s on Netflix and I’d heard of this movie for a while (depending on who I ask, I’ve heard whisperings that it’s a “vegan propaganda” film or “the TRUTH!”. You can probably guess which group of people recounted which description.) Anyway, I wanted to watch it myself (without reading/seeking any other opinions) and see what all the fuss was about. Essentially, it was Dr. T. Collin Campbell and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn trying to persuade the public to renounce their meat-eating ways in favor of a plant-based diet.

Before I go further into my thoughts about the film, I do want to emphasize that I whole-heartedly agree with one of the main themes: DIET AFFECTS EVERYTHING! By loading our bodies with whole foods, including LOTS of vegetables and fruits, we can combat and prevent many “lifestyle” diseases (such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer to a degree.) Doctors and other medical professionals would do their patients a much greater service if they advocated lifestyle/diet changes before prescribing loads of medications. Nutritional education and adaptions are MUCH safer (no nasty side effects) and cheaper options ($500/bottle medication anyone?). That message, I can stand behind, and think that those of us in the fitness industry should also seek to educate our clients on the importance of whole food, vegetable-heavy diets.

I also have no intention at all to attack vegans. If veganism works, power to you! The point of this post is not to dissuade any vegans/vegetarians (because I doubt I will, just as they can’t dissuade me from eating eggs) nor do I have a malicious intent to tear down veganism. Our bodies a vastly different and I have no business telling someone who strives to eat the best they can for health that they’re wrong.

I do however, intend to demonstrate why trusting a movie such as “Forks Over Knives” as gospel is not a wise idea. There were a LOT of questions that popped up in my mind during my viewing. The studies sited in particular raised my eyebrows. From my experience in researching nutrition topics, I understand that many scientific studies are either a) flawed or poorly designed or b) the results can be misinterpreted or skewed. We see this daily in the “New Study!” that newscasters spew forth every other day, without actually reading the study. (that’s a whole other blog post of wrath)

Here were a couple of my queries:

1. The movie compares a “standard Western Diet,” which I mentioned before in posts and how it’s not-so-great, and a “plant based diet.”

Ok, I get it, but does that mean there’s nothing in between? Does the fact that I eat meat and eggs negate the following: I don’t eat processed or fried food (I even make my own ketchup), I rarely have refined sugar any more, I eat roughly 4lbs of kale a week (you can ask Steve) and a crap-ton (actual measurement) of vegetables every meal, and tend to be a vegetarian on the weekends? Why are people like me lumped into the same category of eating as folks who eat McDonalds and slurp Slurpees three times a day? It was either one or the other. The film makers didn’t even acknowledge that there, perhaps, are healthy people out there who also happen to eat meat.

2. Speaking of meat, the movie referenced “animal protein” a lot. (You could make it a game: ten pushups every time “animal protein” was mentioned. You’d be VERY sore the next day.) However, it didn’t seem to include fish. Only chicken, beef, pork (which were almost exclusively bacon icons in the illustrations. See point above and I don't even like bacon!), dairy, and eggs. Um, last time I checked, fish are animals. Why wasn’t fish demonized or even acknowledged?

3. Dr. Campbell sites a study he performed on rats in which he had two groups of rats, one being fed a diet of 5% casein and the other 20% casein. Each group was injected aflatoxin to see which group resisted liver tumors/cancer. Two questions: 1) the movie said that casein was the main protein found in milk… um, isn’t whey also found in milk (and has been found to have a plethora of health benefits)? 2) The results of the casein study was very sneakily extrapolated and applied to “animal protein.” Doesn’t casein act differently in the body than protein from beef or chicken? Casein generally is the protein most milk intolerant/allergic people react to yet often they have no trouble with whey (my husband is one of those). Isn’t that an indicator that perhaps other proteins should have been tested as well?

4. In addition to emphasizing a hefty vegetable diet, Drs. Campbell and Esselstyn recommend that whole grains should be included. While I’m not a paleo advocate, nor am I “anti-carb” or “anti-grain,” I couldn’t help but think back to various posts I’d read from other smart people about the not-so-awesome aspect of grains (note: this post by Mark Sisson has lots of links to studies in it, so if you want to skip through and find them, please do so), specifically gluten in wheat, which Stephen Guyenet has graciously provided. Again, I'm NOT PALEO, but I do know that grains, gluten specifically, can cause problems in some people. Just something to think about. 

5. There were several testimonies from various people that were in dire health straits. (you could almost hear the melancholy chords of a violin in the background). Two women in particular stuck out to me, one woman who was diagnosed with diabetes claimed,

“My diet was pretty abominable. I thought the two principle food groups were caffeine and sugar.”

the other,

“I ate all the chocolate candy I could eat. Ate every donut I could get my hands on. Oh I just loved things like that. A lot of gravy.” (this was said by a woman who had 2 heart attacks by age 59.)

Ok, even my lowly strength coach brain knows that a diet like that will lead to diabetes and heart attacks. It’s no wonder a diet that was anything but what they had been eating was going to make them healthier. When you start at the bottom, the only way to go is up. Also, since when are caffeine and sugar animal protein?

Ok, that’s enough questions for now. I had more, which spurred me to research some of the claims and studies presented in the film. Thankfully, I didn’t have to search for long. Denise Minger wrote a fantastic, objective, and fact-filled review here. I highly suggest you read her post. Seriously, it’s fabulous. She provides links to the studies, can site stated information, and I appreciated that she made no claims she couldn’t back up. I will share my favorite part (this is in reference to the rat study mentioned above):

Don’t get distracted by those red letters! What we’re interested in is the sentence near the bottom, which the film’s producers apparently didn’t notice: "In all, 30 rats on the high-protein diet and 12 on the low-protein diet survived for more than a year.”

Let that sink in for a moment. Maybe it’ll hit a little harder if I told you that in the “high protein vs. low protein” experiments discussed in this paper, 10 low-protein rats died prematurely while all the high-protein rats stayed alive.In other words, the overall survival rate for the 20% casein group was much better than for the 5% casein group, despite the fact they had liver tumors. The low-protein rats were dying rapidly—just not from liver cancer. And as we’ll see later, the reason the non-dead, low-protein rats didn’t get tumors was partly because their liver cells were committing mass suicide. 


Although Campbell is trying to explain why his rat studies have relevance for humans, this statement actually highlights why they usually don’t. In Campbell’s experiments—as well as the Indian study that inspired him all those years ago—the rats received very high doses of aflatoxin to initiate cancer in the first place. Protein only appeared to work as a cancer promoter in his studies, not an independent carcinogen. And even though the range of protein was reasonable for a real-life situation, the amount of aflatoxin exposure would be really hard to replicate unless you had a death wish and a bottomless stomach. Quoting Chris Masterjohn’s “Curious Case” article again, to get the sort of aflatoxin exposure that caused even a “barely detectable” response in Campbell’s rats, you’d have to eat about 1,125,000 contaminated peanut butter* sandwiches over the course of four days. I don’t know about you, but I doubt I could eat a lick over 900,000. More than that is just gluttony!

Oh I love when the truth come into the light! The rats died! I couldn’t stop laughing in disbelief at the blatant disregard of the film producers to NOT include that little bit of information. That’s kinda important don’t you think? It sounds so promising, the low protein group had no cancer… oh wait, that’s because they were dead. Oh, and the surviving low-protein rats’ livers were killing themselves, cell by cell.  Nor did they bother to mention the amount of aflatoxin was waaaaaaayyy above the normal amount of exposure.

So I’ve written a lot. I’m sorry if I disappointed any that I didn’t respond with research of my own (Denise did such a thorough job and I didn’t want to steal her thunder; nor could I hope to produce anything close to the level of awesome as that post). The main reason I wanted to write this post was to encourage all of you to think critically about any nutrition or exercise related information that you come across, either through blogs (including this one), movies, advertisements, etc. There is a LOT of misinformation out there and that definitely contributes to all the conflicting opinions out there when it comes to the fitness/strength field. It’s important to seek the facts yourself, seek the actual studies that are sited to see if the information presented is really what the study demonstrated.  I know reading research is tedious and often difficult to understand, therefore, find a few sources that you KNOW are trustworthy at dissecting research papers. (like Denise Minger, Stephen Guyenet, Alan Aragon, Bret Contreras to name a few, do an internet search for them).

I’ll admit, towards the end of the movie, I was starting to wonder if a plant based diet really was the best way, mainly because I was emotionally invested in some of the testimonies. I was ecstatic for these people who were healthier, happier, and had a better quality of life. My emotions were starting to skew my logical side and what I knew to be true. This is why it’s terribly important to critically examine information.

My encouragement to you (can be applied to ALL aspects of life): Too often our emotions rule over our logic. Let us break this habit.