New film poses tough question: Could animal-based foods be doing us more harm than good?
WHAT if someone told you a few simple changes in your lifestyle could not only help you lose weight and feel better this year, but potentially wipe out all degenerative diseases – things like stroke, cancer, diabetes and heart conditions – from your future?
Would you make those changes? Or would you take the advice with a pinch of salt?
It’s a question posed in a documentary that has already made Americans sit up at their dinner table and take notice. Those talking about it include Oprah Winfrey, Russell Brand, Olivia Wilde, Ozzy Osbourne, Moby and Katy Perry. Not to mention those real-life patients who have beaten a medical death sentence and seen their lives transformed after taking up the challenge to give up meat, dairy and processed foods and adopt instead a plant-based, wholefoods diet.
Forks Over Knives is the culmination of decades of research but at its heart is a simple premise: despite all our modern advances in medicine and healthy living, we in the west are still getting fatter and sicker. It is estimated that one in three UK adults, and one in five four-year-olds in the US, is obese. This generation of children will be the first to die younger than their parents. Almost all degenerative diseases are on the increase.
Dr Colin T Campbell, a nutritional scientist at Cornell University, New York, was raised on a dairy farm, so milk was a way of life for him. “I started out my career with all sorts of assumptions about the importance of consuming a high-protein, high fat diet,” he says.
But as his research into the connection between diet and disease increased – he was behind the China Study, widely acknowledged as the most comprehensive study of health and nutrition ever conducted, covering 20 years and 6,500 people – he became convinced the solution was not another pill, “the solution was spinach”.
Around the same time, surgeon Dr Caldwell Esseltyn was carrying out similar studies into coronary artery disease and breast cancer in Cleveland. When the pair eventually teamed up and looked at their collective research, the evidence, they say, was compelling.
“It was the ability of the main protein in cow’s milk to actually ‘turn on’ cancer growth – that was the big thing that convinced me,” says Campbell. Their studies then expanded to include other diseases and their connection to ill health until finally Campbell felt he had no option: he had to not just adopt the lifestyle for himself, but make his findings public.
“I was well aware that I might be stepping on some toes,” he admits. “This research affects the business interests of some really major industries, so I knew there was a price to be paid and in some ways it’s a big price. But in other ways there is a very big reward. I just felt comfortable with the truth.”
He and his family – his wife, five grown-up children and five grandchildren all eat a 100 per cent wholefoods, plant-based diet – started gradually in 1980 by serving up more salads. Then they started dropping things like red meat, then chicken and dairy. By 1990 they were 100 per cent vegan (though he prefers not to use that term because of its negative connotations).
The film, which follows the progress of the narrator – a self-confessed energy drink addict – as well as a number of patients faced with the choice of adopt the new diet or die, pulls no punches. Though the imagery can be manipulative – fatties tucking into greasy burgers and enormous lardy steaks versus happy family dinners over beansprouts and carrot sticks – the research seems convincing.
Indeed, in Scotland the concept of a pro- inflammatory or anti-inflammatory diet – eating foods that either promote or suppress inflammation in the body – is gaining considerable momentum in health circles. Nikos Jakubiak, performance nutritionist at the SportScotland Institute of Sport, says, “Chronic low-grade inflammation is the underlying mechanism of inflammatory diseases and there is a wealth of scientific research to show that low-grade inflammation is influenced by our food choices.”
But he warns, “A vegan diet is difficult to be considered as a good example of an anti-inflammatory diet because some of the foods with pro-inflammatory effects are, in fact, from plants.
“In the human diet,” he explains, “we need to consume certain fatty acids our bodies cannot produce themselves. We call these essential fatty acids and they include two broad categories: omega-3 and omega-6. Omega-3 have anti-inflammatory properties – marine oils and linseed are excellent sources but fish oils have a form of omega-3 that is superior to the rest when it comes to health benefits and performance.
“Omega-6 are essential in helping the body produce an inflammatory response; an essential process of the body’s defences. However, it is believed that excessive intake of omega-6 oils may lead to an inflammatory response that is greater than what is necessary. Vegetable fats and oils, such as sunflower oil, are rich sources of omega-6.
“Therefore, unless the high omega-6 content found in vegan diets is addressed, any claims that a vegan diet is anti-inflammatory are illogical. Furthermore, a vegan diet may lead to inadequate intake of dietary iron and vitamin B12, so would not be an approach we would encourage our athletes to follow.”
It’s worth pointing out that several professional athletes and Ironman competitors swear by the plant-based diet, and Jakubiak does add that it is still preferable – and a whole lot healthier – than the typical western menu, with its large doses of fatty meats, fried foods and sugary snacks. “Also, there are many plant foods that do have health protecting effects, such as fruits with dark skins and most vegetables.”
In any case, does Dr Campbell believe such radical thinking could ever be adopted wholesale by a developed world still so hooked on its processed food?
“Twenty years ago the word vegan was just a no-no for most people,” he says. “Vegetarianism was also a bit sketchy. But since 2005 I’ve given about 500 lectures, all invited, and about 75 per cent of them have been to medical schools. When I first started I was pretty much met by silence and scepticism; now I can’t believe how a substantial number of people in the medical profession are saying, ‘Hey, what are you talking about? This is really interesting.’ More and more physicians are turning their practice completely around.”
Some people take up the diet 100 per cent from the start; others, like Dr Campbell, take it more gradually. “Most people who are successful do it pretty quickly,” he adds.
“The key, actually, is the taste of food. It turns out that the amount of fat, sugar and, to a certain extent, salt we consume creates an addictive response. We’re actually addicted to high fat. So when people start this lifestyle, maybe for some of them it’s not quite as tasty as the food they’re used to. But if they just allow themselves a month or so, that addiction begins to dissipate, just like any addiction.”
If it still seems too difficult, his advice is to give up dairy first, “because the evidence we have on that is pretty damaging, to say the least. Also, from a more positive side of things, start eating more greens, some whole grains, cultivate some new tastes”.
Forks Over Knives is billed as a film that could save your life. But the proof of the tofu tart is in the eating.
“I’ve lived on average about 13 years beyond the ages of my father, his father and his father,” says Campbell, “all of whom had heart problems. My wife has already lived 21 years beyond her mother, who died of colon cancer.”
Jakubiak, though, calls for a more measured response. “We encourage our athletes to have a regular meal pattern with meals based on a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, fish, lean meat, poultry, dairy, whole grains and pulses. We believe a varied, well balanced diet with nutrient-rich foods is the best policy, and the scientific evidence available would support our position.”
CELEBRITY FANS OF FORKS AND KNIVES
“I’m now vegan, goodbye eggs.”
“Watching Forks Over Knives and remembering why veganism is pretty damn health-savvy.”
“I highly encourage you to see it, as it’s an amazing movie about the health consequences of eating animals.”
“Just watched Forks Over Knives. It’s a pretty cool doc for anyone interested.”
“Forks Over Knives is a provocative documentary that explores the idea of using food as medicine.”
“It’s eye-opening. Everyone should see it.”
“I watched that film Forks Over Knives. I went into the kitchen, I took everything out of the kitchen that was not a plant – and for five and a half months I’ve eaten only plants.”
“My assistant showed me a video called Forks and Knives or something, about cutting out meat and dairy products, so I thought, ‘I’ll give this a shot!’”
• Forks Over Knives is released on DVD tomorrow, Crystal Lake Entertainment, £16.99 (www.forksoverknives.com)
• Sport Scotland Institute of Sport (www.sisport.com)