The Common Good
November 2011

Food for Life

by Danny Duncan Collum | November 2011

Why are we still sinking in health-care induced debt?

THE DOCUMENTARY film Forks Over Knives is saddled with the worst title I’ve seen in decades. It also suffers from a severe case of moderation and reasonableness in a culture in which ignorant extremism usually carries the day. This is too bad, because the movie happens to tell a story that holds at least half the answer to America’s health-care crisis.

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The makers of Forks Over Knives are here to tell us that many of our most common, and expensive, diseases—diabetes, heart disease, even some cancers—are the result of a bad diet. The film follows several individual patients, including the director, Lee Fulkerson, who suffer from multiple chronic ailments. They come under the care of a doctor who prescribes a radically low-fat, plant-based regimen of whole grains, legumes, fresh produce, and exercise. Within months all of the patients, director included, have shed dozens of pounds, cancelled their many costly prescriptions, and rendered redundant the army of medical specialists, technicians, and health insurance bureaucrats they had formerly employed.

Forks Over Knives is based on research by Cornell University professor T. Colin Campbell and Cleveland Clinic physician Caldwell Esselstyn Jr. Campbell was one of the lead researchers for the China-Cornell-Oxford Project, a study of diet and health that tracked 6,500 people over two decades and found hundreds of statistically significant associations between the consumption of animal protein and the occurrence of heart disease and cancer. Meanwhile, at the Cleveland Clinic, Esselstyn, an endocrinologist by training, was working with a group of heart patients whom the clinic’s cardiologists had essentially given up for dead. He placed them on a low-fat, all-plant diet, with astounding results.

I can testify to the truth of this movie’s claims. Several years ago, a friend convinced me to go hear a lecture by Esselstyn. This friend had been following an all-plant diet for years after a frightening brush with colon cancer. Our whole family went to hear the doctor, on a broiling summer afternoon, at Louisville’s minor league baseball stadium. For months afterward our kids delighted in mimicking the doctor’s Ivy League diction as he denounced the “toxic American diet.”

But a few years later, I began to take his advice seriously. In spring 2007, I learned that I needed open-heart surgery to replace a congenitally defective aortic valve. I’d already had repair surgery on this valve when I was 10. Before the surgery, the cardiologist checked my coronary arteries to see if I would need any bypasses while my sternum was broken and my rib cage opened up. They found troublesome plaque in one artery; no need for bypass, they said, but I would need to go on cholesterol-lowering medication. That’s when I drank the plant-based Kool-Aid. After enduring my second heart surgery and recovery, I vowed that I would do everything possible to avoid being split open again. I never took the cholesterol meds they gave me, but I said goodbye to fried chicken, glazed ham, and sausage biscuits. Within a few months, my cholesterol reading had dropped 50 points.

So, if many of those stents and bypasses and expensive prescription drugs could be avoided with a change of diet, why are we still sinking in health-care-induced debt? Well, there are powerful interests threatened by the dietary approach. The beef and dairy industries are major supporters of nutrition and agriculture research, and of farm-state politicians. The medical-industrial complex of hospitals and pharmaceutical companies also has a vested interest in promoting surgical interventions and lifelong dependence on expensive drugs.

This is where Forks Over Knives’ weakness for reason and moderation becomes a vice. Representatives of these opposing interest groups are interviewed respectfully, when the kind of public humiliation Michael Moore doles out to his documentary victims might have been more effective. Some day the purveyors of “the toxic American diet” will be looked upon with the disdain now reserved for tobacco company executives. Forks Over Knives serves as early warning.

Danny Duncan Collum teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort. Find out about his new novel, White Boy, and more at

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