Want to Save the Economy? Change What You Eat


The new documentary Forks Over Knives is, in an eat-your-spinach kinda way, a feel-good movie. Roger Ebert's declared it "a film that could save your life." Once you get past the inevitable indictments of our disease-inducing diet, and the stock footage of obese people waddling down the street, you'll find yourself ultimately uplifted by the vitality the film's formerly sick and unfit subjects exude as they embrace a plant-based diet.

Unless, of course, your heart's been hardened by all those artery-clogging animal fats the film implores you to rethink. The premise of Forks Over Knives--that we could save millions of lives and billions of dollars simply by switching to a diet of fruits, whole grains and vegetables--offers a compelling solution to both our financial and physical woes.

Mark Bittman made essentially the same case in his recent column How to Save a Trillion Dollars, in which he noted that "a sane diet alone would save us hundreds of billions of dollars and maybe more."

The film's vegan agenda may inflame the meat and dairy industries, but when it comes to inflammation, Forks Over Knives has got nothing on meat and dairy. The film makes effective use of graphics, animations and case studies to illustrate how animal proteins adversely effect our health in multiple ways, from inducing inflammation that appears to spur tumor growth, to blocking our blood flow. And not just the blood flow to our hearts, but to the rest of our bodies as well--which doesn't bode well for you, whether you think with your brain or other appendages located further south.

In fact, the film notes that erectile dysfunction is "the canary in the coal mine" for heart disease. Can't you just hear those hipster "hegans" having the last laugh--and maybe, the better bonk?

It's hard not to be impressed by the vigor of the two veggie-touting 70-something nutrition pioneers whose research forms the basis of the film: Dr. T. Colin Campbell, author of the eternally best-selling China Study, and Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn Jr., a highly regarded surgeon and author of Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease: The Revolutionary, Scientifically Proven, Nutrition-Based Cure. It's Dr. Esselstyn Jr., along with his colleague Dr. Dean Ornish, who inspired Bill Clinton to adopt the mostly vegan diet that helped him lose weight and keep his heart healthy.

The film also features Esselstyn Jr.'s son, Rip Esselstyn, the Austin firefighter who's got his own best-selling vegan cookbook, The Engine 2 Diet. Rip Esselstyn studiously avoids the "vegan" label, preferring the term "plant-strong." And that's probably just as well, because asking Americans to forego all the animal-based foods that form the cornerstone of our diet--including cheese and dairy--is a pretty tough sell as it is.

But Forks Over Knives doesn't just dwell on the harmful consequences of eating anything that "has a mother or a face." The movie devotes equal emphasis to the many life-enhancing, disease-fighting nutrients and other compounds contained in the fresh, whole foods most of us don't eat enough of. As comedian Bill Maher notes in the film's opening segment:

"There's no money in healthy people. And there's no money in dead people. The money is in the middle: people who are alive, sort of, but with one or more chronic conditions...Someone has to stand up and say that the answer isn't another pill. The answer is spinach.

The film's writer and director, Lee Fulkerson, serves as one of the case studies in the movie, working with a pair of physicians who successfully treat his high cholesterol and elevated CRP level (a risk factor for heart disease) by putting him on a whole foods, plant-based diet. Fulkerson's numbers improved dramatically in a matter of weeks, further proof that such health issues can be addressed through diet instead of drugs.

Other folks featured in the film overcame diabetes, heart disease and even cancer. The film does not imply that conventional medicine can't be effective at treating these illnesses, but rather faults it for too often treating the symptoms while ignoring the underlying causes.

I wanted to confirm the powers of a plant-based diet to prevent and even reverse illness from a credible source who wasn't affiliated with the movie. So I spoke with Dr. Kelly A. Turner, co-founder of Shuniya Health & Healing, which treats cancer patients with a holistic approach that combines the best of Eastern and Western medicine.

Dr. Turner told me, "I have seen many, many cancer patients help turn their health around by changing to a whole foods, plant-based diet. And although the woman in the film chose not to have Western treatment, I've seen this diet change work wonders for many cancer patients who are in the midst of their Western treatment. The two are not mutually exclusive, not at all."

She added that for those of us who aren't facing a life-threatening illness, it may seem like too much of a sacrifice to give up all animal products cold turkey. " Yes, doing that will have a profound effect on your health," she said, "but most people who feel fairly healthy won't feel the need to do that. I would encourage them to see the film and hopefully be inspired (and informed) to make small, gradual changes to their diet...even gradual changes will have very healthful effects on your cell membranes, your blood glucose level, and your colon health."

But fresh, unprocessed, wholesome foods haven't got K Street lobbyists and Madison Avenue marketers to promote them, while Viagra and Lipitor are making a fortune for Big Pharma, helped along by Big Food's low-cost, high-calorie, nutrient-poor products.

Forks Over Knives could have been subtitled "Pork Over Lives," because it highlights the addled agricultural policies and industry meddling that keep our government agencies more focused on protecting corporate profits than promoting good health. Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign may be wholehearted, but our government's overall efforts to halt the diet-related diseases that are crippling Americans young and old have been half-assed, to be blunt. The Federal Trade Commission's latest dietary guidelines are as toothless as a gummy bear, and only marginally more sound, nutritionally.

The free-market fanaticism that allows food corporations to shamelessly target children sets our kids up for a lifetime of ill health. The end result is profits for those companies, their shareholders and the health care industries that profit from disease.

Meanwhile, our politicians insist we're bankrupting our children's future with our reckless spending. They're slashing budgets left and right, pulling the plug on crucial programs, all so little Ethan and Emma won't be saddled with crushing debt in a few decades.

But forget about unbalanced budgets. It's unbalanced diets we really need to worry about. Because the soundest economy in the world won't save a nation of ballooning bellies and mushy muscles.

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