The word “vegan” is uttered exactly once in Lee Fulkerson’s Forks Over Knives, by an interviewee attempting to debunk the effeminate connotation plant-based diets have garnered. It’s an intriguing choice, and not an unprecedented terminological manipulation made by vegheads within mainstream media channels. (The Conscious Cook, a recipe collection compiled by star vegetarian chef Tal Ronnen, attempts a similarly apolitical stance; Oprah’s “Meatless Mondays” are another human-oriented baby step that mostly eschews the “v” word.) The omission in Forks Over Knives, however, taken along with the numerous, unnecessary assurances that one’s masculinity isn’t contingent on beef consumption, turns what should be sensitive infotainment into a call to action with alarmingly red-state-versus-blue-state overtones. Essentially a tepid digest of the most persuasive nutritional arguments against the ingestion of flesh and dairy, the film provides a fine corporeal context for meat apostasy while implicitly, and nervously, validating two dangerous stereotypes: that of the effete, crunchy granola activist, and the man’s man to whom a BBQ grill is a sacred shrine.
Concentrating on how animal products affect health in various capacities, the film elucidates the parallel careers of nutrition academic T. Colin Campbell and Cleveland-based surgeon Caldwell Esselstyn—thereby approaching the issue from both ends of the food chain. The statistics are stacked rather densely throughout the first two thirds of the running time, as Fulkerson summarizes Campbell and Esselstyn’s research in chronological order, though there’s useful factoids sprinkled throughout. (The stickiest are a series of animated sociological graphs showing how limited access to animal products decreases the risk of heart disease and cancer: After Germany invaded Norway in the ‘30s, no one could afford red meat or milk, and the number of cardiac-related deaths dropped dramatically until the end of World War II.)
When the argument crescendos with Campbell’s famed “The China Study,” a massive longitudinal report cataloguing the eating habits and medical records of over eight million Chinese across several decades, it’s no longer simply a question of meat and plants. Cultures living off the fat of high-fructose globalization are shown to be undernourished, prone to epidemic, and misled by government agencies with financial conflicts in the food industry. (The film features a brief but essential expose of the at-best nutritional worthlessness of milk in spite of “It Does a Body Good” propaganda.) And the importance of weaning one’s self off of this lifestyle is then confirmed through a series of case studies—a woman with hypertension, another with breast cancer, and men with high cholesterol are all redeemed by partaking of the Earth’s bounty.
These appeals to self-worth certainly resonate with me. I personally arrived at veganism first and foremost by viewing the consumption of animals as a human-rights issue; to me, it’s about abstaining from a mass auto-poisoning as much as it is about environmentalism or interspecies compassion. (These tree-hugging topics are all but ignored by Forks Over Knives.) In his admirably totalistic earnestness, however, Fulkerson leaves one sizable, if opaque, question hanging: Since the data used has been culled exclusively from the 20th century, it’s unclear whether Type 2 diabetes, coronary artery disease, et al. are the legacies of carnivorous habits exclusively or if they’ve been severely exacerbated by factory farming. One must wonder if, considering the film’s clearly delineated steak-and-potatoes audience, positing small, family-owned, hormone-free ranches as the lesser of two omnivorous evils would have been more effective evangelism. (Where’s Michael Pollan when you need him?)
By the third act, this lack of subtlety is likely to bristle against even those who’ve already sworn off meat; the documentary’s mix of medical visualizations (we see fatty, CGI plaque building up within veins) and anecdotal rhetoric appear unsettlingly tailored to the mainstream media’s “male gaze.” Fulkerson himself, in a Morgan Spurlock-esque moment, confesses his fratboyish diet of soda pop and energy drinks, and we’re also reminded with an aggressive wink that veganism’s positive influence on circulation can prevent erectile dysfunction. There’s evidence to suggest that a whole-foods, veggie-centric diet can virtually cure endometriosis, too, but Fulkerson’s pitch never bothers to include such gender-neutral observations. Instead, we’re shown money shots of indisputably wholesome Texas firemen scaling poles while chanting “Real men eat plants!”
Forks Over Knives has a lot of the right information, but it panders to the same common denominator as any SUV or “Got Milk?” commercial. And the notion that veganism’s manliness needs to be sold to a class of obese Midwesterners whose phallic insecurity keeps them from raw kale salad turns my meat-free stomach with McNugget-like revulsion.