My Vegan Anniversary

December 16, 2011

To celebrate my 11-year vegan anniversary, I watched the documentary Forks Over Knives this afternoon. As someone who spends a lot of time reading and thinking about vegan food and nutrition, there was little totally new information that I learned from the film but I always enjoy even more reasons to continue to lead the lifestyle I’ve chosen.

In comparison with other kinds of documentaries like Food, Inc., Forks Over Knives is very people-centric. The support for a vegan diet comes mostly in the form of evidence showing that such a diet leads to longer and healthier lives and reduced rates of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. There are several profiles of people who were able to reverse serious health conditions by adopting a vegan lifestyle.

 On the other hand, the documentary spends almost no time discussing the suffering of animals raised for human consumption and only a few minutes on the environmental effects of the typical Western diet and the corporate interests behind the USDA and government food policies and recommendations. These discussions come during the last 30 minutes of the film and despite the nice shout out to Farm Sanctuary (http://www.farmsanctuary.org/), which I happily visited when I lived in upstate New York, the sections seem to have been developed with far less care than the other parts of the movie.

 If you are interested in the indisputable health benefits of a vegan diet, you will find this movie convincing and possibly life-altering. You’ll also want to read T. Colin Campbell’s The China Study. If you are a vegetarian who is convinced that eating dairy is part of a healthy lifestyle, you will be disappointed. Both The China Study and Forks Over Knives cite studies showing that a diet of 20% casein (a milk protein) fed to rats drastically increased tumor growth. A diet of 20% protein from plant sources had no such effects.

 Neither Forks Over Knives nor The China Study gives specific information about what to eat. The writers use the phrase a “whole foods plant based diet” to describe their recommendations. They do explicitly suggest that people eat less processed sugars and oils. I agree whole-heartedly with the recommendation to eat less processed foods and this is something I’ve slowly changed in my diet over the past few years.

 I found myself wishing that the film said a bit more about oil. I know from familiarity with Dr. Esselstyn’s work that he recommends a very low-fat diet and suggests only very scarce amounts of what I’ve long considered good fats – nuts, olive oil, etc. The film didn’t cite any specific studies or information about how a very low fat vegan diet compares to a vegan diet with a moderate amount of fat. Like most people, I’m a big fan of fatty foods and tend to allow myself one fatty indulgence – like a plate of French fries, an order of tempura, or some falafel - per week. I also seldom use fat-free salad dressing because I want to make sure that my body can absorb both the water soluble and fat soluble vitamins that I am consuming in the salad. However, I’m curious about the benefits of a very low-fat diet and I’m willing to try to cut down on some of the fat I consume. At a birthday party a few days ago I was speaking with some friends who have found that fatty foods make them feel quite sick and have switched to sautéing in vegetable broth. I often have more vegetable broth than I know what to do with (see recipe under Food) so since that party I’ve decided to sauté in vegetable broth. So far I’ve used vegetable broth to sauté garlic, onions, and a jalapeno pepper to mix into a lentil dish and also to make refried black beans. If anything, the vegetable broth adds more flavor to the dishes so I’ll try to continue to use it.

 One thing that came up in the film was the question of whether a vegan diet is “extreme.” Dr. Esselstyn has a great quote in which he refers to the fact that thousands of people a year undergo open heart surgery – a very extreme operation. Several of the individuals profiled also note that their switching to a plant-based diet was not difficult (to be fair, one woman does talk about difficulties she had). My own experience with veganism has always been similarly very easy. I have and still do occasionally eat non-vegan foods – mostly dairy when I’m travelling or some kind of non-vegan sweet at a party or social event. I certainly enjoy those indulgences but there’s no doubt in my mind that it wouldn’t be difficult to go without them. Surely I’m not actually hungry when I eat a pastry! What’s more significant to me is that I have almost zero cravings. I hear friends talk about craving meat, or chocolate, or some other kind of food and I realize that this is something I almost never experience. I occasionally am in the mood for a particular kind of food but I never feel the same urgency as the word “crave” implies. And often I’m in the mood for something ridiculously nutritious – like kale.

 Aside from factors that the film doesn’t address (environmentalism, agribusiness, animal cruelty) I must also warn potential viewers that the film borders on being a long commercial for Whole Foods. Individuals are frequently seen carrying Whole Foods grocery bags and several scenes are shot very obviously in Whole Foods stores. I know that there is a relationship between the makers of the film and the grocery chain so I wasn’t completely surprised by this, but those who are very annoyed by obvious corporate sponsorship will likely find themselves irked.

 I do recommend the film as well as the book The China Study. If you’re interested in learning more about the heavy hand corporations play in U.S. food policy, I highly recommend Joan Nestle’s Food Politics as another supplement.

 

Other links you may want to explore:

Dr. Esselstyn: http://www.heartattackproof.com/

Dr. T. Colin Campbell: http://www.tcolincampbell.org/

Film: http://www.forksoverknives.com/

The China Study: http://thechinastudy.com/

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