Documentary Recommendation: Forks Over Knives
I’ve never been one to worry about my diet. Controlling my weight has never been a problem. In fact, I’ve often been dramatically underweight. When I started college, I was a very slender 5’11”, 118 pounds. By the summer of my 3rd year, I was just over 6’ 1/2” and 127 pounds. I worked out. I played lots of sports (though poorly). I drank my fair share of calories as well. But my metabolism was ruthlessly fast, and I remained a skinny, little twig.
That changed in the summer of that 3rd year. I had an internship at a company that made parts for satellites that summer and moved into a townhouse with 3 other people. One of the girls had a boyfriend who was a bodybuilder. He took one look at me, and told me “Boy, we’re going to put some weight on you this summer.” And we did. I ate four full meals a day. I downed protein shakes twice a day with a dozen raw egg whites, half a liter of whole milk, a banana and a little chocolate sauce for taste. My morning and afternoon snacks would have been meals for most people. But I wasn’t eating junk. I ate ‘healthy’—a ton of protein and lots of carbs. I didn’t eat many vegetables, unless baked potatoes or white rice count as vegetables. I did put on weight, and, because I worked out like a fiend, and most of that was muscle. By the end of the summer, I was up to 153 pounds, and I felt great.
But it was impossible for me to keep that weight on once I got off the diet and back to the crazier diet of college in September. After college, and for most of my twenties, while working 60-80 hours a week and eating low-cost food (often a can of tuna with mac and cheese, or ramen), I hovered between 135 and 142 pounds.
When I moved to Colorado in 1996, I began doing a lot of long-distance cycling. My caloric intake went crazy again, mainly with pastas and rice and Power Bars, and Gatorade by the gallon. While I was riding, I was in the best shape of my life, and even attempted the 1997 Denver to Aspen Classic—200 miles of riding in 1 day, with 4-9000+ foot passes. I did not finish the ride. I wasn’t in as good of shape as I thought, and when brutal winds smacked us in the face for the first 80 miles, I knew I was done. I made it, I think, 109 miles that day. Certainly nothing to sneeze at, but not as far as I wanted to go.
But the crazy riding and working schedule took its toll. In the fall of 1997, I came down with a severe bout of Mononucleosis that took four months for basic recovery, and over a year to regain my long term stamina. My weight dropped back into the upper 120’s, and I never really felt good.
In 1999 I moved to Washington State, and I started to gain weight. By 2004, I was up to 175 pounds, with occasional glimpses of 180, and as high as 185. I no longer rode my bike much. I hiked instead, but I also spent a lot more time inside in front of a computer. The biggest contributor to my weight gain though, was the amount of fast-food I ate. I had more money, so instead of packing leftovers in with me, I went out for lunch and grabbed a burger or a slice of pizza or some mall-food. While I felt more confident about my body (being skinny always bothered me), my doctor raised concerns about my cholesterol, and even went so far as to put me on niacin for a while to lower the levels.
Over the past few years, I’ve found my most comfortable weight to be around 172 pounds. At that weight, I have the most energy, fewer aches and pains in my joints, and a positive self image. Sometimes, due to illness, I would drop down a few pounds, and even after recovering from the illness, I wouldn’t feel right until I worked back up to that weight. If I got above that mark, I could feel it too. The incentive to work out again would quickly rise and I would get back to that ideal weight.
The last year or so, with so much time spent on the couch due to foot surgery and GBS, has caused my weight to balloon. At one point, a few weeks ago, I weighed in at 182 pounds. I began to wonder if my recovery was being impacted by my weight. I’ve been quite inactive—that’s just a fact of life right now—and I have to let things heal.
Last week, my wife and I watched the excellent documentary on food and diet called Forks Over Knives. It discusses the benefits of a whole-foods based diet as it applies to health and disease. It challenges many of the basic assumptions of the American diet that I have never before questioned. Not just that processed food is bad for you (I already knew that), and that large amounts of red meat is bad for you (I also already knew that, and eat relatively little of it compared to the average American), but also that any meat or dairy is, in fact bad for you. Wait, what? Dairy is bad for you? I though milk and cheese and yogurt were good for you. Doesn’t the United States Department of Agriculture say that meat and dairy are key parts of a balanced diet? Yes, in fact, they do.
But Forks Over Knives goes deep into the mythology of the various food pyramids created by the USDA over the years, and discusses the reasons why these were set up the way they were. The USDA is, by definition, primarily an advocacy group for American food producers, not for the American consumer. The USDA is in place to ensure that the US Farmer has markets for the goods they produce, whether they are good for people or not. The policies they set greatly influence the choices of American consumers and American politicians. Forks Over Knives discusses how these policies are, in turn, greatly influenced by the corporate and lobbying organizations it represents. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, a plan by the USDA to have its cafeterias offer a “Meatless Monday” menu was derided by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and eventually the plan was cancelled.
Now, this is not an announcement that I am becoming a vegan, or even a vegetarian. But after watching Forks Over Knives, I have come to realize that I can do a lot better in my diet, and doing that will have many positive effects. By consuming a more plant-based diet, I should be able to better manage my weight and my cholesterol. Reducing the amount of meat that I consume is also better for the environment as the production of meat is an incredibly inefficient use of energy and creates a huge amount of carbon emissions which, as we all know now, is directly linked to global warming.
So what’s stopping me from becoming a vegetarian? Well, first of all, I still like the taste of perfectly cooked meat. I’ll just eat a lot less of it, buy it from sustainable farms, and treat it as a side on my plate, instead of the main course. But on some days, we are going meatless. Last week (not counting dairy), we had meatless dinners 3 times. I think that’s pretty good as a start. As we find more recipes we like, that’ll become more common.
I’m not going to be all preachy about it either. I hate it when other people try to cram their beliefs down my throat. If you want to talk to me about this, fine. I’ll tell you about our experiences. I’m not going to be religious about it either, so if you see me with a burger in my hands some day, it’s not a ‘gotcha’ moment, or weakness on my part. It’s probably that wherever I was, there was just not the opportunity to eat healthier at that moment.
So if I’m not going to commit to being a full-time vegetarian, and I’m not going to be preachy about it, why even talk about doing it? Well, in this case, I just wanted to pass along the information about this excellent documentary in the hopes that someone else watches it, and can, from that, make better choices that have a positive impact on their lives.
Criticizing the consumption of meat in America is something akin to criticizing the Pope in the Vatican. But before you comment as to the rightness, or wrongness of our desire to reduce our meat consumption, I ask that you watch the documentary. I think it’s really worth the time and effort, and after that, I will be happy to engage in a conversation that will, hopefully, enlighten us all.