Louise Morgan wishes she'd known about "plant-based" diets when she raised her family in rural Georgia some 40 years ago. Maybe, she says, it would have saved her husband's life.
"We didn't have things like that back then. Here in the South we feed our men their Southern food. He loved his fried chicken and ribs, and that's how I raised my family," says Morgan, an 80-year-old retired biologist from Big Canoe, Georgia.
He died at 52 of a heart attack while watching TV, she says. "During a Braves game. Killed him instantly."
"If I had to do it again, I'd do it differently. But we just didn't know about that stuff back then."
Morgan's zeal for a different way of life prompted her to pile into a car with friends from her retirement community and drive 50 miles south to Atlanta for last month's screening of the independent documentary, "Forks Over Knives."
But you won't hear the word "vegan" mentioned in the film, except by Mac Danzig, a mixed martial artist and Ultimate Fighting star who cut dairy from his diet in 1999 because of a sinus allergy (more on that) and went vegan five years later. In the film, he credits "going vegan" with speeding up his recovery time in between workouts.
After the screening, Esselstyn, a cardiologist with the Cleveland Clinic for more than 40 years and a member of the Whole Foods Market medical advisory board, said the word's absence was intentional.
"If you start to use the v-word, people get nervous. Somehow, there's a feeling from years ago that vegans are strange. There are so many negative connotations," said Esselstyn, a tall, willowy man with wavy silver hair who looks and sounds like a family physician.
In what was a rare appearance during the film's nationwide screenings this winter - it's scheduled to open nationwide in select theaters in May - Esselstyn appeared eager to move on.
"There's so much more to talk about apart from a word. It's about nutrition and improving your health," he said.
A scan of the sold-out crowd in Atlanta's Midtown Arts Cinema seemed to testify to the movement's growing popularity among a certain middle-aged to elderly demographic. That's not to say the younger, hipper image usually associated with "the movement" was not in attendance; they were, along with people of all colors, shapes and sizes.
Filmgoers began occupying seats an hour before showtime, chatting busily as they juggled plates of veggie cakes, basil rolls and cannellini-stuffed endive spears, courtesy of Whole Foods, the event's sponsor.
Others queued in the aisle, clutching books by the doctors, who were standing behind a table at the front of the theater, taking questions, signing books and posing for pictures.
When asked if they followed the whole foods, plant-based (and, in Esselstyn's case, oil-free) diet that was being advocated, common responses among members of the audience included "maybe," "almost" or "one day." Many cited deaths of loved ones from heart disease or stroke as factors that led them to look into the diet as a means of preventing or reversing the effects of degenerative diseases.
"It makes sense to me that eating right makes you healthier," Tracy Dixon said as she waited in the buffet line. "I'm here because I'm trying to learn to eat better."
The self-described "transitioning vegan" said she cooks meat one to two times a week for her family. But she wants to adopt a plant-based diet following a raw food and juice cleanse with her husband in 2011.
"I loved the way I felt. I was bouncing off the walls I had so much energy, like a 5-year-old," she said. "We felt the difference in all aspects of our life – we felt better, we slept better. More than anything, for me, as a working mother, it's about having the energy."
Other eager converts had purchased tickets months in advance for the opportunity to see the film, meet the doctors and make the diet work for them. During a post-screening Q&A session, "catching flak" for a vegan lifestyle emerged as a common theme among audience members.
One woman, a personal trainer from Marietta, Georgia, said she had a hard time convincing clients and bodybuilders that natural supplements, when combined with a vegetarian or whole foods diet, could be just as effective as their pharmaceutical counterparts.
"Lead by example" was the advice from Esselstyn's son, Rip. The former triathlete and firefighter was also at the screening promoting his own enterprise, the "Engine 2 Diet," which is slightly more liberal with its oils and sauces than his father's recommended regimen. Like his father, he has a Whole Foods connection: The supermarket promotes his "plant strong" diet as part of its “Health Starts Here” education campaign. (For the record, Whole Foods said through a spokeswoman that it did not underwrite the film, though many of its interviews and vegetable beauty shots come from a Whole Foods store.)
Another man in his 40s said his lunches of spinach salads made him a regular source of ridicule in the office, and he wondered if eating a hamburger or a small amount of meat once a week wasn't so bad.
Dr. Esselstyn replied that it depends on whether you're OK with having a "small" heart attack, or "just a little" stroke.
Discussions touched upon the efficacy of supplements (generally no, said Campbell, but "the jury's still out") and whether the diet could help a man with two stents already in his heart (absolutely, said Esselstyn) before the crowd and the conversation spilled into the theater lobby.
Esselstyn's wife, Ann, dished with a Whole Foods chef on the benefits of abstaining from tofu and other fake meat substitutes, nutritional yeast in mashed potatoes ("it tastes just like butter!"), her favorite breakfasts (dry cereal with oats and grapes) and coconut water (yay) vs. coconut milk (too high in fat and oil).
She noted that her husband's findings from 20 years of clinical tests and follow-up had been gaining a solid following ever since they were published in the 2005 book, "Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease." Then, in a 2010 interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, former President Bill Clinton cited the doctors' research when explaining his attempts to regain his health after he had two coronary stents implanted in his heart.
"We've just been bombarded with requests," she said. "But we love spreading the word. I get e-mails and calls from all around the world from people who are happier and healthier than they've ever been."
But for some, old habits die hard, it seems. Sold as she was on the benefits of a plant-based diet, Louise Morgan lamented it was too late for her to change her ways.
"I love my ribeyes. I love my fried shrimp. I'm 80 years old, I'm gonna die soon. Might as well enjoy it."