Vegan on the silver screen
March 3rd, 2011
08:00 AM ET
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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."

The film examines the health benefits of eschewing all animal products in favor of a diet of unprocessed fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes. The main storyline - which is interwoven with charts and graphs of medical data - follows the personal journeys of Colin Campbell and Caldwell Esselstyn. The two doctors are responsible for most of the clinical and scientific evidence supporting the theory that a properly planned plant-based diet can prevent, and even reverse, common diseases more effectively than drugs and surgery might.

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."

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Filed under: Bite • Cuisines • Diets • Health News • Movies • Think • Vegan • Vegetarian

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soundoff (381 Responses)
  1. personal training Long Island

    He died at 52 of a heart attack while watching TV. It Killed him instantly. My husband and i eat very well because we know that this type of thing can happen. Louise Morgan keep eating great your look so younger it's clearly working.

    January 21, 2014 at 6:15 pm |
  2. P.J. O'Connor

    The word "vegan" is synonymous with "weird" and "gross" for for those addicted to the American diet. The big food brands have done an effective job of brainwashing and "brandwashing" us into believing that you "can't get enough protein" with a plant-based diet and that every meal should have meat and cheese. I mean for health's sake, next time you go into a restaurant count how many items on the menu don't have meat or cheese! Follow me on Twitter @vegan_soul

    November 22, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
  3. Luigi Vljeric

    Where ever you go, I will adhere to...Congrats!!!!

    October 25, 2013 at 11:28 am |
  4. Admitidly

    This! This was purportedlyPresident Obama's promise before to the 2008 election. Is there any evidence of any progress as far as sustainable energy goes?

    May 6, 2013 at 8:42 pm |
  5. Macha

    J'aime apprendre sur ce site de plus en plus, il y a beaucoup de themes vraiment interessant.

    November 16, 2011 at 10:40 am |
  6. Milton

    Check out the sneak peek of a new documentary that is coming out soon called 'Don't Eat Me'.
    It is done by a young girl and it really opened my eyes.Powerful stuff!

    October 17, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
  7. Andre

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    October 10, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
  8. Vegan Raw Food

    I wished I was raised on a vegan diet but I wasn't. I became vegan over 17 years ago and very thankful I made the diet change. I feel great. The evidence is clear with all the research and facts being done.

    September 23, 2011 at 12:43 am |
  9. Charlotte

    J'ai trouve beaucoup d'informations utiles! Je vous invite a consulter mon site

    September 3, 2011 at 9:44 am |
  10. Andre

    J'aime apprendre sur ce site de plus en plus, il y a beaucoup de themes vraiment interessant.

    September 1, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  11. rtyecript

    I really liked the article, and the very cool blog

    August 24, 2011 at 6:38 am |
  12. Observer

    Every vegan I have ever known is a retard. Every one. Period.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:00 am |
  13. Watch this!

    Anyone who is willing to eat an animal should be willing to kill one. We have been eating animals for a long time. Hunting then eating them. No problem at all with this. We have not, however been factory farming for that long. Does anyone here know about factory farming? It's where 97% of all animal products come from. It's not brain surgery, you have a computer just google it. I think meat became so unhealth for us when we forgot that we eat whatever the animals eat. I don't think back when we were eating canibals! Killing them on a conveyor belt? Have you ever looked into it? Skining animals alive? I loved the taste of meat but never really thought I could kill an animal. Watch earthlings if you want to be informed on why these "vegans" treat this as a "religion" here's another one for dairy lovers.

    April 27, 2011 at 11:35 pm |
    • VeganGirl

      Perfectly stated! =) It makes me angry when people say that we should eat cows because they are tasty. That sounds so idiotic. Chances are those people have no idea what they are eating. Factory farming is horrible and I can't believe that people are knowingly supporting this process. It is not good for us, the animals, or the environment. The only benefit we get out of supporting it, is cheap self gratification.

      May 4, 2011 at 2:10 am |
  14. Just Me

    Why all the fuss about eating the 4 food groups? Yet nothing said about Oreo's, potato chips, diet sodas, diet anything, sugar laden processed foods with hydrolyzed ingredients, hormones and antibiotics in animals kept in inhospitable environments, perscription and non-perscription drugs, etc. aren't these the real culprits that are making the United States one of the worse fed nations in the world!

    April 11, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
  15. Happyvegan

    I am a happy vegan. It shows on my face and my energy level, so people ask often me what I eat, especially at the gym, at potlucks, or when I am doing something physical where my vigor shows. When asked, I am happy to share my "secrets".

    In the above entries, there is sometimes anger from the "meat and dairy consuming" community aimed against vegans. Why is that? Do we sound "preachy" or "holier than thou". Or is it the meat eaters that do this? I am not concluding, just asking. What are your opinions? Why is there so much anger involved? What if we were discussing potatoes versus rice or beef versus pork? Or carrots versus beets? Do those topics evoke anger too? What causes the emotions to rise?

    I do not try to convert, but I answer questions for people who want to know more information. Why are my answers sometimes a threat? The inquirer may immediately shut down the discussion, which is fine with me. If they do not want to discuss the benefits and tradeoffs, why did they ask? I am motivated as an eater of meats and dairy for 49 years and having seen the "light", I would like to share but have learned to tread lightly and to be prepared for rebuff.

    I would appreciate understanding the cause of the anger against vegans?

    March 31, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
  16. Margaret

    My decision to become a vegetarian, many years ago, was based on my desire not to ingest the energy of the pain and fear an animal goes through when it is butchered for human consumption. I value life very highly, human or animal, and am at ease with my decision not to contribute to the profit of those who don't care. I don't judge anyone for their eating habits but I do sometimes wonder why they don't study the nutrition, or lack thereof, of the substances they put into their bodies and the effects of excessive protein, etc.

    March 21, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
  17. Kelly

    When I decided to go veg, my skin, energy and sleep patterns went from troubled to the best it's ever been, as did my immune system and overall health. The key is eating a balanced veg diet, not just animal free junk. Some people can tolerate meat, but for me, it just slowed me down and through my own personal experience and results of my yearly health tests, confirmed that I thrive on my adopted diet it it was the best decision I'd make for my life. Also, I'd rather die happy, naturally eating what I love so this was a bonus! I really dont give a flip or judge what other people want to eat or do to their bodies, we're individuals as are our priorities. Im glad I didn't follow the myths thrown out in blanket statements in regards a veg diet or I would have never known the overall improvement adopting it would be, as did my dad who had suffered from diabetes, low iron, high blood pressure, and clots that had lead to a stroke. He's now controlled his glucose levels and no longer needs an injection to keep his red blood cells up since his kidneys are healthier which has resulted in only two prescriptions (down from 8). He couldn't believe the transition after years of abnormal levels and actually thought he needed meat to be healthy, but then again he's older and has that old school farm boy mindset. lol. So, it worked for him also and he loves the options that are out now. Maybe it's not for everybody but it's certainly been for us and, it may sound selfish, but its been wonderful seeing my dad so much happier after years of worry. He's even started up his organic garden again to maintain whole foods on his own as best he can. Thanks for an article!

    March 19, 2011 at 5:58 am |
    • TinaC

      Kelly, your experience mirrors mine.  I had went back and forth between being omnivores and vegetarian. Originally it was for the outrageous suffering of animals (and my personal feelings of what a 'humane' killing even means). My health was noticeable better on a veg diet, but I primarily ate non processed organic foods and less mock meats.  I too was one of ignorance who thought I couldn't get enough iron, calcium, or protein in an animal free diet until I read the science of foods instead of believing a million dollar campaign.  My dad was then stricken with diabetes and the ailments that go with it, including the big one.  After over two decades of one problem after another and eventually requiring blood work every 1-3 months, I did shove my belief and veg diet in his face and begged him to atleast have an open mind to try it.  I too, don't care what anyone does or eats, but this was my family whom i care about, so I encouraged him to  give it 90 days and see if his experience was like mine despite his desease being way beyond what I was ever stricken with. I can't help but think because I haven't even suffered a cold in almost 15 years because of my food choices.  His improvement was almost miraculous in the eyes of his doctors. He stayed on and continued to improve.  His levels have stabilized and he's just so much brighter. My mom is Japanese and shes always been on a primarily plant based and the main meat she eats is fish so she's had no problems related to nutrition. Because we have long intestines unlike the short intestines of carnivores and omnivores to process meat, she was prone to twisted gut, so added mammal meat and lard that takes that much longer to digest would obstruct her bowel so she's cut most of it out of her diet even more.  Our veg based diets has been the best for our family also, so for me it not only helped in that area but the animals also. Take care and it's glad to hear your dad's doing so much better!

      March 20, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
  18. Brodrick

    I think its important to add for those individuals who love the taste of meat, chicken, dairy and eggs. The scientific community is not debating whether or not these foods taste good or not, because they taste great. So does refined sugars and alcohol, but the negative impact on human physiology is disastrous for all.

    This isn't about personal preferences. Its about a large and growing body of good research demonstrating the power of a plant based diet to not only prevent disease, but in many cases reverse it.

    The good news is though, your tastes are determined by your eating habits and they are subject to change at anytime.

    Healthy eating involves no sacrifices, only different choices.


    March 18, 2011 at 10:59 pm |
    • RichardHead

      What type of Disease are you trying to prevent? Death comes in many forms,yet having someone TRY to force their beliefs on me will not cut it. My decision to eat meat or dairy is my own,NOT YOURS.

      March 18, 2011 at 11:09 pm |
      • Brod

        Richard: good on you, enjoy your dietary preferences.

        I completely agree with you, its annoying when people try to push their personal beliefs on you!

        I think the thrust behind the whole plant based movement is not about personal beliefs or dietary preferences.

        This is about people seeking authentic information regarding diet and how to achieve health longevity.

        If this is you, the movie Forks over Knives presents dietary facts not influenced by corporate agenda's.

        If the science behind health longevity doesn't concern you, enjoy your food choices what ever they may be!


        March 19, 2011 at 12:12 am |
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