06/04/2011 11:48 pm ET | Updated Aug 04, 2011

'Forks Over Knives': A Sign of Changing Times

When Bob Dylan turned 70, it made me stop to think about how the world has changed since that skinny kid walked onstage in the 1960s and sang to a generation who wanted change ... big change.

As the times have moved on, a lot has changed and not always for the better. Americans have begun to live in a sort of paradox of health. Never before have we had more awareness of health and nutrition. We have almost infinite access to knowledge of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, polyphenols and whatever other nutrient of the moment we are hearing about.

We also live in a time when Americans have never been unhealthier. Heart disease remains the leading killer of men and women; diabetes is an epidemic affecting us at younger and younger ages. Obesity is completely out of control with one in three Americans suffering from this plague. In 33 states the rate of obesity is more than 25 percent. Cancer statistics are as terrifying as anything Stephen King could dream up.

I recently participated in a panel discussion after the Philadelphia premiere of "Forks Over Knives," a documentary about the effects of food on human health. Experts on nutrition, T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D. (author of "The China Study") and Caldwell Esselstyn, M.D. (former Chief of Surgery of The Cleveland Clinic) star in this important film. Born just months apart in the 1930s, both sons of farmers, the paths of these two men converged when their work in nutrition research and medicine (respectively) brought them to a conclusion that changed their lives forever: The foods they grew up on, that we all grew up on -- that were believed to help humans thrive -- were actually the culprits in the epidemic rates of heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and obesity we face as a nation.

The film makes a compelling case for adopting a plant-based diet free of animal foods and rich in whole grains, vegetables and beans, with nuts, seeds and fruit for a balance of nutrition.

The film makes the case that we have all ben brainwashed by marketing and special interests to believe: milk builds strong bones, we need animal protein to grow strong muscles and carbohydrates will make you fat (they won't unless they are refined) -- and that will likely ruffle a lot of feathers. In fact, it will do more than that. People get crazy when they're told that meat and other animal products aren't so great for their health. They go all Paleolithic on you and start talking about our cave man ancestors and how bad grains are for human health based on the lives of cave dwellers.

Chris Masterjohn, a blogger and Weston Price devotee who seems to have made a mission of discrediting Dr. Campbell's work seems to be one of the loudest voices in the charge to place vegan and vegetarian eating in a bad light. His own bad experience with this lifestyle prompted a very zealous campaign (with a small, but equally zealous following) that cholesterol is a necessary nutrient for the human body (it is) and that animal food is essential to health (it isn't). He has said "animal products that consist of 2 to 10 percent of a person's diet may make or break the healthfulness of the diet." So may I conclude that a healthy diet is not, in fact, rich in animal products, but can play a small part, depending on each individual's condition and constitution? This quote is a far cry from the mantle Mr. Masterjohn carries against a plant-based diet.

Let's look at some facts that are hard to dispute. As a proud meat-eating culture, have we become healthier beings? Nope. As a result of factory farmed animals, we have become fatter and sicker, literally crushing the healthcare system under the weight of what we choose to eat and the resulting consequences. (And while a case can be made for pastured, grass-fed meat in terms of human health, it's inaccessibility to masses of people make it a bit elitist.)

A study done at the University of Georgia concluded that vegetarian and vegan diets can result in far less obesity, diabetes and heart disease than the conventional style of eating enjoyed by most Americans. While lifestyle is also a factor (most vegetarians, it was concluded also exercise, do not smoke or drink alcohol in excess), the study revealed that a plant-based diet with lots of variety had only three potential downsides: too few calories, a possible deficiency of vitamin B-12 and of vitamin D (something we all need to consider, not just vegans).

Without an agenda, this study is quite telling. For a lot of people, vegans are thought of as pale, nutritionally-deficient weaklings, overweight sugar-addicted train wrecks or simply animal lovers who take their passion too far. And while those vegans do exist, most of us are hale and hearty, enjoying robust health with normal blood pressure, weight and bone density and not suffering from diabetes and heart disease. That can't be said for the majority of our society. Just look around.

"Forks Over Knives," while it follows the career trajectories of these Doctors Campbell and Esselstyn and their missions, it also tells the stories of people who have changed their health completely by adopting a plant-based approach to eating. The writer-director of the film, Lee Fulkerson, made himself a guinea pig and changed from a very conventional diet rich in animal foods to a plant-based approach with astonishing results in reducing his cholesterol, blood pressure and risk of heart attack.

Interviews with men and women who walked away from the standard American diet to one rich in whole grains, beans and vegetables showed similarly amazing results, from reduced blood pressure and cholesterol numbers, to weight loss and the ability to discontinue most of their medications for diabetes and heart disease.

Dr. Terry Mason is interviewed in the film. As the public health commissioner of Chicago, he is convinced that meat, dairy and processed foods are responsible for a good number of deaths in his city and that much of the disease we struggle with could be completely prevented with a change to a plant-based diet.

This powerful documentary asks an important question. What happened to us? We enjoy the most advanced medical technology in the world and yet we get sicker by just about every measure. Nearly half the population takes at least one prescription per day and medical procedures like open heart surgery, bypass surgery and organ replacement have become routine. Heart disease, cancer and stroke continue to kill us in record numbers.

Is there a solution? Yes, but a lot of you won't like it.

If food is the cause of many of our ills, doesn't it stand to reason that food can be the answer? Hippocrates famously said, "Let Food Be Thy Medicine ..." Food can ... and should be just that.

And this isn't just about being vegan. It's about eating a diet of unprocessed whole foods. Being vegan alone doesn't guarantee a healthy diet. Twizzlers are vegan.

Whole grains like quinoa, brown rice and barley, with lots of veggies, nuts and some fruit, as well as beans for protein can all combine to create robust health in a body of normal weight.

Dr. Esselstyn understands (as do I) that people become upset at the suggestion that the food they grew up on and love is unhealthy for them. But he says it's crucial for human health to reconsider how we think about food.

I think this important film is a must-see for everybody interested in health -- and that should be all of us. I don't agree with everything in the film. For instance, I do not think it's a good idea to live completely without the use of oil in your diet. I know the arguments: it's calorically dense; there are other sources of fat in our diets like nuts and avocados (which are great but are also calorically dense so you can't enjoy a lot of them without consequence to you waistline; you would need a lot to make up for the oil you are not eating).

I think eating a diet free of oils can be effective in helping people to regain their health ... for a short time. After a few weeks though, I am of the belief that oil should be added back into a diet so that all of the fat soluble nutrients essential to health are easily assimilated and for satiety, so we're happy with our new diet and will stick with it. Oil also helps us to eat less because we are satisfied more easily. According to the Mayo Clinic, monounsaturated fats, like those in olive oil can help reduce our risk of heart disease by lowering total cholesterol and low-density lipo-protein cholesterol levels. Some research reveals that monu-unsaturated fats can help regulate blood sugar, which can be helpful if you have diabetes.

And besides, if olive oil was so bad for human health, then all of the cultures that enjoy it would not be so ... well, they wouldn't be at all.

In the end, whether you agree entirely with the message of the film, the facts are clear. The way we eat in America today is destroying our collective health and eating a whole foods diet rich in whole grains and veggies could really be the solution to this weighty problem.

Dr. Dean Ornish said it best when he said that we consider it perfectly normal to crack open someone's chest and replace their heart, but it's considered quite radical to change our diet to be plant-based.

See this film. It could change your life.