Forks over Knives diet proposes a whole food, plant-based diet that is claimed to hold the power to reverse chronic disease.
While church attendance in many churches in the USA is declining 1, interest in diet and diet clubs is on the rise. Following a certain diet, shopping at certain grocery stores, attending certain events and meetings with other health-conscious people gives some a sense of identity and a feeling of belonging. And like in all other religious cults, followers believe that their diet will bring them to salvation, which means, if they eat like this, they will be healthy, slim and superior to those who eat an unhealthy diet. An unhealthy diet is, of course, the diet of the other people. In this article, I will share the experience of my failed attempt to deprogram dieters from the Forks over Knives diet cult and describe what is fundamentally wrong with this and other diets.
The Forks over Knives Diet proposes a whole food, plant-based diet that is claimed to hold the power to reverse chronic disease. A whole food, plant-based diet is based on whole, unrefined or minimally refined plant foods. Meat, dairy products, eggs, and highly refined foods such as bleached flour, refined sugar and oils are not allowed. Since this diet is completely free of animal products it is, therefore, vegan. However, a vegan diet allows for processed food.
The Fork over Knives Diet is based on an idea of T. Colin Campbell (born 1934), an American biochemist who specializes in the effect of nutrition on long-term health. In 2005, Campbell published one of America's best-selling books on nutrition, The China Study. Campbell was one of the lead scientists of the China–Cornell–Oxford Project on diet and disease, set up in 1983 by Cornell University, the University of Oxford and the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine to explore the relationship between nutrition and cancer, heart and metabolic diseases. Regrettably, although the set up sounds impressive, the research is not.
Dr. Campbell claims that most, if not all, of the so-called "diseases of affluence" that afflict us can be controlled, or even reversed, by rejecting our present menu of animal-based and processed foods. He did his research in the Philippines and China. While in the Philippines, Campbell observed that the country's wealthier children, who were consuming relatively high amounts of animal-based foods, were much more likely to get liver cancer. Based on the research he did in China, he concluded that degenerative diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even several forms of cancer, could almost always be prevented - and in many cases reversed - by adopting a whole foods, plant-based diet.
When I met with the Fork over Knives group, I expected to find a reasonable group of people who were interested in a healthy lifestyle. All the people I met were either sick, fat, engaged in an unhealthy lifestyle, narrow-minded or looking for identity. An intelligent person is open to new ideas and critically analyzes information from many angles. A cult member wants to hear only one message – only my group is in on the path to ultimate truth. The Fork over Knives groups (as I visited with a number of them) are cults. These groups are not places where a health-minded person can share or exchange her ideas on health and nutrition. However, these groups (like religious groups) are places where one can obtain her cultural identity. Food choices can give people their identity. The perfect example is the Jews and their “kosher” food. Anyone who does not eat kosher is unclean and not part of their group. The diet cults are a perfect example of the irrationality of the group-think. It is not about healthy eating, but about identifying with a healthy eating lifestyle. Once one eats ‘kosher” food, which nowadays can be any diet one decides to choose, one obtains the identity of the clean and wise one.
The diet cults also exploit health vulnerable. Obesity is on the rise and the overweighted's desperation to lose weight will carry them to extreme lengths, and make them susceptible to nutritional claims which are bogus, if not dangerous.
Dieting is also big business for those who manufacture diet fads. Every new diet or healthy food book or a program proclaims that if you eat the way the author tells you, you will never diet again, and you will look and feel amazing. Amazon bookstore returned 50,000 titles on “healthy diet” and 10,000 titles on “weight loss plans” topics. That is 60,000 books just on those two topics. If one could read one book a day, one would need about 168 years to read all these books. With so many diets and resources to chose from, diet and healthy lifestyle gurus need cult followers to stay in business.
The groups I attended were led by dangerously skinny and unhealthy looking women. I mean skin stretched over bones and hardly any flesh. These groups were fanatical in their disdain to oil to the point that they even refused to eat avocados as they are too oily. One of the groups I attended was a book club. We read from Campbell’s book and eat dishes made with no oil, no dairy, no eggs, only plant food. The reading was an equivalent of the Bible study where Campbell’s words were treated as a word of God. But Campbell is a researcher, not a God, and any reasonable group of people would read his book critically, the way any research or claim should be read.
Dr. Campbell’s claims should not be taken seriously. He offers a sweeping conclusion based on limited data and disregards research done by others that proves him wrong. Here’s one example of Campbell’s nonsensical and ill thought studies, his study on aflatoxin. Aflatoxin is a type of mold that is considered a human carcinogen. It is found in certain commonly eaten foods including peanuts, peanut butter and corn. In The China Study, Campbell shows that rodents administered aflatoxin were more likely to get cancer if they ate high-protein (20%) diets. The same rodents, when fed low-protein (5%) diets were less likely to develop malignant tumours. Important here is that they were less likely to develop malignant tumors. It does not mean they did not develop tumors.
Campbell, who for whatever reason considers cow’s milk dangerous product, derived the protein fed to rodents from casein, one of the two main protein fractions of dairy (whey being the other). While reading such research done by a biochemist, backed by recognized institutions, the public gets scared and stops drinking milk. However, the fact is that protein human eat does not come exclusively from casein. To make this study reasonable and academic, the rodents must be fed intake of protein similar to what humans eat - protein that comes from all sources, not exclusively from milk. Also, biological evolution and adaptation to the environment must be taken into account – does rodents’ diet consist of cow’s milk? No, it does not. Have they evolved enough to digest and absorb cow’s milk? If those questions are not answered, we may conclude that the formation of tumors was effected by food (milk protein) to which rodents were not biologically adapted.
In another, independent of Campbell’s study rats fed “healthy” low-protein diet had high mortality number. Of the twenty-two rats fed the low-protein diet, ten died within 6 months while the remainder died between 52 and 104 weeks. In contrast, all thirty rats fed the high protein diet that Campbell and Forks over Knives crusade against survived for more than 1 year 2. When we combine the two studies, we see that rats, which were given the low-protein diet, were less likely to develop cancer, but they were more likely to die prematurely. Thus, Campbell’s study is not valid for the question he asked.
Also, Campbell associates dairy with cancer and breast cancer but does not inform us if the milk he used was organic. In the USA, non-organic dairy and meat comes from hormone-injected livestock fed GMO corn. While dairy and meat from hormone-injected livestock may raise breast cancer risk due to increased exposure to hormones that does not mean organic dairy and meat do the same.
While research done on rats is easy to carry, as rats are easy to control and observe, humans are primates, not rodents. One of the main primate characteristics is our flexibility in adaptation to different diets and environments. Primates are opportunistic in getting food and compared with other animals unusually adaptable in diet. Contrast that with animals such as koala and giant pandas that are extremely limited in the kinds of food that they can or will eat. Koala can eat only the leaves of a few species of eucalyptus, while giant panda primarily eat the shoots of a small number of bamboo species. If those food sources are not available, koalas and giant pandas die. Those food sources also restrict where koalas and giant pandas can live. This is not the case with humans. Humans live in most climates and eat different foods.
The no-meat, no-oil nonsense of the Forks over Knives diet cult has been debunked by diets of hunters and gatherers living around the world. The Inupiant Innuit of Northern Alaska native diet was based on meat and oil with seasonally limited quantities of some fruits and greens. They eat the meat of seal and walrus, marine mammals that live in cold water and have a lot of fat. They used seal oil for cooking and as a dipping sauce for food. They eat moose, caribou and reindeer. They hunted ducks, geese and quail. They eat crab and lots of fish: salmon, whitefish, tomcod, pike and char. They eat fish that was cooked, dried, smoked or raw. They also eat whale meat and whale skin. During short subartic summers, they gathered berries which they mixed with whipped fat. It was their special treat that children loved 3. From the point of view of the Forks over Knives diet regime, the Innuit eat the unhealthiest diet and should have all died from cancer. They lived on a high-protein, high-fat, low in carbohydrates and, low in plant food diet 4.
In our culture, most of us are familiar with the food pyramid balanced diet made up of the building blocks of a healthy diet - mix of grains, fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs and dairy 5. Yet, the Innuit were slim, healthy, cancer-free, and eating nothing but fat and animal protein. The diet of the Far North shows that “there are no essential foods - only essential nutrients. And humans can get those nutrients from diverse and eye-opening sources.” 6
In my next article, I will discuss how the Inuit dealt with what we imagine as gross vitamin deficiencies arising from a diet with scarcely any fruit and vegetables. The quick answer- they got it all for meat and oil. However, we must keep in mind that the traditional Inuit meat was organic while the fish was mercury free.
The example of the Inuit should not prompt anyone to quit the “unhealthy” American diet and switch to any other “healthy” diet. It does not matter what we eat. There are no essential foods - only essential nutrients, and humans can get those nutrients from different sources. It is all about evolutionary adaptation to your environment.
My experience with the Forks over Knives diet group taught me that once people commit to a diet group they will block any new or opposing views. It is “us” versus “them” mentality. The leader of our group was a dangerously skinny woman. You could almost hear the rattling of the bones as she walked. Although she was getting her degree in nutrition, like her idol Dr. Campbell, she was not open to any idea that would contradict her core belief that meat, oil and dairy products are carcinogens and bad for you. While we were reading from Campbell’s book, I would stop her and say, “Ok, but let’s examine closely what he is saying here and compare it with other research.” She refused to discuss any of Dr. Campbell’s claims and ended up screaming at me. Finally, I realized that I was in the cult, that there was no way to make them think analytically and critically, and I left the group.
The diet cults will continue as people need a cultural identity. There is also big money to make on all those books, seminars, conferences, events and products. To get people to buy their products, the diet gurus need cult followers.
Since my failed attempt to bring common sense to a few dieting groups, I’m thinking about starting my own diet group – the diet objectivist club.
p.s. I am a vegetarian and I promote this lifestyle - not because I believe that meat is unhealthy and veggies will make you free of cancer - it is a moral choice for me.
1. The American Family Survey, an annual national survey conducted by the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, found that just 43% of Americans viewed religion as a core component of their identity in 2018.
2. Madhavan T.V., Gopalan C. (1968). The effect of dietary protein on carcinogenesis of aflatoxin. Archives of Pathology, 85 (2): 133-137.
3. Gadsby, P. (2014). The Inuit Paradox. Annual Editions: Anthropology. McGraw Hill.
4. Today, of course, no one in the Far North eats an entirely traditional diet anymore.
6. Harold Draper is a biochemist and expert in Eskimo nutrition. Quoted in “The Inuit Paradox”.