Can Junk Food Cause Cancer?

The new documentary Forks Over Knives claims that a diet of processed foods and junk food is to blame for most major diseases

Just when you think you’re living a healthy lifestyle, a documentary like Forks Over Knives comes along to shatter all of your healthier-than-thou notions. Forget patting yourself on the back for adding more fish, olive oil and low-fat dairy to your diet. If you really want to prevent heart disease, cancer, diabetes and just about every other major disease in the developed world, you should be forsaking meat, dairy, sugar and refined or processed foods, say the doctors and researchers in this documentary, which opens in theaters Friday, May 6.

This isn’t just a matter of opinion, say the filmmakers Lee Fulkerson and Brian Wendel. Like an elaborate (vegan) feast, Forks Over Knives lays out all of the scientific evidence that they say proves our diet is killing us. Among them: A study where researchers could turn cancer on and off by adding or removing animal protein from the subjects’ diets. It’s not your genes, it’s not the BPA in your plastics and it’s not the pesticides in your produce, they say. It’s our love affair with meat, sugar and dairy.

The stats that film assails us with are frightening: Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. Fifty percent of us are on at least one prescription medication. The U.S. spends $2.2 trillion on healthcare -- five times as much as we do on defense. One out of three of us will get diabetes –- the same number will die of heart disease. Men in this country have a 47 percent chance of getting cancer; women have a 38 percent chance.

Forks Over Knives profiles, among others, two renowned experts -- Caldwell Esselstyn, M.D., director of the Cardiovascular Disease Prevention and Reversal Program at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, and T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D., a pioneering nutrition researcher and author of The China Study. A former cardiovascular surgeon, Esselstyn now focuses on reversing heart disease in his patients through a plant-based, whole foods diet. In the documentary, he claims that heart disease is a toothless paper tiger -- it doesn’t even have to exist. Patients have come to him when, after bypasses failed, they were told they wouldn’t live through the year. By limiting them to whole grains, fruit, vegetables and legumes, Esselstyn not only kept many alive for decades, but halted their heart disease as well.

If this diet sounds too extreme for you, consider Dr. Esselstyn’s retort. “With the Western diet, there are going to be half a million people in this country this year who will have to have the front half of their body divided, their heart exposed. Some people would call that extreme,” he says.

According to Esselstyn, autopsies on 18-34-year-old Americans who died in accidents revealed that everyone over 20 has heart disease -- not enough to trigger a heart attack, but the arteries are already damaged. Compare that to rural China, where residents eat mainly plants. There, heart disease is non-existent.

“We know there are certain foods that every time they pass our lips, they will injure our blood vessels,” says Esselstyn. By eliminating those foods, the body has a remarkable capacity to repair itself and stop, or even reverse, heart disease,” he says. “Everybody who’s been eating the western diet has this disease. So one really is left with the personal decision of, ‘Do I continue to eat foods that will grow my disease, or should I stop the disease now in its tracks?’ Nutrition trumps everything. There is nothing more powerful to our health than food.”

Since watching Forks Over Knives last week, I have been struggling hard with this personal choice. I don’t want to give up meat, fish and oils -- I love sushi and cheese and the occasional slab of steak -- but I do know that I can cut back. Yesterday, I bypassed the meat section of the supermarket and filled my cart with tofu, seitan and quinoa instead. I’ve been eating homemade “oatmeal” each morning, made with wild rice, barley, steel-cut oats and dried fruit. I’ve been snacking on homemade kale and apple chips all week. I enjoy these foods, feel good about my choices and don’t feel deprived. But then again, I haven’t given up meat, and I don’t see myself going vegan any time soon, unless my health demands it. I realize that continuing to eat these foods is a bit like playing Russian roulette. But I like to think that adding as many fruits, vegetables and whole grains to my diet as I can is also a bit like donning an (admittedly untested) bullet-resistant vest.

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