It already had been a busy evening by the time Animal Policy Examiner met Brian Wendel at the Mercy for Animals Hidden Heroes event earlier this month. Energy ebbed at the thought of yet another interview. But a chat with the enthusiastic force behind the film Forks Over Knives quickly revived the pep.
Even while describing his concerns about the typical animal-based American diet that he said “doesn’t work,” Wendel laughed easily, drawing from what seemed to be a deep well of optimism about the future of human health, environmental quality, and animal welfare.
Q&A WITH BRIAN WENDEL, FORKS OVER KNIVES CREATOR AND EXECUTIVE PRODUCER
ANIMAL POLICY EXAMINER (APE): First the obvious question. What compelled you to spend your time on making this film?
BRIAN WENDEL: I’ve been on a vegan diet for about 10 years, and I’ve been into whole food veganism for about that time also. And after I read The China Study [a book drawing connections between nutrition and heart disease, diabetes and cancer] in 2008 it really occurred to me that there was science that this diet could prevent and even reverse disease. Even after you get disease, the [vegan] diet can work better than a lot of medical treatments we have.
The evidence was just so compelling, but for some reason the news story was not being told. And I felt it was kind of unfair in a way that only a small group of people knew this information while the rest of the population wasn’t getting the benefit of it. A a lot of people were suffering needlessly, so I wanted to do something—something that was visual and really compelling, so I decided to go ahead and make a feature film.
In a lot of ways I wanted to do for an awareness of nutrition what An Inconvenient Truth did for awareness of climate change. So I set out to make a film, and before I knew it I was out of the real estate business and making Forks Over Knives.
APE: Because you had been practicing a vegan diet, was that what got you interested—the health story? Or was it was it animals? Or both?
WENDEL: The health story was really the main reason I did this film. And having been a vegan all this time I definitely gained an awareness of what goes on with the animals, even more so as the years have gone by. I mean, that’s why I’m here tonight. I really do support the efforts of the animal rights movement.
In terms of making the film, it really was about health. But believe me I’m very happy that a by-product of this is that people are eating a lot less animals.
What goes on with the animals is mean. We’re really a bunch of jerks in how we treat the animals.
The animal diet hasn’t worked, and we’re going to get past this, I know it. I think in a hundred years from now when we’re eating a plant diet, we’re going to look back on this time and what we did to animals and the way we treated the environment with our diet, and we’re going to look at it almost like we were in a Dark Age.
So again, even though the movie is about health, I’m hoping that it will help people to look at this diet. It has all these other benefits. It’s kinder to animals and it’s good for the environment.
APE: What makes you so certain that a century from now most of us will be on a plant-based diet?
WENDEL: I think what we’re doing is not sustainable. It’s not sustainable economically, it’s not sustainable from a health perspective, it’s not sustainable environmentally. So either we’re going to go down the tubes with this diet that we’re eating, or we’re going to have to switch.
Just with the population growth—we cannot possibly— We’re losing 90 percent of what we eat because we’re cranking it through the animals.
If we eat a plant diet, we’ll have much more resources. We can just feed the food that grows in the ground directly to us. It’s a much smarter way to do it, and as the population grows it’s the only way we’re going to be able to do it. So I really believe in my heart that it is going to change.
APE: A few weeks ago I covered the Animal Agriculture Alliance Summit in Arlington, Virginia up in the D.C. area. That’s a group that represents the animal agriculture industry, and of course their message was quite different. Their message was that in order to feed the burgeoning human population that’s expected by the year 2050, they’re going to have to increase production of animal products, because they feel that the most efficient way to feed people is with animal proteins.
WENDEL: I’m not an expert in that field, but that’s absolutely crazy. Are they saying that based on the assumption that animal foods are a requirement for health? I mean, if they’re saying they think that animal foods are required for health, then they’re going to say that they need to boost animal foods.
And that’s one of the problems I’m really hoping we overcome with Forks Over Knives. We have believed—because we were brought up this way—that meat and dairy are essential components of the diet. This is a big problem that animal rights people have trouble overcoming.
There’s this misconception. People say, “Well, a vegan diet can be healthy if you eat x, y, and z to somehow make it look like the meat diet, which is kind of crazy, because the meat diet is not healthful. We have to turn this myth around, because there is no protein deficiency, and there is no need for all this extra calcium that we’re getting in milk.
By the way, when we eat these products, when we eat meat, we’re not eating protein, we’re eating a food that has countless numbers of nutrients in it, and we isolate these single nutrients, when in reality, all these nutrients combined are really harming us. We’re not drinking a cup of calcium, we’re drinking this food that’s made up of countless nutrients—not just calcium—and together they make a food that’s really unhealthful.
We have to get past this issue that these foods are necessary. Not only are they not necessary, but they’re quite detrimental to us.
APE: On Facebook, etc., I see a lot of buzz, you’ll be happy to hear, about Forks Over Knives. A lot of people are following it, and are interested, and are recommending the movie. But do you feel that you’re getting mainstream attention for it, and that it’s having the kind of mainstream reach that you’d like? Or do you worry that you’re preaching to the choir?
WENDEL: The truth is we are reaching a lot of people. If you look at the Facebook page you’ll see posts from people that say, “Wow, I didn’t know this information. I’m going on a plant-based diet tomorrow.” When we did exit surveys in Portland we find out that over half of our audience were not vegan or vegetarians.
So I do feel that we’re reaching a lot of non-choir people, and the choir are also bringing the non-choir people, because they see the film for what I hoped it would be, which is getting some really compelling information in a short video presentation that puts forth the most compelling evidence that we have that animal food is really harmful to us and that whole plant foods are healthful.
So I am happy with the reach. But I feel that it is very hard for a film like this. I think we could use more national publicity. It’s been very tough. Breaking through these institutions is not easy. At this point we’re just chipping away. I think Forks Over Knives is definitely a piece of that puzzle, just like Mercy for Animals, doing their great work, is chipping away.
And everybody’s just all come together now, because people are realizing that we’ve tried the animal-based diet. We’ve definitely given it a fair shot, and it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work, and there’s a better way out there.
APE: A lot of people feel it does work. A lot of people feel that they need it. You and I both know people who have desk jobs, yet feel they need the protein—the massive hits of protein.
WENDEL: Well, you know the great thing about Forks Over Knives is that although people say, “When I eat meat it feels so good,” if you see Forks Over Knives you’ll understand why. Because we’re tricking our natural instincts. We’re naturally designed to seek the most calorically dense foods we can find. And in nature, that would assure that we would eat mangos, for instance, or plant foods with enough calories to sustain us, over, let’s say, cucumbers. But now we can artificially process meat and cook it and all these other things, and do things that we wouldn’t have done in our ancestry, and make the foods dense beyond what’s helpful for us.
They give us this immediate gratification, but anyone who thinks the animal diet is working is not really looking at the facts. The more animal foods we’ve consumed over the centuries, we’ve gotten sicker. Obesity is rampant. Diabetes is going crazy. We have heart disease. Between heart disease and cancer and diabetes, that’s just about everybody. The evidence is showing that it doesn’t work.
So there might be some immediate gratification, a sense of fulfillment right after you eat the meal. But also half of us are on prescription drugs. It’s not working.
APE: Do you think it’s hard for many people to imagine being vegan? Maybe not understanding how they can survive, much less feel good, on plant-based foods?
WENDEL: What’s the biggest myth of veganism? It’s that we live on vegetables. People say, “You’re going to give up your steak in favor of Brussels sprouts?” This is an unfair comparison because you’re comparing a calorie source of a meat-based diet with a non-calorie source.
Nobody can live on Brussels sprouts, nobody can live on broccoli. Yes, we need to eat a lot of vegetables, but in a healthy plant-based diet, calories are coming from fruit, legumes, whole grains.
People say, “Oh I’m not trading this [meat] for spinach.” But you’re trading in your steak for sweet potato lasagna. Or you’re exchanging your roast beef for lentil stew. Because now you’re comparing calorie source to calorie source, and that sounds scrumptious.
Of course everybody should eat a lot of vegetables but that’s not the calorie source of a plant-based diet.
APE: Let’s say I’m a member of the [vegan] “choir,” and I want to bring in some members who really don’t like the idea of this “church” at all. What would you say I should tell them so that they’ll come see the movie with me?
WENDEL: I still have a lot of omnivore friends. I’m a big proponent of embracing everybody, and over the years I’m very proud that even before the movie I’ve gotten a lot of my friends into a vegan diet. I believe that engagement is very important—being kind, and being a shining example. Veganism is the best choice I ever made, and if you talk to vegans, some of us are just so passionate about this that we really want to get that message out.
My feeling is engage everybody, embrace people, and invite them to join us in our wonderful lifestyle. To me it’s great. You feel good a lot. It’s great to know that you’re not harming animals, doing damage to the environment the way an animal diet does.
We’ve got to get people to see the glory of veganism, because it really is a great, great lifestyle.
APE: One more question. Give me a tag line to describe your movie?
WENDEL: You have control over these horrible degenerative diseases. We were led to believe that we get these diseases from genetics or outer space [laughter]. I don’t know. But the bottom line is when you see the film, you actually see the angiograms of people who have heart disease. When they go on a plant-based diet, you see their arteries open up.
So yes, we do have control, for the most part, over these horrible degenerative diseases that we have.
Watch a trailer for Forks Over Knives.
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Katerina Lorenzatos Makris (a.k.a. Kathryn Makris) has written 18 books for major publishers and hundreds of articles for publications such as National Geographic Traveler, San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones, Petside.com, and two regional news wire services.
A cofounder of AnimalBeat.org, she holds a B.A. in Environmental Science Studies and a lifelong interest in animal issues.
Among her books are Your Adopted Dog: Everything You Need to Know about Rescuing and Caring for a Best Friend in Need (The Lyons Press), coauthored with Shelley Frost, and The Eco-Kids, a series of novels for tweens (Avon Books).
Her story “Small Change” placed as a finalist in The Bark magazine’s short fiction contest and appeared in the November 2010 issue.
She may be reached at [email protected]
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