Julia Grayer, co-director and co-producer of the documentary, Chow Down, contacted me recently and asked if I’d be interested in reviewing the film. She did not dictate what to write nor did she ask me to give her film a glowing review. Thanks, Julia. I’ve had fun playing movie critic – a secret desire many of us have, I’m sure.
If you haven’t seen the film, I recommend you check it out and ask your omnivore friends and family to do the same. The film is available on Hulu (and on Netflix, though it looks like there’s a wait on it) and you can view the trailer here. If you have seen it, I’d love to hear what you thought of it.
“You don’t get health out of a bottle of pills. You don’t get health out of a bunch of different operative procedures.”
– Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., MD, from the film
My friend calls them Come to Jesus moments. You might know them. Those rare instances when the focus sharpens, light illuminates what was formerly murky and the gears hum in well-oiled precision. Suddenly it – whatever It may be – is perfectly, beautifully clear. My Come to Jesus moment happened while reading The China Study by T. Colin Campbell, PhD. Kel and I went vegan and never looked back. But as I look around my own community and hear and read about the staggering toll taken by Standard American Diet-related illnesses and the steady rise in obesity, I’m waiting for America’s collective Come to Jesus moment. When will the majority of us understand that food is both the problem and the cure – and then make the dietary and lifestyle changes necessary to heal ourselves? When will the medical community actively support and promote these positive lifestyle changes rather than cracking open chests and scribbling out prescriptions for dangerous and not necessarily life-sustaining medications?
Over the past several years, Americans have had ample opportunities for experiencing their epiphanies. Numerous studies have been published by well-respected, unbiased (i.e., studies not funded by the meat, dairy or fast food industries) entities demonstrating the disastrous effects of diets heavy on meat, dairy and processed foods; books like the aforementioned The China Study, Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, Eat To Live and Super Immunity; movies such as Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead, Vegucated and of course, Forks Over Knives, which has turned into an industry unto itself (and more power to it).
The 73-minute documentary released in 2010, Chow Down, is part of the list of average-Joe-goes-plant-based movies aimed at demonstrating the life-saving benefits of adopting a diet free of animal products. The movie follows the journeys of three people – all on the verge of suffering massive coronary events or otherwise suffering from diet-related illnesses and in desperate need of intervention. Instead of bypasses and stents, however, the three decide to heal themselves with the food they consume. Charles, who is counseled by Dr. Esselstyn, is the main focus of the film and we get the most information about him. His father and grandfather were butchers so you can understand what a particular challenge Charles has in getting healthy. (Charles wistfully recalls that when he was a child, his family ate “the best cuts of meat” from the shop.) I find the scenes that include his wife to be the most engaging. She brings warmth to the film and has such an obvious, huge love for her husband. Garnet is a patient of Dr. Joel Fuhrman and she struggles with a less than supportive family. John, the third subject of the film, is also being treated by Dr. Esselstyn. His former diet consisted of a steady intake of Kentucky Fried Chicken and pizza. (No spoilers: you’ll have to watch the film to see how they all do.)
In between conversations with the patients and their family members and man-on-the-street interviews there are cartoons and graphics that provide chilling statistics and sobering facts. We also hear from plant-based diet luminaries such as Dr. Esselstyn, Dr. Joel Fuhrman and Dr. Neal Barnard. Luise Light, formerly of the USDA, shares her experience in the creation of the first food pyramid (and a story of a bribe offered from a food conglomerate) and there are also various health researchers and diet experts providing commentary.
The documentary aims to cover a lot of ground and this may be one of its drawbacks. I found that the movie jumped around a bit too much for me. Just as I got interested in where the story of Charles or Garnet or John was going, the movie moved off to something else. I wanted to find out more about these people. (It takes a lot of courage to buck the traditional methods for treating heart disease, i.e., surgery followed by a lifetime of pills – why did these people choose to forgo them? Were they being guided with meal plans and recipes? Was exercise encouraged?) Forty minutes into the film and I still didn’t have a good feel for the subjects.
Finally, I have to admit that I got impatient during some of the cartoon sequences. They struck me as simplistic and were a distraction from what I felt should be the main focus of the film: the three protagonists. However, this criticism isn’t completely justified. Most of the film’s material is very familiar to me. I’m already eating a low-fat, low-sugar, plant-based diet. I’m singing in that choir. The filmmakers are rightly aiming their work at people who haven’t gotten the message – people who desperately need to hear the message and they need to receive it in the most easily digestible (apologies!) manner with easy-to-read and understand graphics. The film neatly distills down the science- and data-heavy info for those of us who find the shifting sands of nutritional recommendations frustrating and difficult to negotiate.
I think Chow Down does succeed at its goal: to bring the message that we are responsible for our own well-being and we can go a long way in healing ourselves simply by the food choices we make. Health does not, to paraphrase Dr. Esselstyn, come out of a bottle of Lipitor. It comes from the food that we eat (or don’t eat). Chow Down provides eye-opening data (i.e., that 130 million Americans suffer from chronic disease) in easily understood graphics and cartoons that should put the fear of premature death in every viewer. You really want to see Charles, Garnet and John get healthy. Overall, Chow Down is a welcome addition to the growing list of pro-plant-based diet documentaries and books. The topic is too important not to be hammered at incessantly. Until the majority of Americans (heck, the majority of the world) has their Come to Jesus moment, we need more movies like Chow Down.