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Documentary Review | Food Choices

As I was browsing Netflix looking for something to watch, I came across Food Choices. I feel like I’ve seen most food/vegan-related documentaries, so I was excited to see a new (September 2016) film released. To be honest, though, I can’t say I can distinguish the differences between all those food documentaries (they all sort of blend together!), so I was interested to see how this film would stand apart.

At first, it seemed as though Food Choices would employ a familiar formula — the “watch me change my life” story about the narrator searching for the truth. Indeed, the story is told from the perspective of filmmaker Michal Siewierski, who I understand recently became plant-based and wanted to either prove or disprove the anti–plant-based myths. In his exploration, Siewierski interviewed leading plant-based doctors, nutritionists, chefs, athletes, and other celebrities.

The format of the film followed a rhythmic cycle of introducing a myth, and reviewing the facts, perceptions, and perspectives surrounding that topic before moving on to the next myth, and so on.

Allow me to pause here. If you might be interested in watching this documentary, I would recommend it. Though it might be a bit repetitive for those of us who are already plant-based or who have an understanding of nutrition, it does cover many of the questions we are asked (and that we ask of ourselves) when we become plant-based. It is not a ‘vegan’ documentary, though it will touch upon environmental impacts of animal agriculture and on animal cruelty. Be warned, towards the end of the documentary, it WILL show some graphic scenes from undercover footage on animal farms and even clips from the dreaded and infamous Earthlings. Additionally, there are a ton of stock images of meat and animal carcasses, which might make it difficult to watch.

Spoiler alert, from here onward, I will be talking about the film’s content. Also, disclaimer, I’m not a nutritionist and I have a minimal understanding of nutrition myself, my explanations below are how I interpreted the information presented in this movie. 

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The first question, right at the start: What is the best diet for the human species? The film jumps right in. Just as there is a diet most appropriate for all other species on the planet, from our domestic cats and dogs to lions and bears, there is indeed an optimal diet for humans. The guest doctors proclaimed the answer; the best diet for the human species is a plant-based diet consisting of four main food groups — fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.

Many of the diseases we suffer from today — obesity, heart disease, cancers, etc. — are what wellness advocate Joe Cross (of Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead) describes as “diseases of ignorance.” They can largely be avoided if only we understood the role our diets play in contributing to our overall health. Then again, there’s a difference between knowing and doing, as the documentary points out. Many of us know that plant-based is healthier, but we struggle to actually live plant-based.

The film’s introduction touched upon overall limited awareness due to inadequate nutrition education and misleading corporate marketing. And we see how that impacts our lives in the discussions that followed.

Protein

I hadn’t thought about this before, but protein was only first ‘discovered’ in the 18th century; so before then, people weren’t thinking about getting adequate protein, it just happened. As Dr. Pamela Popper, naturopath and nutrition expert, points out, upon its discovery, the promotion and marketing of protein insisted that we weren’t getting enough of it, or that we could not get enough protein without consuming animal products. However, bulking up on animal foods for protein displaces in our diet foods that actually matter, explains Dr. T. Colin Campbell, a leading biochemist studying nutrition and health and author of The China Study. And really, does it make sense that we eat vegetarian animals for our protein? Definitely not, scoffs raw foodist  Karyn Calabrese.

Additionally, too much protein of any kind (animal or otherwise) stresses the liver, kidney, and other organs; and when it is animal-based protein, it increases chances of getting cancer!

Meanwhile, as omnivores argue that plant-based dieters aren’t getting enough protein, Dr. Michael Greger emphasizes that some 98% of Americans aren’t even meeting the minimal levels of important vitamins, minerals, and nutrients, like fiber or potassium.

Calcium, Dairy, and Eggs

If it’s not protein that gets people fired up upon learning of your plant-based diet, it’s calcium. Are people eating a plant-based diet getting enough? Actually, too low calcium levels has never been a problem, says Dr. McDougall. The documentary flashed a great deal of research — scientific white papers — on the dairy and health connection. I’d love to see the resources used for this film. Alas, it looks like the only way to learn more is to sign up for the Food Choices nutrition courses.

So what do we tell people about dairy? “Look at the evidence and you decide,” says one interviewee. Eggs, for example, are the the most concentrated source of dietary cholesterol, says Dr. Greger. The trouble is that these foods — milk, eggs, and other animal by-products — seem to infiltrate everything in baking, cooking, and processing packaged foods.

The Omegas | Is Fish Oil the Modern Day Snake Oil?

So here’s the thing about fatty acids: there are two essential (that is, must come from food) fatty acids: Omega-3 and Omega-6. Omega-6 comes from land animals, fish, etc. and polyunsaturated vegetable oils. Given that the standard American diet is so heavy in these foods, we have very high levels of Omega-6 in our diets. The thought was that we therefore needed to elevate our Omega-3 levels to create more of a balance. But couldn’t we just work on lowering our Omega-6 levels? Oddly, that’s never been a thought, says Dr. Popper.

So we don’t need that much Omega-6 in the first place. But also, elevating our Omega-3 levels increases chances of Type 2 Diabetes! Perhaps fish oil really is the new snake oil, as Dr. Greger suggests.

Machismo

Early in the film, Dr. McDougall references the sexism in the hunter/gatherer approach. I was hopeful that this meant the film would go into the “sexual politics of meat” as Carol Adams would call it. While the film again brought up “manliness” and meat, I was honestly disappointed. Like most of the sections, it was a very brief review of manliness. And it was mostly approached from the erectile disfunction perspective. Doesn’t that just perpetuate masculinity? That without a functioning member you’re not a ‘man’? I feel like there were many missed opportunities in this section.

“Diets” and Obesity

So we have a weight problem. Enter fad diets. The most common diet we see, decade after decade, is an Atkins-type diet. Due to smart marketing and celebrity endorsement, this diet tends to do well. Introduced by Robert Atkins in the late 1950s, the Atkins diet suggests that we’re consuming too many carbs. So bulk up the meat, eh? Beyond the Atkins diet, there’s been the South Beach Diet, the Zone Diet, and now Paleo, among countless other copy cat diets, explains Dr. Campbell. But it’s not effective. These diet plans are written by people without experience in the field of nutrition! They’re just news reporters, adds Dr. Popper.

And for folks who ditch red meat and stick with white meat instead, it’s still meat. Meat is muscle. It’s high in fat, protein, and cholesterol, but with no dietary fiber. Everyone wants to hear good news about their bad habits, which Dr. Popper suggests might be why these diets do so well in terms of their popularity. However, if people lose weight, it’s only temporarily, and only because they’re made sick in a way that folks will lose their appetite. They’re dangerous, proclaims Dr. McDougall.

Yes. We should cut down on carbohydrates — simple carbohydrates (sugars, etc.), says Dr. Campbell. But the Atkins approach is all wrong.

The Flaw | Terminology v. Health

But there are unhealthy vegetarians, right? Does that mean there is a flaw in the plant-based diet? “‘Vegetarian’ means nothing,” explains Dr. McDougall, who told a story about a vegan he once knew who ‘survived’ on Coca-Cola and chips. He suggests that oil remains a major culprit in the weight issue among vegetarians and vegans. At the same time, Dr. Campbell points out that 90% of vegetarians still consume dairy.

Now, can everyone be 100% plant-based all the time? Dr. Campbell believes, for the vast majority, we could be 90% plant-based and still see the benefits. Though, if someone has health issues, they should be 100% plant-based. That being said, why would we tease ourselves by not being plant-based 100% of the time? Our taste preferences won’t change if we’re not, and we need to get to the point where we crave the healthy food.

Nutritional Awareness | Knowledge is Power

The truth is, we can’t necessarily blame people for not knowing about nutrition. It’s a challenge to get honest, non-biased, science-based information; particularly when media always feels compelled to give counter arguments (even when there is little to no evidence supporting the counter arguments, as the documentary explains). People are understandably confused.

Outside of what we hear on the news, TV, social media, etc. we rely on doctors to convey nutrition information, yet, they might not even receive adequate (or any) nutrition training in their studies. Coupled with the in-and-out rush of the typical doctor’s visit, there’s no time to work closely with patients to resolve their ailments. Thus, doctors are treating symptoms rather than treating the root cause. It’s “pharmaceutical-based medicine,” as Dr. Sam Lespinasse calls it.

Of course, this is just using more chemicals to correct an imbalance, explains Maria Lezniak. The cause and the cure are within anyone’s reach — anyone who has the knowledge. There isn’t money in doing the right thing, though. Dr. McDougall laments, where there’s money, the education will go.

B12 and Other Vitamins

So what’s the deal with supplements. Don’t vegans need to take all sorts of them. Regarding supplements,  some are good — there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with them. But they’re not a silver bullet. We use use supplements because we have turned our back on Mother Nature. Now, we need to turn towards her for a solution, says Cross.

As for plant-based people needing supplements, B12 is really the only one to be concerned about. B12, which comes from microbes, is the most important supplement for people eating plant-based, says Dr. Greger. However, just one 2500 mg supplement a week is adequate, or simply consuming B12 fortified foods everyday. As for Vitamin D, for which the only dietary source is animal products, you can generate it yourself when you walk out in the sun.

Disease PREVENTION.

Actually, the film barely said anything on this…something about Medicare programs?

Plant-Strong

In addition to a plethora of Doctors, nutrition experts, and wellness coaches, the documentary featured a handful of athletes. From ultra-athlete Rich Roll and ironwoman Hillary Biscay, to cancer survivor and plant-based strength coach D. Anthony Evans. Evans had 325 tumors removed from his body! “Without a plant based diet,” he said, “I would not be here today.” He goes on, “the insane mindset that animal protein is the key to being healthy almost killed me.”

The benefits of eating a plant-based diet as an athlete are plenty, including performance gains and faster recovery times.We’re seeing more and more athletes — professional athletes, no less — exploring this way of eating.

Make the Switch

So at this point, the viewer should be considering, “maybe this plant-based thing is for me.”

Most people are hesitant because it’s uncharted territory for them. The film does warn that there’s a transition period, but you don’t have to sacrifice taste; almost every dish can be made vegan. Better yet, food tastes better when it’s vegan, exclaims Plain White T’s drummer, De’Mar Hamilton.

And it might not be as big of a shock as people think. All the good stuff, the things you love, are probably already plant-based, declares Dr. McDougall as he lists out some of his favorites, like lasagna ! And when you’re eating nutrient-dense foods that actually nourish you, your cravings and tastebuds change, says Roll. So don’t look at what you’re not eating, look at the deliciousness available to you!

Empty Pockets?

Convincing yourself to make the switch is easy, but can everyone afford it? The concern that you’ll go broke eating plant-based is a common misconception. Buying plant-based groceries doesn’t have to be expensive, inconvenient, or time consuming. It can actually even be cheaper, says Julie Marie Christensen, who often posts pictures of her grocery hauls and the total bill on social media — much to the amazement and disbelief of others.

Children Are Our Future

I find it silly that folks would imagine that I wouldn’t feed my future children a plant-based diet when I clearly think it’s the healthiest thing for me. I actually know children who’ve been vegan since birth, and adults who’ve been vegetarian their entire lives. Indeed, children will be healthIEST on a plant-based diet. Forget those “Got Milk?” commercials, because children will grow taller when eating plant-based, says Dr. Greger. After all, even Dr. Benjamen Spock, author of the well-known child-care book, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, declared in the final edition before his death, “Children who grow up getting nutrition from plant foods rather than meats have a tremendous health advantage. They are less likely to develop weight problems, diabetes, high blood pressure and some forms of cancer.

The question, then, becomes how to excite kids about eating their veggies. According to Roll, who is himself a dad, you should lead by example, and make preparation and food shopping inclusive with the children. Let kids make their own choices, too. Roll explains how he doesn’t tell his daughter how to eat when she goes to parties with other kids. He tells her to make conscious, smart decisions. And no, she doesn’t always do the ‘right’ thing (by not eating animal products) but she has that control in her own life. Empower your children, says Roll. [On this subject, I recommend looking into books by Ruby Roth.]

Environment & Ethics

The movie ended with the ethical and environmental arguments for eating plant-based. Is it worth it to buy organic? Even if you don’t buy organic, you’ll be getting a fraction of the pesticides eating produce as you would get eating meat. So maybe you don’t always have to buy organic. Instead, buy the cheapest, freshest foods — non-organic produce is better than no produce!

What’s more important, says Dr. Oppenlander, you need to think about the footprint of your food — not just “local” or “organic.” With meat, dairy, eggs, and fish, the  footprint requires ten times as much land, ten times as much water, and ten times as much energy!

When we think about it, all the main issues contributing to environmental degradation (i.e., overpopulation, over-consumption, and dependence on fossil fuels) would take decades or even centuries to change habits and reverse the damage, says activist Jim Morris Hicks. That is, all the big issues except an unsustainable diet, which you can literally change overnight. It’s as easy as changing out what’s on your plate, remarks Dr. Oppenlander.

While the change in habit would be easy, it’s first convincing people that’s difficult. Here, again, we see how marketing deceives us. “Grass fed,” for instance, is a complete fabrication by animal agriculture to perpetuate the slaughter of animals. If we care about the welfare of animals, we need to recognize that humanely raised is never humanely killed, as Dr. Oppenlander points out.

So the environmental footprint (resource use, land required, and emissions generated, etc.) is horrendous, but also, we are destroying our oceans. In commercial fishing, there is this thing called bycatch. Now, I really appreciated Dr. Oppenlander’s distinguishing it as by-KILL. If you Google the definition, bycatch is “the unwanted fish and other marine creatures caught during commercial fishing for a different species.” However, those ‘unwanted’ creatures aren’t just released safely back into the ocean. They could be crushed, suffocated, or maimed in the netting process, so even if they make it back into the water, they could be dead already or fatally injured. Hence, byKILL.

We are depleting our oceans, but we absolutely need the ocean. Captain Paul Watson, a marine conservationist and member of Sea Shepheard, provides a worrisome sentiment: his fear is not that we’ll wipe out our own species, but that we will take so much with us  as we go, kicking and screaming.

We are the only species among millions that doesn’t live in harmony with nature, Hicks points out. Why might that be? Speciesism, for one. And as it relates to diet, we adhere to an invisible belief system. If we don’t name it, we can’t address it. And so, Dr. Melanie Joy assigned the term “carnism.” People follow the system without thinking about it or questioning it, warns Calabrese. And even if we do make the intellectual connection that meat came from a living animal, we refuse to make the emotional connection. People have eaten animals for thousands of years. Yes. But today, for most people, it’s completely unnecessary. When it’s no longer a necessity for survival it becomes a choice. And choices always stem from belief, says Dr. Joy.

So ask yourself, says Laura Theodore, what is it that I can do today to make the world better? First, we should recognize that peace on earth is for all living entities, not just humans, proclaims John Joseph McGowan. All creatures, including fish, have sensory receptions and feelings. At the very least, you should educate yourself so you know the truth and can make the right choices, advises Hamilton. Once you know, it’s hard to not change. “I didn’t want to put, ever again, the fear and death and suffering of another life and eating animals into my body,” says Natalie McIntosh.

Captain Watson imparts some final advice: as you threaten the dominant paradigm of society, you’ll become a force to be reckoned with.

This, I know to be true. When I went from a vegetarian to vegan lifestyle, I received a great deal of pushback. I’m swimming against the current, and I’m making a splash while doing it. I have the power now, where I didn’t before, to stand up against what is so clearly wrong — to change the world for the better.

My Critique

The above are some of the most poignant quotes, factoids, and takeaways from the film, in my opinion. As you can see, Food Choices covered quite a bit of information. It’s like a primer on all the anti-vegan myths (and the arguments to disprove those myths). I like how it addressed many of the most common concerns; however, it reviewed each topic very quickly, usually only a few minutes each. I felt as though it wasn’t thorough enough on many of the topics, particularly a few which seemed to last under a minute!

I was also disappointed that more time wasn’t spent on the “manliness” section, and that the discussion really only perpetuated harmful concepts of manhood. Also, I was frustrated a few times when the film sounded a bit fat shamy; with a few comments by Dr. McDougall, and even Julie Marie Christensen who called herself the “fat vegan” (not as a point of confidence, but in that she was disgusted by herself).

In short, it was a good overview or introduction for newcomers and people who have not yet learned much about eating plant-based. Though it wasn’t particularly thorough, it covered a lot. I would recommend it to non-vegans and new vegans. And while it could be elementary for veteran vegans, it could give us some new ammo for unwarranted interrogation from non-vegans!

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One thought on “Documentary Review | Food Choices

  1. The authors of the show lose credibility when they switch from the “we are trying to help you eat healthy” to the environmental and PETA arguments. Almost no time was spent on plant based problem foods like corn syrup and sugar. Very little time on pesticides and artificial ingredients. Plant farming consumes petroleum and you cannot argue the planet has less animals (bio-diversity) and too many cows … do wild animals not defecate? Does that not create green house gasses? Why let the petroleum industrial complex and our dependence on those products off the hook? Didn’t the buffalos generate green house gasses? They should have stuck to nutrition … the arguments were compelling and balanced. When they switched to the other sections, they went from making your diet balanced and healthy to a diatribe against consuming animals …. something that has happened on this planet since the earth cooled … Choosing the worst snippets from the PETA library makes it more a propaganda film which detracts from their “eat healthy” message.

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