“Americans are sick. Over 130 million [author's emphasis] are suffering from chronic disease.” So begins the documentary, Chow Down** a film by Julia Grayer and Gage Johnston, The film is tightly put together and does an excellent job of presenting a sobering view of the state of eating in our country. It focuses on the eating habits of Americans today, the influences which direct those eating habits, and more specifically, on the lives of three individuals who were told that unless they radically changed their approach to eating, they would die. Grayer and Johnston do not gloss over the fact that it is not so easy to change one’s eating habits even if it means potentially saving one’s life.
Charles, a man “who has it all,” including heart disease, has a very supportive wife and because of this, the whole family has changed their eating habits. Charles speaks about how as an Italian, whose grandfather owned a meat shop, large meals with lots of meat were a big part of life’s enjoyment. Yet he and his family have made the adjustment, to the point of bringing their own food when they take trips. (May Charles live to watch his grandchildren grow up and may he and his wife grow old together).
Two other individuals who are also working at changing their diets were interviewed. One interviewee lamented that he missed his Kentucky Fried Chicken™ The other spoke about how difficult it was to maintain a more plant-based diet when the rest of her family was not.
And yet the medical profession does not focus on nutrition and diet when interacting with patients, but rather pills and surgery. Dr. Esselstyn, a former heart surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic and one of the interviewees in both Forks Over Knives and Chow Down, learned through his practice that there was a direct relationship between diet and heart disease. He says that surgery does not prevent the disease. He states that the medical industry is “… selling sickness right now. We are selling sickness as a profession. You don’t get health out of a bottle of pills. You don’t get health out of a bunch of operative procedures. I know that as a former surgeon.”
Another interviewee in Chow Down, Neal Barnard, MD, shares that ” the most popular pill on the market today is Lipitor ™ ….a pill created to curb the effects of dietary excess.”
According to the www.chowdownmovie.com home page,
…. three factors …. fatally impact our country’s health: the medical community’s allegiance to the status quo, the government’s allegiance to the food industry, and Americans’ allegiance to cheap, convenient food.
Grayner and Johnson, through very tight interviews with key players in the medical industry, the food industry, and the government demonstrate how, at least at this stage in time, we, as consumers, are controlled by the relationship between the food industries, the government and the medical community.
Dr. Barnard points out that the USDA has two mandates. One is to promote health and the other is to promote American agricultural products. This could certainly become a potential conflict of interest, particularly since the Federal Government participates in creating generic advertising for certain products (Got Milk? for example) from a fund that they administer but which is provided by the food industry. In fact, the federal government even has worked with the fast food industry to help them advertise foods that include cheese, not because the foods are healthier but to promote the dairy industry.
Even the food pyramid, which has undergone many changes in recent years, is influenced by the needs of the Agro-business. One outcome is that we have come to believe that certain foods are more important than others, ie, meat rather than lentils, both sources of protein. Yet studies have shown that a primarily meat based diet can be harmful to one’s health. [Whether it is the meat itself or whether it is all the additives that farmers put into their livestock is a topic for further research and another article].
At one point in the documentary, Grayer and Johnson interview Louise Light, a nutritionist who was hired by the USDA in the late ’70′s to come up with a food pyramid. She and a team of experts had concluded that fruits and vegetables were the most important foods to eat, but when their pyramid came back from the Secretary’s office, it had been revised, emphasizing grains as the most important food. Apparently, when the meat industry heard about this, they put the pressure on for meats to be better represented. [Recently the food pyramid has undergone a further transformation to MyPlate].
During her tenure at the USDA, Ms. Light had created a nutrition course for the Red Cross. In the course, she cited several foods that had direct links to cancer. She states that she was approached by a representative from one of those food industries who offered her $60,000 to drop the word cancer from her coursework.
I applaud Ms. Grayner and Ms. Johnson’s superb documentary. As more and more information comes out about how our eating habits greatly influence our health, we might just be able to change the course that the food industry has taken in our country.
(As I was “going to press” I came across this link, which I think reflects how the movement for eating right is starting to take off http://www.upworthy.com/i-m-sick-of-rich-people-telling-me-how-to-spend-my-money-but-i-think-this-guy-is?c=ufb1
© Yvonne Behrens, M.Ed 2013
** Following my write up on the documentary Forks Over Knives, I received an e-mail from Julia Grayer, a filmmaker, who along with Gage Johnston, wrote, directed, and produced Chow Down.