Wake Up & Chow Down: A Movie Review

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.

24 thoughts on “Wake Up & Chow Down: A Movie Review

  1. Pingback: Wake Up & Chow Down: A Movie Review | anunrefinedvegan - Movie Critics Reviews | Movie Critics Reviews

      1. narf77

        Indeed you are :). When/if I see the movie I will think of your critique. I think we need to see these kind of “road movies” where people have an awakening and try to add positive changes to their lives. I also agree with you that oversimplification might just make people feel like they are being condesended to, but as you rightly say, most of the people that this film is aimed at are completely in the dark about the steps that it takes to make slow changes to positive health. Kudos on reviewing a positive health story and here’s to many more reviews 🙂

  2. tearoomdelights

    This reads to me like a well-balanced review. I wonder what effect it had on everyone involved in making the film, particularly the main actors. It’d be fascinating to know if any of them went vegan as a result.

    1. An Unrefined Vegan

      I know that Julia is a vegetarian – – but it WOULD be very interesting to learn how the filmmakers/crew, etc. were affected by the stories of these three people and by the information shared by the doctors. Sequel!

  3. GiRRL_Earth

    Last November I read Eat to Live by Dr. Fuhrman and Reversing Diabetes by Dr. Barnard (I am not a diabetic, btw). Despite the fact I was already a vegan, both of these books had a major impact — especially Barnard’s book. Somer was the first to tip me off about the ills of oils (she recommended I read Eat to Live). I saw Barnard on PBS and was captivated by his studies — how he and his team were able to reverse their patients diabetes by having them adopt a vegan diet and removing all oil from their diet. Having grown up in an Italian-American home, reading the ill effects of oilve oil (in both books) really rocked me to my core. After reading both books, I was convinced oil is not a health food and in turn made the commitment to give up all oils. I started my no oil journey Dec 1, 2012 and to my surprise I feel much better and my digestion has improved. I also lost 8 lbs which was a by-product of giving up oil, not something I set out to do.

    On another note: Yesterday at work, I was heating up my vegan lunch in the kitchen and a co-worker asked me if I was “still a vegan?” My reply, “Of course!” I then told her how I had given up oil and as a result, refer to myself as a *no oil vegan*. Intrigued, she asked me about the “no oil thing”. So I explained in the most friendly, easy going manner so as to not turn her off.

    Do you want to know what she said? She said, “Yah, I’m having all kind of health issues. I can’t seem to drop weight and I’m suffering from severe inflammation. I know I should do something about my diet but I love food too much.” So I said, “I love food too. What makes you think Vegans don’t love food?” and she said, “You know what I mean… I just love my steak, bacon, cheese, eggs…” So I laughed and said, “Ok then, well, I suppose you’ll just have to continue to live with all those health issues.” She then asked me how much weight I lost when I became a vegan. I told her my choice to become a vegan wasn’t “weight-loss” related. I explained that being a vegan is an ideology — we don’t believe in killing animals or using animals for food.” She said she knew and understood that although I have my doubts that she’s actually made the connection between factory farm to table. Anyway, as we parted ways, she said, “Enjoy your lunch.” and I said, “Enjoy your Lean Cuisine.”

    BTW the lunch I had made for myself was cauliflower/chick peas vindaloo which I paired with rice & rye berries (cooked using the Saveur method). I will admit, I am not an expert at Indian cooking but I thought I did a decent enough job. 🙂

    Thanks for a great post. I look forward to seeing this.


    p.s. I think I’m going to reblog this.

    1. An Unrefined Vegan

      Wow. I think you handled your conversation w/ your co-worker perfectly. I find that I don’t articulate very well when put on the spot – though by now I ought to be pretty well-prepared. That’s the thing, right – – not only do I now eat more healthfully than I did as an omnivore, I eat so much more creatively and deliciously. NO CONTEST! This idea that plant-based eaters are somehow deprived…frustrating.

      Also – totally understand the olive oil thing. I’m also of Italian descent so olive oil (and cheese and sausage and refined Italian bread) were a huge part of, well, my life! To think of going without! But I don’t miss any of it. Knowing what oils (100% FAT) does to one’s veins…not worth a drop of it.

      I really enjoyed reading your comment and appreciate the time it took to share it with me. Thank you!

      1. GiRRL_Earth

        Sorry my comment was so long. 🙁 I didn’t mean to run off like that. Ha-Ha!

        I generally don’t articulate myself well either — but I have been more mindful of it. What’s helping me is the Free Farm Website. Robert Grillo is deft at coaching us vegans on how to send our message without turning people off — which is difficult when most people’s minds are closed to the vegan ideology in the first place. It’s a pity we don’t have commercials for fabulous documentaries like the one you just reviewed, or Forks Over Knives. When was the last time you saw a commercial promoting a vegan lifestyle? Never, right? So frustrating…but I digress.

        Thanks again for such a great post.


      2. An Unrefined Vegan

        Keep the long comments coming ;-)! I feel like I am seeing slow, small changes – at least that’s what I’m telling myself. Today Kel ran across an (loooong) advert on the Weather Channel (online) for a heart doctor promoting what is essentially the FOK message. It was a bit smarmy (think infomercial), but the point is, the word IS spreading. His info was spot on, the delivery was kind of off-putting to me anyway.

  4. Somer

    Well done my dear! Funny how FS&ND, FOK, Vegucated, all have those little cartoon sequences as well. We do need more of these movies. Hoping to do my review next week. xx

      1. Somer

        Not sure about that, but I appreciate your confidence in me! Looking forward to the downtime, I think today might be the day. Safe travels my dear. xx

  5. annesturetucker

    Congratulations – you are a wonderful movie critic, Annie 🙂 Thank you!!! I am really looking forward to seeing it! Didn’t even know it existed – so yayy!!
    I love that it sounds like it’s a movie aimed for people who are new to this way of thinking and eating. I mean you already know it, live it and inspire others.
    I remember when I first looked into raw food and vegan life style, I was terrified – someone suggested I went raw for 3 days!!! Imagine – terrifying!! 🙂 Now I love my mostly plant-based diet and I could never go back – it has changed my life!
    Thank you for a great review Annie! XXX

  6. Lou

    OH I WANT TO SEE THIS!!! I am obsessed with these types of health-documentaries. We have an organisation where I live called “Life Changing Events” and once a month they put on a doco-showing (with organic meals & wine of course…. vegan!) The next one I am going to see is called Planeat which sounds kinda similar to this one…. Oh I want to watch them all.

    This (although not about plant based diets but just as important) is a beautiful, yet heart wrenching watch…. http://www.yannarthusbertrand.org/en/films-tv/planet-ocean

  7. Richa

    this review gives another good perspective into the movie. i agree with you about the editing keeping the movie interesting. i connect a lot with people and their stories too and i might get put off if the story jumps around too much as you say.
    nicely put Annie!


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