Produced and Directed by Julia Grayer and Gage Johnston
Mark Weinstein, Editor
Hugo Marmugi, Animator
Jim Boggia, Composer
Peanut Butter Productions, 2010
What do Charles Venezia, John Oehrle, and Garnet Hall have in common? The answer: they're movie stars. Not household names, the three are featured players in a drama about their own mortality. Chow Down, a dynamic documentary, reveals how people can take charge of their own crucial health care decisions with positive results.
This 75-minute film cleverly melds personal scenes of the family lives of these three with interviews with prominent doctors and professionals who are on the forefront of a unique, but not widely accepted practice of medicine that emphasizes nutrition instead of drugs and surgery as the primary tool in preventing and reversing chronic diseases.
Venezia and Oehrle were both candidates for heart bypass surgery after years of dietary excess. When he was diagnosed with heart disease at age 42, Venezia had a blood pressure of 250/155 and extensive artery blockage. Oehrle, diagnosed with heart disease at 58, had three arteries that were blocked, one 100%, another 92%, and a third 89%. Frightened as they were, they both decided not to undergo bypass surgery, but instead opted to consult Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Preventive Cardiology Consultant at the Cleveland Clinic.
Dr. Esselstyn placed them on the same plant-based diet he employed in his 12-year study described in his book Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease. The study proved heart disease could be reversed by following his plant-based dietary regimen. Even though both men chose not to have surgery, they are still alive today, much thinner and with cholesterol readings under 150 mg/dl and a dramatic reversal of their previous heart problems.
The film does not sugar coat the process the two men and their families followed to achieve these positive results. As Venezia says, "I did not enjoy the new diet. Eating isn't fun anymore. You don't sit down and enjoy a good meal. You don't go to a good restaurant." Venezia's wife Toni describes how cooking meals is taking much more time. A meal including homemade pizza took two hours to prepare.
Garnet Hall was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes at age 45. She describes complications that occurred because she was not taking her medications properly, complications that led to a hospital stay. When she was 50 years old, she paid a visit to Dr. Joel Fuhrman, author of Eat to Live. As she spoke to Dr. Fuhrman, she told him, "I'm going to need help." Dr. Fuhrman placed her on his low-fat plant based diet, and after two months she had lost 20 pounds. Although her family said they would support her and follow the same diet, they soon abandoned the program because they chose not to eat that way. She expected that her family would support her, but found she had to prepare two sets of meals, one for herself and another for her family. Life presented so many obstacles she gave up the diet and said she would give it another try in the future.
Although the film spotlighted these three people, interviews with health professionals presented the underlying causes behind this nation's degenerative disease crisis. Artfully flashed on screen are shocking facts like "70% of American deaths are caused by chronic diseases each year." Dr. Neal Barnard of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine appears and delivers the message, "The most popular drug in the world right now is Lipitor. Lipitor, a cholesterol-lowering drug, is designed to curb the effects of dietary excess."
The filmmakers show that the government, the food industry, and the medical profession have played active roles in helping this health crisis to proliferate. Michele Simon, author of Appetite for Profit, explains how the government encourages the consumption of unhealthy food, especially through subsidies. Her research revealed that between 1995 and 2005 the meat and dairy industry received 74% of government food subsidies while fruits and vegetables garnered only a paltry .37%.
"We don't produce enough fruit and vegetables to meet current USDA guidelines," says Simon. "The food industry is spending billions to get us to eat the wrong way." A dramatic moment in the film occurs when the filmmakers asked Dr. Lynn Silver of the New York City Department of Health, "Do you feel the federal government is your ally in promoting a healthy diet?" After hesitating, she replied, "No" and refused to elaborate.
The medical profession has been reluctant to embrace nutrition as a treatment for chronic disease. Ann Esselstyn describes how her husband was regarded by his colleagues at the Cleveland Clinic: "It was always awkward. Sometimes they would say critical things." He treated staff members and trustees, but was not given heart patients, except for the 24 who were in his study. A tag line at the end of the film says this policy was reversed in August 2009 when he was named Director of Cardiovascular Disease Prevention and Reversal at the Wellness Institute of the Cleveland Clinic. He now sees patients at the institute.
Among the most emotional moments in the film are scenes with the Venezia family, especially Toni Venezia fighting back tears as she feared for the life and well being of her husband. A touching scene occurs when her young son looks at the camera and says, "I think I'm going to eat this way for the rest of my life and teach my kids to eat this way so my family can live longer." He is in contrast with other young people who appear in cameos throughout the film and don't see the need for following this type of diet, even though they may be on the road to developing chronic diseases.
Chow Down is an easy film to watch because it avoids the pitfalls of other documentaries that focus on this same subject. It is not just a string of interviews but, instead, intersperses unique music, amusing animation, and clever graphics to emphasize its message. Because of the animation, the film is accessible to children as well as adults. At times the viewer may feel the filmmakers are emphasizing that it's too difficult to follow this diet, but the 17 patients who completed Dr. Esselstyn's study and were still alive might disagree. Chow Down makes a convincing case that nutrition is an important factor in chronic disease prevention and reversal. That's why the film is so highly digestible.