Get Ready To Binge! Here's a Roundup of Our Favorite Nutrition Documentaries
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Used to be, the last way people wanted to spend a Friday night was watching a documentary on food. In the early ’00s, that changed with the birth of an entire genre of nonfiction films that were as prankish, dramatic, funny, fascinating, and terrifying as any popcorn blockbuster. These are some of our all-time favorite nutrition documentaries. Most of them are available for online viewing, so you can binge as many as you like.
The young grandaddy of food documentaries, 2004’s Super Size Me is hilarious and horrifying. The film follows Morgan Spurlock through 30 days of eating nothing but menu items from McDonald’s for all three meals each day. In 2004, the burger chain offered the widely-criticized “super-sized” fries and sodas. Spurlock gained 24 pounds and developed a fatty liver and depression. Super Size Me demonstrated a nutrition doc could affect change. Six weeks after the hit movie’s release, McDonald’s discontinued super-sizing (although they denied it had anything to do with the film).
Spurlock returns to the screen in 2019’s Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken! This time, he opens a chicken restaurant to take on claims that the fast-food industry is now more natural and healthier. Throughout the film, Spurlock shows viewers how industry vernacular, advertising, and packaging have convinced us we’re not eating processed fast food.
Produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, this Netflix doc explores the effect of global meat production on the planet — and concludes it’s an unfolding disaster. (Case in point: 660 gallons of water are required to produce one hamburger.) Despite criticism for some inaccuracies (the filmmakers assert that animal agriculture is the largest source of greenhouse gases when the scientific consensus is that it’s fossil fuels), the film opened a lot of eyes to the potential ecological benefits of plant-based eating.
Released in 2011 — five years before the Beyond Burger debuted — Forks Over Knives was an early part of the plant-based wave. Citing a 20-year study, it slams the typical Western diet as responsible for the obesity crisis. The film advocates a plant-focused, whole-food, minimally processed diet to prevent serious illnesses like cancer and diabetes, and improve other chronic health conditions. It’s since spawned a diet and recipe site of the same name.
These days, we’re waking up to the ways food manufacturers sneak added sugar into allegedly healthy products, but this 2015 Australian documentary is still eye-opening. Filmmaker Damon Garneau trades his usual diet — which contained no refined sugar — for a low-fat, high-sugar (about 40 teaspoons a day) diet of processed “healthy” foods. Despite eating the same number of calories, in two months, he gains 20 pounds and develops pre-diabetes. It may seem like a Super Size Me-style stunt — until you realize the average American eats the equivalent of 17 teaspoons of added sugar daily.
2011’s Fat Sick & Nearly Dead follows Joe Cross, an overweight, chronically sick Australian. Cross embarks on a 60-day juice fast and a trek across the United States to interview people about their food habits. After two months, he lost 82 pounds, and his cholesterol level plummeted. He has since kept the weight off, observes a vegan diet, and has become a juicing guru. He said he made the 2014 sequel to show people that he does eat food and that plant-based eating is a sustainable lifestyle.
5. Food, Inc.
One of the most acclaimed nutrition documentaries ever, 2009’s Food, Inc. shows a soup-to-nuts view of modern industrial food production, from meat and milk to grains and produce. The conclusion: Big food manufacturers are hobbling the environment, using dodgy chemicals, manipulating food-labeling regulations, and encouraging unhealthy eating habits. The film was a box-office hit (making back four times its budget) and was nominated for an Academy Award.
This 2015 documentary spotlights the under-discussed phenomenon of food insecurity — the struggle to obtain proper nutrition — a situation in which 50 million Americans find themselves. The film profiles three people who have difficulty affording healthy food amid “food deserts” in which only processed food is available. In some cases, they have trouble affording enough food at all. The most shocking: a police officer, employed full-time, whose paycheck was so low he regularly uses a food bank.
Journalist Michael Pollan — famed for his seven-word motto, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” — stars in this adaptation of his best-selling book of the same name, which tackles a question no smaller than, “How should we eat in the modern era?” He travels the globe to sort through food myths and facts, and his conclusions and advice are clear, concise, and hopeful: “When it comes to food,” he says, “we do have power.”
8. Fed Up
Hosted by Katie Couric and featuring appearances by Bill Clinton and Stephen Colbert, Fed Up puts food manufacturers squarely on the hook for America’s obesity crisis, particularly among children. The claim: They’ve gotten us addicted to sugar-laden, processed junk. (One example: the mother of an obese teenager claims she’s trying to encourage weight loss by switching from regular Hot Pockets to the “lean” version.) Michael Pollan pops up to offer his trademark terse, succinct advice: For a better diet, cook what you eat.