January 2011 Issue

Watch and Learn — Five Food-Based Films That Should Be in Your Queue
By Lindsey Getz
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 13 No. 1 P. 36

RDs critique several videos spurring discussion among clients and colleagues and explain why all dietitians should make room for movies in their professional lives.

As more nutrition- and food-based films hit the big (or small) screen, it has become increasingly important that dietitians take the time to keep up with the latest and most popular ones. After all, many of your clients (or potential clients) will be viewing them as well.

“I think all RDs should make an effort to see nutrition- and food-related films of any type that are making an impact on the public,” says Susan Zeff, RD, LD, who has blogged about film with her online followers. “If our clients and patients are watching these films, reading about them in mass media, discussing them online, and forming opinions, it’s important for us to be informed and contributing to the discussion—good, bad, or indifferent.”

Rebecca Scritchfield, MA, RD, a Washington, D.C.-based dietitian specializing in healthy weight management, agrees: “Films are important to nutrition professionals because our clients and patients watch them. Documentaries like Food, Inc. are especially important because they get media attention, may include best-seller books, and usually involve well-known influencers like Michael Pollan…. We need to pay attention to what will reach consumers so we can chime in with science-based facts and sound advice when given those opportunities.”

Read on to find out what your dietetics colleagues have to say about five films reaching consumers. You might consider adding some or all of them to your own must-see list.

1. King Corn
Corn is a key ingredient behind some of the most consumed but least healthful foods in America. Troubled by the idea that the nation’s growing obesity epidemic is putting their generation at risk of having a shorter life span than their parents, two young filmmakers—Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis—set out for Iowa to grow an acre of the “nation’s most powerful crop” and document the results. What they find is that their crop, after plenty of genetic modifications, winds up far from where it started. In Brooklyn, it’s used as high-fructose corn syrup to sweeten soda. In Colorado, it fattens the feed trough at a cattle feed lot.

Tara Harwood, MS, RD, LD, a pediatric dietitian at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital in the department of pediatric gastroenterology hepatology and on the nutrition support team, says the film opened her eyes to “how potentially destructive the growing of genetically engineered corn can be, not only on society but on our health. The farmers would not even eat their own corn because it had minimal nutrition, excessive sugar content, and basically makes up most of the foods we eat. Working as a GI [gastrointestinal] dietitian, it made me think: ‘No wonder we are having surpluses of people having abdominal pain due to dietary choices or are being diagnosed with dietary fructose intolerance,’” she says.

One thing Harwood says she didn’t enjoy about the film was that it didn’t seem to offer many solutions to the problems presented. “The entire film criticized the production and use of corn and how it’s saturating our market and destroying farming, yet it didn’t give any solutions or alternatives to how we can move away from the excessive use of corn,” she says. “I would have also liked to see more rationale for how corn additives are affecting the health status of Americans. It did discuss how corn consumption was bad for cows and how it makes up sweetened beverages, which can lead to type 2 diabetes, but I wanted to know more of the impacts or what is the bigger picture of all this corn consumption.” 

But Harwood would still suggest the film to both colleagues and clients. Sharon Palmer, RD, a southern California-based food and nutrition writer, also recommends King Corn, saying it’s especially important that RDs take the time to see this film. “Every food and nutrition professional needs to be educated on how our current agriculture impacts people’s lives. If you say it doesn’t matter, then you’re not keeping up with the current flow of information,” she says.

2. Big River
A follow-up to King Corn, this film looks at the water contamination that can result from industrial agriculture’s chemical use. After Cheney and Ellis finished growing their acre of genetically modified corn using a variety of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, the filmmakers aimed to get a firsthand look at how those chemicals may be impacting public health. This journey takes them from the heartland to the Gulf of Mexico, where a so-called shrimp industry dead zone has been blamed on fertilizer runoff. And even in the Corn Belt, the herbicides used have been blamed for the devastating “cancer clusters” that are emerging.

Melinda Hemmelgarn, MS, RD, a speaker and award-winning journalist, recommends this film to both colleagues and clients as part of her mission to help consumers “think beyond their plates.”

“Every food decision we make (and help our clients make) has an environmental impact,” she says. “Dietitians aren't typically trained in agricultural practices and environmental stewardship, but food is at the heart of both environmental protection and social justice issues.”

The film isn’t lengthy, so even professionals who are pressed for time can set aside a half hour to view it. “At just 30 minutes, it lends itself well to discussion and action steps in community and at school screenings,” says Hemmelgarn.

3. Food, Inc.
This Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Feature aims to uncover some of the hidden facts about not only the way in which Americans’ food is produced but also how the nation’s food supply is controlled by a handful of corporations that may be putting profit before consumers’ health. The safety of the food itself, as well as the animals produced for it and even the workers on the assembly lines, are often overlooked as the focus on producing fast and cheap food takes precedence, according to the film’s website.

Patricia Bannan, MS, RD, a nutrition communications expert and author of Eat Right When Time Is Tight, calls Food, Inc. an “extremely well-made documentary that takes a very comprehensive look at and raises awareness about the problems in our current-day agriculture system.” She says the film puts the blame on big businesses and that it is evident change can’t occur without having them on board.

Scritchfield adds that Food, Inc. forces viewers to confront some of the uncomfortable truths about the day-to-day operations at places such as chicken farms and meat processing plants. Zeff says this behind-the-scenes look empowers consumers. “For me as a dietitian, I am simultaneously thrilled and appalled [by it]—thrilled that this movie was made, as it helps to educate the public, yet appalled at what we have become as a nation,” she says. “It helped to solidify my understanding of how the food system works and validate many of my own food choices. But its lasting impact for me is how it has forever changed the way my family and I eat.”

Zeff shares one of the scenes that impacted her most: “One of the more powerful images [is] a family of four who end up choosing fast food over supermarket produce simply based on price. Something is wrong in this country when a little girl yearns for fresh pears but can’t have them because her parents can’t justify the cost. Why buy pears when you can have two hot hamburgers for the same price?”

While all the reviewers interviewed for this article agree that the film addresses a host of important issues, they also believe that in some ways it leaves the viewer hanging and perhaps a bit weighed down by the information presented. “It had too many ‘asks’ of consumers at the end,” says Scritchfield. “They wanted you to do so much that it became overwhelming.”

“The movie motivates the viewer to want to do something, but it’s hard for them to know what to do,” Zeff says. “It’s the classic ‘Now what?’”

But Zeff says this is a gap RDs can fill. “This is where we as RDs can step in,” she says. “We can provide guidance for those next steps or be there to answer questions or inform and educate the consumer on things like organic vs. nonorganic, produce vs. fast food, free-range/grass-fed chicken vs. conventional, and the importance of understanding ingredients.”

Should colleagues view this film? Our RD film reviewers say yes. “Every food and nutrition expert should see this film because it tells a shocking story of the state of our food supply and the food industry—and because their clients are watching it, too,” says Scritchfield.

4. Fresh
This film celebrates individuals who are dedicated to reinventing the food system and solving some of its key problems, such as food contamination, the rapid depletion of natural resources, and the nation’s growing obesity epidemic. This group includes the farmers, the activists, and the businesspeople who want change.

Bannan points out that instead of simply presenting problems, this film also focuses on what viewers can do about them. She says that while she would recommend both Fresh and Food, Inc. to clients, she’d suggest Fresh to people who have time to see only one. “I think Fresh is more positive and solution based while Food, Inc. is an important eye-opener if someone has no idea where our food comes from and how it is produced,” she says.

In fact, Bannan, who also recently viewed King Corn, says of the three films, Fresh is the one that puts the biggest spotlight on a solution. “It focuses on the solutions to the problems with our modern-day agricultural system and shows how moving toward a more organic and natural system can work from a financial, functional, and health standpoint,” she says. “It empowers and inspires the viewer/consumer to make changes.”

Palmer agrees, saying she found Fresh to be almost a “Part 2” to Food, Inc., perhaps going on to answer the “Now what?” question that Food, Inc. may leave viewers asking. “It took the whole discussion to a more positive level,” she says. “The movie put the problem out there but then immediately showed viewers what a more positive style of agriculture could be like.”

Both Palmer and Bannan highly recommend this film to colleagues and clients. “I do think it serves as a good example for people to understand how important it is to care about where their food comes from,” says Palmer.

5. The End of the Line
This is one of the first major documentaries to examine the devastating effects of overfishing on the world’s oceans. The filmmakers ask viewers to imagine “an ocean without fish,” “meals without seafood,” and the “global consequences of overfishing.” Taking an inside look at the imminent extinction of the bluefin tuna, largely a result of the increasing Western demand for sushi, the filmmakers explore how that fish’s loss would affect other marine life.

“This movie really made me see how our current fishing habits are unsustainable and that we need to make a change,” says Palmer, who believes RDs can have a major impact in this topic area. “This is a very important topic for nutrition professionals to grasp. We tell people to eat more fish all the time, but we don’t tell them what kind of fish to choose. It should go hand in hand. If we want healthy fish to be around for future generations, we need to make this a priority now.”

Consumers really can make a difference—and RDs can guide them. “People can make a huge difference by carrying pocket guides in their wallets (or on iPhones now) from organizations like Seafood Watch that point out the best sustainable fish to eat,” says Palmer. “I also think that portion size is a huge issue with fish (which could have been stressed more in the movie). When I eat at a restaurant, the portion size for fresh fish is at least enough to feed two, if not three, people. If every restaurant served a normal portion size of fish, can you imagine the impact it would have on fish supplies?”

Palmer says this film has inspired her to get more involved with helping her clients preserve the ocean’s fish. “This way, [the fish] will be around for future generations.” She believes The End of the Line is an important film for both colleagues and clients to watch, as the viewer has the power to change outcomes—and change starts with awareness.

Dietitians’ Duty
Whether you would like to learn more about the topics these films address or simply want to keep up with what your clients are viewing, it may be a good idea to reserve some time to watch one or more of these films. Harwood believes it is dietitians’ duty to keep up with the latest information, and viewing these hot-topic films is a great way to do so.

“RDs need to keep up with what the public wants answers to or what topics are currently being scrutinized,” Harwood continues. “The job of a dietitian is to take an unbiased and evidenced-based approach to guide people in making decisions that are best for their lifestyle preferences and overall health and well-being. Dietitians need to be aware of current industry or public biases, fads, and controversies, as well as facts about food regulations, processing, consumption trends, and corresponding effects these may have in either negatively or positively impacting our lives. People look to their local RDs for accurate and current information on food topics so they can optimize their health.”

In general, mass media has become the primary outlet for clients to learn about nutrition today, adds Zeff. “Movies, books, the Internet, magazines, TV shows—you name it,” she says. “These outlets are educating our clients, and it may or may not be truthful or accurate information. RDs should embrace this fact and turn it into an opportunity to learn, teach, educate, and contribute. Check out the latest food-related movie or even read that best seller that’s not authored by an RD. Chances are one of your clients will ask you about it, and bingo—there’s your opportunity to contribute your expert opinion.”

— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, Pa.