PlanEat: An Education in Our Food Choices Trailer from on Vimeo.

Ed. Note: More from our resident evolutionary biologist Ph.D., EvoDiva.

The AFI Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland presented a special viewing of “PlanEat,” a documentary that broadly examines how the food choices we make affect everything around us. The title leads you to believe that it’s all about the planet, but it’s that and so much more.

We were lucky to have the young British filmmaker Shelley Lee Davis introduce her first film to us via Skype. Three years ago, she used to argue with her vegetarian boss over his dietary choice. But the more she discovered, the more urgent it seemed to get her newfound message to the masses. She quit her job and co-produced this film (with Or Shlomi) with no start-up money and no budget for marketing. Given all this, the film itself is impressive.

Of course it’s not about the killer special effects though – it’s about the content. We’ve heard morsels of much of this stuff before. The filmmakers interviewed scientists who study the relationship between food production and its impact on the environment. The wastewater from America’s breadbasket factory farms flows down the Mississippi River and creates a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey. The most striking (and frankly depressing) finding was that ovo-lacto vegetarians tend to have a worse impact on the environment than poultry eaters. This was based on the assumption that ovo-lacto vegetarians consume LOTS of cheese, and those cows really drain our resources.

Meanwhile, for those of you out there who can’t afford a new hybrid, you don’t have to get your tree-hugger card taken away: simply maintain a plant-based diet and you can have over 30% more of an impact than your flesh-eating, hybrid-driving friends.

As an evolutionary biologist and anatomy geek, I was most fascinated by the undeniable findings on the impact of animal protein on human health.

My boss gave me a copy of the China Study last year, but I can’t bring myself to read it because I’m afraid I’ll go vegan. (Although the more I experiment with vegan recipes, the less afraid I become.)

The author of the study is also interviewed for the film. Dr. T. Colin Campbell, a product of a Midwestern dairy farm, entered academia with the hopes of finding ways of more efficiently feeding the growing human population with animals. But his research led him to results even he didn’t want to believe: animal proteins (specifically casein in milk) are like fertilizer for cancer. They don’t cause it, but mice that had cancer were put on a plant-based diet and it magically disappeared. He found this over and over again in 40 years worth of different experiments, which were corroborated by evidence from human population studies.

Why do so many centurions come from rural China? They’re too poor to eat animal products!

In a different part of the world, Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., M.D., a cardiac surgeon, put some of his “lost cause” patients on a vegan diet and they ALL got better. He literally got 100% reversal of clogged arteries in these folks and their testimonials are sobering. Hey even Bill Clinton is listening.

The best character in the whole film is Ann Esselstyn, the surgeon’s wife. She opens the doors to her kitchen and gets jazzed to show us what she’s making for lunch. She’s unintimidating, adorable and enthusiastic about her cooking style. Professional chefs also lend their time to show us some amazing food. My next quest is to figure out how they make cheese from nuts.

Now, I’m not a vegan nor do I think I will ever be a strict one.
Will I crack crabs this summer? You betcha.
Goat cheese? Sign me up (occasionally).
Will I start with a martini followed by 8 or so gin and tonics at a summer wedding? All signs point to yes.

We can’t be perfect in our consumption choices, but this film helps us to know the consequences of each food choice we make – and offers ideas for how to make super tasty meals that will make you forget about those missing animals. The filmmakers do all of this without being SMUG, if you can believe it!

Try and catch this flick if you can – there’s another showing at AFI tonight (Tuesday, April 19th at 6:20) and around the country.

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  • EvoDiva April 19, 2011  

    Correction from Shelley herself: “[Or] wasn’t my boss, we were just colleagues who fought a lot :)”

  • Borracho April 19, 2011  

    Great post. Speaking to your evolutionary biologist perspective, I am sure most vegans have had friends/relatives/hecklers ask them why humans have canine teeth if we are so much better off with plant based diets. Do you think that argument falls apart with the vast difference in lifestyle and quality of proteins back when we developed our current dental structure? The increased availability of supplements and other nutrient sources?

  • EvoDiva April 19, 2011  

    Great question Borracho! Of course I’m not an expert on human evolution, but my first thought is that in many organisms, you see traits that aren’t necessarily useful anymore but are “leftover” from our ancestors. But I don’t know what the hypothesis of our human ancestor’s diet actually is. Another thought off the top of my head is that we probably can’t look at teeth alone but also the bacteria in our guts and other feeding adaptations. Let me consult some hominid paleo friends and see if they can comment…

  • erica April 19, 2011  

    as i see it, when meat is removed from the SAD diet, cheese and eggs remain as the major protein source in everyone’s heads. when i was vegan, i was constantly asked what i ate for protein. in my thinking some kind of effort needs to be made for people to learn more about plant-based protein sources, not in the context of “this is better for you/the environment” but “look how cheap and yummy this food is”. my mother is 63 and tried hummus for the first time last saturday. honestly!

  • erica April 19, 2011  

    also, EIGHT gin & tonics? careful there!!!

  • EvoDiva April 19, 2011  

    Haha, the gin and tonic reference was for dramatic emphasis.

  • 80 Proof April 19, 2011  

    This is why I have become an indio-vegetarian. Meaning I eat only Indian food. God I’m addicted, and it’s turned me onto more protein filled veggie dishes with tons of chick peas and lentils.

  • Borracho April 19, 2011  

    I guess I fall across the lines being discussed here. I have no interest in giving up meat entirely and find it too enjoyable to test new recipes but the standard proportions and frequency in which most Americans eat meat is definitely an issue.

    As for the gin & tonics, if there is an issue with 8 or more, just have fewer drinks in MUCH larger glasses.

  • gansie April 20, 2011  

    and we have it here first, folks. the new it foodie term of 2011: indio-vegetarian. sign me up.

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