When we think about documentaries, we often think about learning about the world around us. But, often, documentaries can teach us just as much about ourselves. The right documentary might even save your life.
The internet is supposed to make our lives better by giving us access to information about how to live a healthy lifestyle and take care of our bodies as we endure the slings and arrows of daily life. Unfortunately, with so much information out there, it is sometimes hard to tell the sound advice from the internet commenter static. Sometimes, a deeper dive into an issue can offer the nuanced perspective necessary for self-improvement. Sometimes a documentary is just what the doctor ordered.
Here are some of the best documentaries on Netflix that will help you lead a healthier lifestyle. Some will help you improve your body. Others will help you care for your mind. All of them aim to help you make your life a little bit better.
Food, Inc. (2008)
Director: Robert Kenner
One of the most important keys to living well is considering what you put in your body. When Food, Inc. was released in 2008, it was an important moment in the battle against the agricultural industrial complex. The film, inspired by the best selling book The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, calls out unethical practices in the production of hormone-infused chicken, exposes Monsanto’s agricultural monopolies on products like soybeans, and illustrates how supermarkets sell the illusion of choice. There’s no reason, the film points out, that a bag of chips should be cheaper than a bag of carrots.
The dangers of corn syrup and fast food, the value of local, organic, and farm to table food: these ideas are now fairly pervasive in our culture -- at least among the NPR set -- but it was Food, Inc. that helped bring these issues into the national dialogue. Even if you’re familiar with these issues, and even if you hit your local farmer’s market once a week, you’ll still probably get something out of revisiting the watershed documentary about how so many of America’s problems can be traced back to our food.
Pumping Iron (1977)
Director: George Butler and Robert Fiore
Before he was the Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger was a bodybuilder and fitness guru. Much of America was first introduced to him in Pumping Iron, and you can tell from his first moments onscreen that the big man was meant to be a star. Pumping Iron follows Schwarzenegger and his rival, and another future star, Lou Ferrigno, as they prepare for the Mr. Olympia contest.
This isn’t just a proto-reality show though. Pumping Iron is filled with motivation, as you watch the bodybuilders lift, train, and mentally prepare for the contest ahead. Though the bodybuilders are competitive with each other, it is the camaraderie and the joint pursuit of greatness that sticks with you long after they leave the weight room. The field of “fitspiration” has exploded in the age of Instagram and YouTube, but there is a reason the Pumping Iron remains a hallmark of the genre. With its perfect mix of inspiration and drama, when you finish this movie, you won’t be able to resist hitting the gym.
Director: Matt Wechsler
Even those among us who pay careful attention to what we put in our bodies don’t often consider how our food is produced. Not only do sustainable practices produce better products, but they ensure that our environment will survive intact for the rest of our lives and pass on to future generations. In Sustainable, Matt Wechsler argues that sustainability is one of the most important considerations in how we source our food, and, more radically, that achieving a sustainable food infrastructure is easier than corporations and the government make it out to be.
Sustainable argues that the only things keeping small farms and local sourcing from dominating food production are propaganda and misinformation. The film backs up these claims by introducing us to figures like Marty Travis, who has created a hub of sustainable food production in the Chicago area, serving over 200 chefs. Wechsler also leaves you with key pieces of knowledge, like the fact that organic and non-organic crop yields are often the same. You will not only leave Sustainable craving the kind of farm-to-table products featured in the film, but you will walk away with a sense of purpose and possibility in a better future for our food and ourselves.
Bikes vs. Cars (2015)
Director: Fredrik Gertten
Most people, save those in the employ of gas companies or members of the Ronald Reagan fan club, will admit that environmental regulations make for a better world. And most people would agree that fewer cars on the road would be a good thing. But, rarely do you see an in-depth exploration of how to decrease the number of automobiles clogging up urban centers. That’s exactly what director Fredrik Gertten attempts with Bikes vs. Cars. In this film, we are reminded that the battle between the two modes of transportation is the result of concrete decisions by municipal governments, and different outcomes are possible no matter where you live.
If you live on the west coast of the U.S., you’ll probably find the comparison between Los Angeles and Copenhagen incredibly compelling. 80 percent of the Danish city-dwellers own bicycles. You won’t be surprised to hear that the number in Los Angeles is far lower. You might be surprised to hear that the transit situation in LA used to be much better than it is today, and greedy lobbyists are to blame for the traffic-snarled freeway hellscape that the city suffers today. Without delving too deeply into the arguments of the film, suffice it to say that America’s car culture doesn’t have to be the way it is. Moments, like one in which disgraced Toronto mayor Rob Ford is seen pandering to SUV drivers, underscores the film’s familiar but vital arguments.
If you’re already riding your bike, Bikes vs. Cars will make you want to ride it more. If you don’t own a bike, then at the very least, this film will lay a pretty heavy guilt trip on you for your automobile-centric ways.
Fed Up (2014)
Director: Stephanie Soechtig
Director Stephanie Soechtig and producer Katie Couric declare war on sugar in the documentary Fed Up. Contrary to the lobbyist approved dietary information released by the government, not all calories are created equal. The sugar in candy is different than the sugar in fruit, and it is that bad sugar that is killing Americans every day. In fact, as the film points out, sugar intake has doubled since 1977 and Type 2 diabetes has exploded over the same period.
This slick yet thoughtful documentary will tug at your heartstrings, as it builds its wellness argument around the 17 percent of children in America who are obese. Our consumer habits don’t just affect ourselves — they impact future generations, as our shopping habits dictate what stores will continue to stock in the future.
Fed Up dishes out criticism to all who deserve it, and paints a clear picture of how the companies that support “Big Sugar” have co-opted government policy. The snack food companies took the teeth out of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program, so we can only imagine how little is being done on this issue now that a sentient Big Mac is in the Oval Office. Fed Up shows us a world where the sugar industry is winning, but also offers a call to fight back.
Before the Flood (2016)
Director: Fisher Stevens
In the tradition of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, this Leonardo DiCaprio produced 2016 film attempts once again to sound the alarm about climate change by drawing attention to some areas of the world that are poised to be most affected in the coming years.
Though the “celebrity tells it like it is” genre of documentary filmmaking is well worn territory, Before the Flood is special due to its ambitious scope. We visit melting ice floes, oil fields, and endangered Indonesian elephant habitats as Leo shows us exactly where the world’s biggest problem is being most deeply felt.
Unlike some similar films, Before the Flood is always sure to center the conversation on what you can do as an individual, which results a more hopeful and proactive spin on the daunting issue of global warming than you usually see. And of course, DiCaprio and Stevens outline the socio-political problems because there will be no solving this huge problem without addressing the big systemic issues that go far beyond what any one person is capable of changing on their own.
Betting on Zero (2017)
Director: Ted Braun
One way to live a better lifestyle is learning that easy answers aren’t always the best answers. Multi-level marketing schemes prey on people with the earnest desire to better themselves. Unfortunately, companies like Herbalife never deliver on their promises and only bring debt and pain in their wake.
The film follows hedge fund manager William A. Ackman, who made a big bet against Herbalife by insisting it is a pyramid scheme well before the media caught up to the company. The film sees him vindicated—Herbalife was forced to pay a $200 million settlement to their various victims—but Herbalife continues to do business today.
Betting on Zero offers one of those vital life lessons that is often hard learned: when something seems too good to be true, then it probably is. Whether the company calls itself Amway, Herbalife, or Stella and Dot, and no matter what they tell you they’re selling, they are ultimately selling you something that doesn’t exist: answers to all of life’s problems.
Take Your Pills (2018)
Director: Alison Klayman
Many people across the world, and particularly university students under intense pressure, have looked to pills like adderall to help them gain an edge. Younger students are routinely prescribed ritalin as a cure for ADHD and other attention disabilities. Prescription stimulants are a routine part of American life, and they have been for over half a century. And as Take Your Pills points out, addictions to these pills are all the more dangerous because many don’t think about a pill habit as addiction.
Thankfully, Klayman doesn’t take the position that these medicines have no value. Instead, she makes the more difficult case that while pills can offer solutions, our society’s reliance on them has gone unchallenged for too long. Take Your Pills shows us a variety of examples of individuals who have come to depend on prescriptions stimulants and how that has profoundly impacted their lives. The film also draws attention to the $17 billion industry behind these stimulants, which proves that pharmaceutical companies are by no means disinterested actors.
While Take Your Pills sometimes feels overzealous or too macroscopic for its own good, the core questions of the film are incredibly important. As we rush to medicate ourselves in the name of productivity, we have to stop and ask why.
Forks Over Knives (2011)
Director: Lee Fulkerson
For those not yet ready to give up meat and dairy, and that is probably most of us, the mere mention of a vegan documentary might feel preachy. But, with Forks Over Knives, Lee Fulkerson sticks to the facts, and as such, he makes a persuasive case.
This film doesn’t try to dazzle you with aesthetics. Instead it bombards you with facts. The film’s experts, including a nutritional scientist and a surgeon, carefully detail how heart disease, diabetes, and a number of other ailments can be prevented by adopting a plant-based diet. Then, the film takes a longer view, looking at the historical and cultural factors that led to Americans maintaining such terrible diets. The bottom line is that the amount of meat, dairy, and oil you consume impacts your health.
While Forks Over Knives may not turn you vegan, it will invite you to reconsider your concept of the food pyramid and your acceptance of America’s meat-first mentality.
Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead (2011)
Directors: Joe Cross, Kurt Engfehr
Part-weight loss documentary, part-road trip, Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead sees director and star Joe Cross resolve to shed much of his 300 pound frame while exploring the nature of obesity as he travels the country looking for answers on habits, health, and life itself. While this documentary is shorter on answers than many others in this genre, the enthusiasm and can-do attitude of Cross is infectious.
Cross does spend a chunk of the film selling you on his diet and his personal story, but in the midst of his pitching, he brings us some thoughtful and relatable points. There is no easy path to fitness. Dieting is hard. And you might as well keep a sense of humor while you switch out burgers and fries for healthy greed sludge that will help you live longer, even if you don’t love every meal. Cross’s interviews with other people who struggle with their weight offer the kind of light-hearted support you might need as you embark on a big change in your diet.
Even if you can’t keep up the same unflagging positivity that Cross offers, it won’t hurt to spend a little time with him as you embark on a weight loss journey of your own.
Next up; 15 inspirational documentaries on Netflix.