The 10 Best Documentaries About Healthy Living

Tons of films offer help or information regarding what's best for your health. These are the most essential.

Kino Lorber

Engaging in a healthy and active lifestyle is as trendy as ever, and it should be. From fast food restaurants changing their menus to keep up with a more health-conscious society to people interacting in healthy and fulfilling activities, caring for oneself is all the rage. But how should one come to understand what it means to be healthy?

Being healthy is not just about eating your vegetables and getting eight hours of sleep every night. Healthy living is much more than that — it is your diet, exercise, mental health, and access to health care. And there are a lot of films purporting to offer the best help or information regarding all those different areas.

Here’s our own effort to pick out the greatest of these documentaries about healthy living:

Let There Be Light (1946/1980)

Renowned filmmaker John Huston directed a series of four films while serving in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II, and Let There Be Light was the last of them. Huston sought to capture the effects of posttraumatic stress disorder in a realistic, unfiltered light. Through doing so, the United States government chose to suppress the film until 1980. The film itself is revolutionary for the way Huston portrayed interviews between doctors and patients at the Edgewood State Hospital in Long Island, New York, where a lot of soldiers suffering from PTSD and other wartime-caused mental disabilities were being treated. A camera was placed facing the doctor and one was placed facing the patient, and every ounce of emotion captured is raw, unsettling, and deeply saddening.

Let There Be Light opens with a statement that says roughly 20-percent of all wartime casualties are psychiatric in nature. Seeing how these veterans are treated and dealt with is chilling, and the mere fact that the U.S. government suppressed the film for so long shows that it had, and still has, something to say about how mental health is discussed and handled in the military. Many soldiers suffer from PTSD today and are not getting the treatment they need and deserve. Huston’s film is important and relevant to human health because it shows that trauma is not something to be shrugged off or bottled in and that in order to be healthy one must get the treatment and counseling that they need and deserve. But sadly, that is not a reality for most people, as access to health care and mental health services is viewed by many as a luxury and not a right.

Sicko (2007)

In the world of documentary cinema, Michael Moore is a well known and prolific agent provocateur. His documentary style is that of confronting an idea until a story rears its head. Yet, his documentary Sicko, about the state of health care in the United States is arguably his most subdued and unconfrontational work, and it is still as thought-provoking as anything else in his filmography.

Sicko is entertaining and unnerving. Moore does not shy away from the horrors of the American health care system, and how its big business practices often lead to swathes of people being excluded from even the most basic of health care policies. Furthermore, he contrasts American health care with the systems at play in both Canada and the U.K. In this contrast, the cracks and faults in the U.S. health care system are startlingly apparent, and if we, as a nation, are so focused on being healthy, then why is it still so hard for people to acquire basic health care coverage?

Bikes vs Cars (2015)

Fredrik Gertten‘s Bikes vs Cars rarely focuses directly on health, but instead chooses to highlight the bicycle and biking as a tool and an exercise for change. Cities and private car companies choose to enact policies that stifle those who commute via bicycle because there is little interest or profit in supporting a bike-safe city. There is profit in cars, but cars cause far more problems then bicycles. The world is currently facing the fact that irreversible climate change has already occurred on Earth and will only get worse unless a change is enacted. Switching from bikes to cars may seem like a small change, but sometimes a small change can act as a gateway for larger, more meaningful change.

But what does this film have to do with human health? Well, if climate change is not combatted, then humankind will not have to worry about their health because there will be no Earth for humans to call home, and if more commuters and the cities they live in choose to bike and enact policies for bikers, then people would be engaging in a healthy exercise just in their daily commute. Not everyone has the time nor the luxury to exercise or go to the gym, so if exercise just became part of one’s daily routine, then that would be a start to a healthier lifestyle for a wide range of individuals.

Fed Up (2014)

The obesity epidemic in America is no laughing matter, nor should one’s physical appearance ever be a catalyst for humor. Obesity often occurs at such a young age that it sometimes seems inevitable and irreversible, and the long-term effects it can have on someone can be deadly. From type 2 diabetes to major joint problems to heart issues, obesity is startlingly dangerous when left unchecked. Stephanie Soechtig‘s Fed Up aims to examine the American obesity epidemic and how the fast food industry has helped make it much, much worse.

The food industry has weaponized cheap, good-looking food into a business model that reaps in so much money that actively standing against such an industry seems futile. Yet, Fed Up chooses not to back down against the food industry and, instead, chooses to show how dangerous that industry can be. For example, there’s a part in the film about corporate influence over school lunches that bluntly shows that these food companies care little for the individual and what they intake, more for profit margins and cheap turnaround.

It is head-spinning stuff that will make you think twice about sending your kid off to school with lunch money in hand instead of packing their lunch yourself. But the film is bigger than that, it attempts to understand how and why the food industry has gotten so powerful, and how fast and cheap foods still rake in so much money even though it is common knowledge that, well, it just is not healthy.

From Fat to Finish Line (2016)

Poor title aside, Angela Lee‘s From Fat to Finish Line is an inspiring tale centered around the positivity and change that can be wrought from exercise. Her film showcases the journey of 12 people who all share the same desire: to be more active, lose 100 pounds, and take part in the 200 mile Ragnar Relay Race.

None of the 12 people in the film knew each other beforehand, and it was only through online blogs and a similar desire to lose (and keep off) weight that they found one another. Eventually, health blogger Katie Foster and experienced racer Rik Akey teamed up to build a group of racers with a special goal in mind. Luckily, their goal and the goals of the 12 individuals lined up, and from there this film was born.

What follows is an inspiring story about the genuine power of exercise, and how it can bring people together and allow them to build a family-like bond, as well as get in shape. Achieving a healthy lifestyle is more than just adding exercise to one’s daily routine, but that is always a great place to start, and one never has to do it alone. From Fat to Finish Line is as much interested in the finish line as it is with the journey to it, and that is what makes this documentary so special.

Vegucated (2011)

Vegan is a word that is heard a lot these days, and it can be found in all forms of marketing. The strict diet and lifestyle is a great choice for many people, but it is not easy nor sustainable for a vast array of other individuals. Vegucated, directed by Marisa Miller Wolfson, is a comedic documentary about three New Yorkers who agree to become vegan for six weeks and, more importantly, learn what veganism is all about. It is a guerilla-style film that was made on a shoestring budget, but its budgetary constraints do nothing to lessen the comedic and moving impact of Vegucated.

The three individuals are lured to veganism by the ideas of weight loss and well-being, but through their engagement, they learn that a lifestyle without animal products offers them more then what they initially expected. During the film, they come to understand the inhumane practices that fuel the meat industry and how veganism could, in a small way, help combat that. But most importantly, they learn that veganism is more than just a word or a stuffy subsect of outspoken individuals, it is a healthy lifestyle alternative that has more benefits than meets the eye.

Marathon Challenge (2007)

The PBS television series NOVA has been on the air since 1974, and in the 15th episode of Season 34, director Daniel McCabe tells the story of a program that trains people to be marathon-ready. Titled “Marathon Challenge”, the episode focuses on 13 novice runners and the nine-month challenge of training for the Boston Marathon. They all come from different backgrounds, but what binds each individual together is the fact that none of them are current runners. The process that follows is grueling and filled with high highs and low lows, but NOVA‘s cameras are always there to capture each moment.

What is even more interesting is that exercise and nutritional scientists from Tufts University actively monitor the physical transformations that the runners undergo. In featuring such a study of its subjects, “Marathon Challenge” shows, almost in real-time, the process that getting healthier and in shape has on the human body. In that sense, it is almost unparalleled in its ability to inspire and showcase how running and desiring to be healthier can yield tangible, life-changing results.

Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive (2006)

Stephen Fry has been a well-known figure in comedy for decades, but he suffers from manic depression, also known as bipolar disorder. How he lives with his disorder and engages with others who live with it is the subject of Ross Wilson‘s television documentary Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive. The Emmy Award-winning film is genuinely moving and begs the viewer to have empathy for those who suffer from all forms of mental disorders, specifically that of bipolar disorder.

We follow Fry as he learns more about his disorder, discusses how he lives with it, and hopes to bring it into the light to show that even the most famous of individuals are not safe from suffering. He engages in dialogues with Carrie Fisher and Richard Dreyfuss to learn how they deal with bipolar disorder. He also speaks to doctors and the people studying bipolar disorder in order to learn more about what he lives with and has to deal with on a daily basis. But most importantly, Fry seeks out common individuals who have bipolar disorder and learns how they deal with it both at work and at home.

It is through Fry’s conversations with common people that Wilson’s film truly soars. Mental health is not something to shy away from. It is something to engage with head-on, sympathize with, and understand on a social level. Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive is a film centered around one man’s struggle, but his struggle is understood by millions and that is where the film becomes incredibly important.

Food, Inc. (2008)

There was a time before Robert Kenner‘s Food, Inc., and there is the time after Food, Inc. The Oscar-nominated documentary has permeated the health and wellbeing discourse in a way that has never been done before. Morgan Spurlock‘s Super Size Me comes close, but it was too insular, too focused on one thing. Food, Inc. takes on the entirety of America’s corporate-controlled food industry, and what is learned is quite damning. Modern raw food production and its business practices have been informed by the boom of the fast food industry since the 1950s. Every aspect of the modern food industry has been commercialized, maximized for profit, and expedited for convenience to the point where certain foods hardly seem edible.

What is shown in Food, Inc. is at times horrifying and hard to stomach. The multinational corporations that control raw food production only care about their enormous profits, and they will, at almost every available point, cut corners in order to ensure said profit. Seemingly endless slaughterhouses haunt much of the film, and the multitude of preservatives that are put in most of the foods we consume today is jarring enough to the point where, after watching Food, Inc., you might ask twice why the apple in your hand is just so waxy.

Forks Over Knives (2011)

Volatile, radical, jarring, factual, inaccurate. All of these words can be used to describe Lee Fulkerson‘s Forks Over Knives, but what all of those words are missing is just how watchable and well-crafted a documentary it is. Forks Over Knives examines the idea that most degenerative diseases can be negated or reversed by rejecting processed and animal-based foods. What may seem like a wild idea slowly becomes more believable as Fulkerson consults with various doctors of differing practices in order to see how based-in-reality that initial claim is.

The core storyline in the film follows a nutritional scientist from Cornell University named Colin Campbell and a former surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn. Both men engage in different nutritional studies that lead them to the same conclusion: most degenerative diseases can be prevented and, sometimes, reversed by switching to an all plant-based diet. Their meticulous studies are largely unknown to the public, but Forks Over Knives brings them into the light.

These men’s statistics are devastating if true, and the fact that they’ve been largely unknown is even more worrying. Fulkerson puts these men’s findings to the test, and, well, the results are not very shocking. After only eating a plant-based diet, Fulkerson sleeps better, looks better, and feels better. Forks Over Knives is not subtle but it does beg the question: Do you really know how what you eat affects you?

(Student/Freelance Writer)

Cole Henry is a media theory and philosophy student at Georgia State University, as well as a freelance writer and editor. He is quite interested in every aspect of documentary cinema, and can usually be found reading, writing, running, adding items to his Criterion Collection shopping cart, and eating tacos.