Most people see what they expect to see, what they want to see, what they’ve been told to see, what conventional wisdom tells them to see – not what is right in front of them in its pristine condition.
I am a huge advocate of a vegan lifestyle, and these powerful documentaries are a must-watch in your plant-based transition.
But I’ll let you into a little secret: I haven’t always been.
In fact, I grew up in a meat and dairy-eating household and never truthfully gave it much thought until my early thirties. I had a vaguely romantic and idyllic vision of the countryside and ancient farming practices, with happy free-range hens and sheep grazing in their luscious pastures. In other words, I was blissfully ignorant!
The point in my life that really sticks out as a time of huge growth and mindset shift is watching vegan documentaries. I can honestly say that they completely cemented my feelings towards veganism without a shadow of a doubt, and I’ve never looked back since.
Before this, I had read Dr Michael Greger’s How Not to Die and moved to a pescetarian diet. With my limited understanding of factory farming, I felt better knowing I wasn’t supporting this system. But whilst I was undoubtedly making better food choices with the health benefits of a more Mediterranean-style diet, I also had a growing feeling that I wanted to understand more about the ethics of my dietary choices.
It suddenly seemed ridiculous that I’d never stopped to question the pre-packaged goods I picked up off the supermarket shelves. In that moment, I decided that I needed to fully educate myself about the bigger picture of an out-of-sight industry in order to make informed choices.
So… I started doing my research.
Know Your Why
Have you been genuinely interested in going vegan, only to lose the motivation a few weeks in? Maybe you’ve been suckered in by Veganuary’s healthy eating marketing campaign, or it’s the current content you’re seeing from your favourite influencer.
As with making any kind of lifestyle change (new years gym resolution, anyone?), change is… well, really damn hard. Current neuroplasticity research shows that the human brain starts to solidify at around the age of 25, so it’s likely that your belief systems and habitual behaviour are pretty much hard-wired.
If you grew up in a non-vegan household, eating meat, fish and dairy products will have been completely normalised and even celebrated. Whether it’s big family occasions like Christmas or Easter or social gatherings in the community, food is about more than just what we put in our mouths. It brings us together socially and culturally. It’s arguably even a love language.
What I’m trying to say is that short-term motivation or a vague hunch that you want to go vegan is 99% likely to fail in the long term. For me, the key to going and staying vegan was taking the time to really and truly understand my own individual reasons, and how it aligns with my personal values.
The good news is that you absolutely can intentionally rewire your brain to create new positive habits. As Nietzsche once famously said:
He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.
Figuring out my ‘why’ was the most important and valuable time I spent when it came to going vegan.
And the documentaries featured in this article were the turning point in my thinking.
How to Go Vegan for the Long Haul
This is a matter of self-education. Ignorance is bliss; particularly when you don’t want to change! When meat, fish and dairy have traditionally underpinned how a ‘normal’ plate of food looks to you, change is difficult and unsettling.
But going vegan is an empowering decision to make for yourself, and will bring you greater long-term happiness (in other words, alignment with your core values), than any short-term pleasure in the moment.
Vegan documentaries are an uncomfortable and eye-opening way to learn about the world. In my own experience, they hit home in a much more powerful way than words on a page ever could. In order to become an engaged citizen and lead a compassionate life, it’s important to first do the inner work and understand your own motivations and actions on a deeper level.
If you watch all of the documentaries on this list, that’s 13 hours of your life. Rather than binging another series of Married at First Sight, why not make an effort to challenge your habitual ways of thinking? Or even watch 1 documentary from each of the 3 sections below. That’s just 4 hours to understand more about:
- The mistreatment of animals in the food, clothing and entertainment industries
- Troubling systems of production like factory farming
- The environmental impact of animal agriculture
- How animal agriculture compares to the transport industry in terms of contributing to climate change and global warming
- The health benefits of a plant-based diet
- How eating animal products can put you at risk of chronic diseases
Powerful Documentaries to Make You Go Vegan
I’ve split this list of best vegan documentaries into three sections: Ethics, Sustainability and Health. There is no ‘best’ place to start. Begin wherever you’re most curious and naturally gravitate towards.
My journey towards a plant-based diet started with a desire to learn more about the personal health benefits, but when I actively started looking into veganism, I dived head-first into the ethics category. The only thing I would suggest is that it’s good to have a well-rounded approach, so try to cover all sections if you can.
When you have a three-pronged reason for why you want to do something, it is a much stronger way to keep yourself on track and accountable. For example, knowing that a vegan diet benefits me on a personal level in terms of my long-term health is important. But on days when I don’t have much willpower, it helps to know that I’m also doing good in a way that has far-reaching ripple effects beyond myself, with regard to bigger issues like animal welfare and the health of our planet.
We have to speak up on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves.
Ethics – the big old elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. You are so far removed from the sheer scale of the meat and dairy industry when you pick up your pre-packaged goods from the supermarket, it’s not something you probably ever really stop to think about.
I challenge you to watch any of the films in the ethics category and not experience a major shift in terms of your attitude towards the food you consume.
How can we cry over the death of our beloved family dog, yet we don’t bat an eyelid when it comes to the daily slaughter of billions of animals? As soon as it clicked for me that we are all sentient beings sharing this earth, with individual rights to freedom and the pursuit of our own enjoyment of life, I had this real aha! moment that what we’re doing in these industries is so far removed from our ultimately kind and compassionate nature.
It takes all of us to have the courage to look at something which fundamentally challenges our view of the world and our silent complicity in large-scale systems. This is something we would prefer not to investigate too closely for fear of what we might find out, and how we might have to make changes on both an individual and societal level.
Since we all inhabit the earth, we are all considered earthlings. There is no sexism, racism, or speciesism in the term ‘earthling’.
Duration: 1hr 35mins
If you’re going to choose just one film from this article – make it this one. Trigger warning: I bawled my eyes out. Joaquin Phoenix presents this 2005 American film, which unflinchingly moves through five chapters of animal exploitation:
- Scientific research
It also gives you an overview of the term ‘speciesism’, which if you consider yourself anti-racist and pro women’s rights, will challenge you to also consider being an advocate for animal rights.
If you’re like me and always thought that cutting out meat was enough – think again! Until I watched this film, I assumed that milk and eggs were just by-products and that no animals were actually harmed in these industries. Have a watch to understand why I couldn’t have been any more wrong.
Earthlings was the first vegan documentary I came across, and to this day I would say it’s the one that’s stuck with me the most. It honestly gives me rocket fuel to keep going on days when I lack willpower. Now that I’ve seen the industries first-hand, there is no way I can go back to my old ignorant ways or justify the short-term pleasure of my tastebuds.
This was such a visceral and haunting experience for me, and I should warn you that it is a graphic film with scenes that are incredibly hard to watch. Suffice it to say, I haven’t touched meat or dairy since.
Land of Hope and Glory (2017)
It is ignorance that allows us to consume and purchase without considering the industries which we are supporting… From this moment on, you can no longer say that you didn’t know.
Duration: 48 mins
Availability: YouTube, or watch for free here
With the powerful and tragic irony of its patriotic title and theme tune, Land of Hope and Glory will open your eyes to the unsavoury and hidden aspects of the British meat industry.
This was the UK answer to Earthlings that I had always felt was missing. When I tried to understand more about the standards and practices of British factory farming, it was unsurprising that I couldn’t find out much surrounding this hush-hush industry. Everything I had read suggested that British animal welfare was some of the best in the world. But watching this short documentary film confirmed all my worst suspicions.
Narrator and director Ed Winters exposes the sheer scale of the meat and dairy industries, with never-before-seen undercover footage. Whilst it’s easy to assume that what you’re seeing are isolated cases, the film features a hundred different factory farming facilities at recent points in time. There are 5 distinct sections focusing on:
I first stumbled across Ed Winters via his more popular YouTube moniker Earthling Ed. He is a compassionate, calm and well-argued voice in the vegan community, and I would suggest watching and supporting his channel for more inspiring content and debates.
His new book This is Vegan Propaganda has also just been released last year. I was so excited, I pretty much devoured it in one sitting! Think of this as a kind of Animal Liberation for the internet generation.
Eating Animals (2017)
There’s inherent cruelty in that system. I look back on it now and I say, ‘How could I not see that?’
Duration: 1hr 45 mins
Availability: Amazon Prime
Based on the 2009 bestselling book by Jonathan Safran Foer, this documentary film was co-written by the author himself and narrated by Natalie Portman, who was apparently so inspired by the book that she took to vegan activism.
A disturbing but necessary glimpse into a multi-billion dollar industry, filmmaker Christopher Quinn incorporates footage of factory farms, labs, interviews and archive material.
In your quest for cheap and convenient food products, you come to understand how you play your part in driving economic demand for greater productivity in factory farming methods. This results in ever crueller conditions for the animals themselves, who are treated more and more like commodities or things than sentient beings.
Gripping and delivered with passion, your attitude towards food is unlikely to remain unchanged after watching this film.
Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably always had a good understanding of how to reduce your carbon footprint when it comes to your own contribution to global warming.
Walk wherever you can. Avoid frequent long-haul flights. Consider buying a hybrid or electric car. Basically, be conscious of your transport choices.
So you can imagine my shock when I discovered through the below documentaries that there is something far bigger we can all be doing, which no one is telling us about openly and transparently.
Animal agriculture makes a 40 per cent greater contribution to global warming than all transportation in the world combined; it is the number one cause of climate change.
Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals
If you can make a bigger difference to the long-term health of our planet simply with your knife and fork, then arguably you have a bigger responsibility as an individual to look more closely at your food choices.
Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (2014)
You can’t be an environmentalist and eat animal products. Period!
Duration: 1hr 31mins
I remember when this shocking documentary film was released, and everyone from work colleagues to family members were telling me that their attitude towards meat-eating had completely changed. I instantly knew I had to take a look for myself!
Produced and directed by Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn, the film explores the effect of animal agriculture on the environment, examining issues like climate change, deforestation and ocean dead zones. It is particularly gripping to watch Andersen try (and largely fail) to get in touch with leading environmental organisations, who are reluctant to discuss this controversial subject.
We naturally assume that established and well-respected charities like Green Peace, Sierra Club or Rainforest Action Network are leading voices that we can trust in this area. But it’s amazing how quickly they can be silenced.
For a different perspective compared to the first three films on this list, give this revelatory and provocative documentary a watch. I can guarantee you’ll be clicking on Seaspiracy as soon as the credits start to roll!
Not long into starting the project, this romantic vision that I always had of the ocean completely changed.
Duration: 1hr 29mins
Following on from Cowspiracy, Seaspiracy was recently released and opened our eyes to the impact of commercial fishing on our oceans and marine life.
With much the same feel as Cowspiracy (and produced again by filmmaker Kip Anderson), director and narrator Ali Tabrizi uses hidden camera techniques to explore the environmental issues affecting our oceans. This includes plastic pollution from fishing gear, ghost nets and overfishing. Whilst it’s easy to overlook fishing as a form of animal agriculture (when we may naturally focus on factory farming), the film makes it clear that we need to make a change.
Marine ecosystems are being devastated by the commercial fishing industry, with criticism levelled at marine conservation organisations like the Dolphin Safe Label (which essentially doesn’t mean anything and is regulated by the industry itself!).
For the most comprehensive insight into why you should cut fish out of your diet, look no further.
A Life on our Planet (2020)
This is not about saving our planet, it’s about saving ourselves. The truth is, with or without us, the natural world will rebuild.
Duration: 1hr 23mins
You probably associate David Attenborough with softly spoken, ASMR–inducing wildlife documentaries. Or at least, I certainly did until recently!
Unlike the rest of the films on this list, A Life on our Planet isn’t so much an explicitly vegan-focused documentary. Nevertheless, I still think it’s hugely important to include it for its mainstream impact, and the way in which it touches on issues of animal agriculture and the long-term health of our planet.
A much-loved and respected figure in his study of the natural world, this Attenborough documentary feels more personal and urgent than anything I’ve ever watched by him before. In a first-hand account, the 94-year-old naturalist arrestingly calls this his ‘witness statement’, with archive footage of his lifetime’s body of work.
Since his time filming with animals from the 1950s, he describes how humans have devasted natural environments. When half of the fertile land on Earth is now used for farming, and wild animal populations have halved on average, his chilling dystopian vision of a Chernoblyl-esque future by as early as 2080 may not be so far removed from reality.
I can’t help but take heed of his chilling and pressing warning:
Millions of people rendered homeless, and a sixth mass extinction event is well underway… We must change our diet. The planet can’t support billions of meat-eaters.
The good news is that it’s not too late to make a change. Educate yourself so that you can be the change you want to see in the world!
You may look after your health when it comes to exercise and a consistent gym routine, or ensuring you get enough sleep at night. But do you honestly stop to think about how you’re fuelling your body with the food you choose to consume on a daily basis?
If you’ve read my in-depth post on whole-food plant-based diets, you’ll have an understanding of the personal health benefits you can enjoy from plant-based eating.
In short, whilst leading health organisations still advise that you should include meat, fish and dairy as part of a healthy diet, recent research shows that you can hit all of your nutritional needs through a vegan diet. More disturbingly, as revealed in the documentaries below, eating animal products can actually have negative health impacts, and contribute to chronic health conditions like obesity, cardiovascular diseases, cancers and diabetes.
To understand more about a vegan lifestyle and plant-based nutrition, watch these illuminating health documentaries, where medical experts offer us a scientific look into why you should adopt a plant-based lifestyle.
What the Health (2017)
If I could deliver one message to the researchers who are looking for the cause of diabetes, and the cause of clogged arteries, and the cause of high blood pressure, and the cause of obesity, I would tell them, the answer’s in three words. It’s the food.
Duration: 1hr 37 mins
If you enjoyed the format of Cowspiracy, then What the Health will be another one to add to the watch list. Produced and directed by Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn, with Joaquin Phoenix as executive producer, the film follows Andersen as he attempts to contact representatives of various health organisations (again, you guessed it… without very much success!).
The main message from the film is that rather than treating our major diseases with drugs, we could eliminate many of them at their source by eating a plant-based diet based on whole foods. The Standard American Diet, which relies on fast food and over-processed junk food, is linked to life-limiting diseases like diabetes and autoimmune disease. And the food industry suppresses vital knowledge in these areas.
In addition, this film features some of my favourite medical experts, including Michael Greger, Neal Barnard and Milton Mills (to name just a few!).
The Game Changers (2018)
Somebody asked me, how can you get as strong as an ox without eating meat? And my answer was, have you ever seen an ox eating meat?
Duration: 1hr 52mins
Availability: Amazon Prime
I’m a sucker for anything that challenges old stereotypes we take for granted. If you’ve ever assumed that you need to eat meat to get adequate protein, that vegetarians are weak and sickly, or that you can’t be an elite athlete on a vegan diet, then you need to watch The Game Changers right away!
Re-evaluating the relationship between health, fitness and a vegan diet, the film has a star-studded production crew, including the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rip Esselstyn, James Cameron and Jackie Chan. It follows Elite Special Forces trainer and martial artist James Wilks. On discovering that getting enough protein isn’t solely linked to eating meat, he goes on a quest to find answers about the optimal diet for human performance.
From an interview with plant-based Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton, to a memorable scene discussing erectile dysfunction in which 3 male athletes look at the effects of a plant-based diet on their ejaculate, this is a fascinating insight into how plant-based food can improve people’s health.
Forks over Knives (2011)
You can be in control. And I stress this because there’s so many things going on in my life that I’m not in control of. And that’s my message. You can control your outcome of your body. Eat to live, and don’t live to eat.
Duration: 1hr 36mins
Availability: Watch Here
The OG of plant-based health documentaries, the tagline always sticks with me: ‘Warning: This Movie Could Save Your Life!’. This is a classic for good reason.
Examining the careers of American physician Caldwell Esselstyn and nutritional biochemist T. Colin Campbell, Forks over Knives puts diets comprised of animal products under the microscope, and addresses the serious public health issues they cause.
The film also goes into more detail about how the drug and pharmaceutical industries benefit from animal agriculture, as well as the traditional Western diet born out of this which makes us sick.
By rejecting animal products and overly processed foods, this eye-opening documentary suggests that we can stop, manage or potentially even reverse the major chronic diseases that afflict our family members, including killers like cardiovascular disease, cancers and diabetes.
Over to You…
I am so excited for you to start your journey into the world of whole-food, plant-based living. Whilst some of these documentaries may be shocking, graphic and intellectually challenging when it comes to your inherited belief systems, I promise that this will be an experience which can’t help but change you for the better.
Whatever you decide is right for you upon evaluating the evidence presented in these documentaries, I hope that you are more informed and can make better individual choices moving forwards.
If you enjoyed this post and these documentaries have inspired you to take the vegan plunge, then check out my post How to Create Your Minimalist Meal Plan for a practical guide to your weekly shop and an easy vegan meal plan. And, for even more plant-based education, have a read of some of these fascinating books on veganism.