Peter Curtis Pardini is an award-winning director and producer whose work has been featured on The Grammys, HBO, CNN, and in Parade magazine, Deadline Hollywood and People magazine. He gained recognition for his critically acclaimed 2016 documentary Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago, which received the Best of Fest Award at the 2016 Sedona International Film Festival as well as the Rising Star Award and the Audience Award at the 2016 Fort Myers Beach Film Fest. He has worked with The Doobie Brothers, Jim Caviezel, Adam Carolla, Joe Mantegna, Kyle Mooney, Al Pacino, and the Notre Dame sports program.
Just days after the release of our his latest work, FAT: A Documentary, Diet Detective had the opportunity to interview Peter Curtis Pardini about what motivated him to take on the film, why America’s approach to dieting is so incorrect and what his views are on our current food system.
Peter Curtis Pardini (PCP): Thank you! It’s exciting to see the finished product and all the work that went into its be recognized. FAT is essentially about the history of health myths in America, beginning in the mid-1800s and extending to the current day. I was drawn to make the film due in large part to my own experience losing weight. I had met a weight loss expert named Vinnie Tortorich, who has a large following and popular health podcast, and we discussed the idea of making a health documentary that was inherently different from others. I didn’t want to do a promotional documentary for a specific diet and neither did he. I knew that if we told a history lesson, we’d inevitably come to some sort of conclusion about what we thought was a healthy way of eating, but the film is more of a pulling back of the curtain to say: “these are the reasons we think what we do about what is and isn’t healthy, and now the choice is yours to take your health into your own hands.”
DD: You have produced more than ten short films, three feature documentaries, and three narrative features on a variety of topics. What motivated you to produce a documentary that exposes the myths regarding healthy eating, fat and weight loss? Are there strong connections to food?
PCP: I was coming off of directing a successful documentary about the band Chicago, Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago, and I really just wanted to do something completely different. My ultimate goal is to be a narrative film-maker, but first I have to prove I can do more than one type of documentary. For the average person, health documentaries aren’t really known for being entertaining, nor should they be. But I thought if I could bring viewers to the movie with a filmmaker’s touch and not having the music of a classic rock band to aid me, I would have proven something to myself.
Also, as I said earlier, I was already on a weight loss journey myself, so I was interested in that sense as well.
DD: Why does fat have such a bad reputation in the nutrition world? Can you walk us through the evolution of fat’s role in our diets over the last century? What do you attribute to the increasingly positive reception of fat? Less biased research? More knowledgeable consumers of information? Influential thought leaders?
PCP: One thing I’ve often heard said is that the biggest problem with fat is that it has the word “fat” in it. Fat itself, as a food, is not bad for you. What’s more important is what it’s combined with. Back in 1955, President Eisenhower had a heart attack and the world wanted to know why and diet was pointed to as a possible cause, even though Eisenhower smoked quite a bit. At around the same time, a doctor and researcher named Ancel Keys conducted a study called the Seven Countries Study in which he tried to prove that high fat consumption was the cause of heart disease by cherry-picking data from 22 countries. He basically chose the seven countries, going from the one with the lowest fat consumption to the one with the most and drew a straight line from least heart attacks to most heart attacks. But he left out the fifteen other countries that didn’t show the same correlation. That study went a long way to forming our beliefs about fat and its role in heart disease.
Long story short, there are many factors to a healthy or unhealthy diet, and the tendency has been to single out fat as the culprit in terms of both ill health and weight gain, but based on flawed science. People who eat a lot of fat also tend to be more likely to smoke and drink heavily, for example.
I think the increasingly positive reaction to fat is most likely due to self-testing. It’s definitely not coming from media or common, accepted knowledge. So many people have struggled to lose weight and they’re desperate to try anything and they’re hearing about and seeing people they know losing weight by cutting carbs and sugar and upping fat intake. Not only are they losing weight, but their cholesterol and blood numbers are improving and none of it makes sense in relation to what the common information is on it.
DD: Most people are really confused about what to eat. Is the media the main cause? Based on what you’ve learned from shooting this film, how do you think people should sort through and decipher the barrage of information they’re getting about food and nutrition?
PCP: I don’t think the media is the only cause — it’s just one of them. There are plenty of keto cool books, keto infomercials and other information available. I think the media sells what people will buy. In the end, it’s up to people to take matters into their own hands based on the information that’s out there. Like I said, people are improving their health by doing something they were told was going to kill them, because you can only see something so many times before you just can’t deny it any more. I’ve lost 50 pounds and eaten primarily fatty foods, and my health has improved in every way.
And the point is, don’t just believe me! Based on what I learned making this film, people are way more interested in diet and health than I ever thought possible. They just want what works. There’s a vegan vs carnivore game out there, but that’s a small percentage of people on either end of the spectrum, and both of those ways of eating CAN be healthy. Most people just want to know how they can get healthier and lose weight, and the only way to know that is trial and error. For me? The only thing that is sustainable and has worked for me and many, many others is a very low carb, high fat diet.
DD: Americans are constantly inundated with nutritional claims and wellness tips—some grounded in science and others part of a marketing strategy. What’s the scariest or most confusing thing you learned from your film interviews?
PCP: The scariest thing is how hard it is to eat clean, even when you think you are. It’s nearly impossible to buy anything without hidden sugar. I always make sure that what I’m buying has no added ingredients. Only fresh meat, eggs and vegetables. But the thing is, people see “zero sugar” and don’t realize that all the “ose” names in the added ingredients are basically sugar. And “low fat” doesn’t automatically make something a health food.
DD: How has your thinking about the American diet generally, and your own diet more specifically, changed since taking on this documentary? Has the film impacted what makes and doesn’t make its way onto your plate?
PCP: I was already heavy into the way I eat before making the movie, so not really. But I do know that many of the crew started eating differently because of working on it. In general, I have continued to eat only real foods with no sugar at all and fewer than 20 carbohydrates a day.I’m pretty hearty in my fat consumption and I never count calories. I stared at 240 pounds and am now 185 pounds after two years of eating this way. It’s funny, because there are all these little “tips” out there, like intermittently fasting or not eating after a certain time, but I’m automatically doing that now based on what my body is telling me. I never have any hunger problems or mood or energy fluctuations. I eat when I’m hungry, and when I do, I eat until I’m full and that’s it. It’s not really magic by any means. Meat, eggs, vegetables, coffee, water, repeat.
DD: You took on a crowd-sourcing strategy to help fund the film. Can you explain why you adopted this approach?
PCP: Vinnie Tortorich, who’s one of the producers and is in the film, has a sizable following online and through his podcast, and we felt we could raise everything we needed through small donations from people who were interested in getting the information out there. The main reason was to avoid having a special-interest group dictating what could and could not be said in the course of the film. As a result, the film was completed quickly and edited entirely in my apartment with no oversight. We raised the money by June of 2018 and were completely finished with sound and color by early December. The longest part was getting it distributed and released but the movie was done eight months before release.
DD: The reliability of information in documentaries is constantly being questioned. As a film director and producer, how do you navigate the possible biases that come along with story-telling?
PCP: You don’t have to navigate bias if you’re telling the truth, which has no personal bias. We interviewed many people who, in their lives, espouse a ketogenic diet, but the film doesn’t outwardly say “this diet is the healthiest.” It says “this diet exists and we don’t get why it’s not being at least looked at as a possible health benefit.” The story was just a to b to c of where we once were and where we are now in relation to what we think or thought about healthy eating.
DD: Are you anticipating any backlash from one or more of the various dietary disciplines, and do you have any plans for how to respond if that should happen? For example, the 2018 documentary What the Health received a lot of criticism for confusing what’s known about veganism and obscuring the truths of nutrition; it even went so far as saying “eating eggs is as bad as smoking cigarettes.”
PCP: Of course there will be backlash, but only from a small minority of people. The general reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. When I made my documentary about Chicago, there was a small backlash from people who didn’t agree with moves the group had made 35 years ago. But that’s history and you can’t change history. There’s always backlash whenever you put anything out to the public. I don’t concern myself with falsehoods in other people’s movies because I didn’t make those movies. All I know is that any particular claim made in FAT can be verified by reality or specific onscreen documentation showing that what’s being said actually happened.
DD: What advice would you give to the average American who wants to be smarter not only about what they eat but also about what they know about what they eat? What tactics or habits can they adopt to spot misinformation or myths?
PCP: All you can really do is what works for you. Read labels carefully and avoid “fake” ingredients. If you want to be vegan, great. If you can get all the vitamins you need and it’s sustainable for you, why not? Same for carnivores. I think it’s a mix of both. Water, high fat meat and green vegetables is probably AOK for most people.
DD: What is the call to action of this documentary? What do you want your viewers to walk away from their couch with?
PCP: The call to action is to think for yourself and know that most of the commonly held beliefs we have about diet are not based on settled science. Some of the findings from the flawed science may be true but not in the ways we think. It’s been fun to see people’s reaction, and it’s getting people to stop and think, which is great. You have to remember, I’m not a nutritionist or part of any health organization. I have no agenda other than being a filmmaker who found all this information and wanted to share it with other people in the clearest and least biased way possible. The biggest takeaway should be: No one else is going to do it for you. It’s up to you to make changes in your health and know what you’re eating.
Grew up in: Fresno, CA
City or town you call home: Los Angeles, CA
As a child you wanted to be: Filmmaker
Background and education: Graduated with a degree in screenwriting from Cal State Northridge in Los Angeles, CA
One word you would use to describe a healthy diet: fat
Your breakfast this morning: black cold brew
Favorite food: Ribeye
Last meal on Earth: Robertito’s Mexican Food (Fresno chain) Cheese quesadilla and burrito. I’m going out full of carbohydrates.
Food policy social media must-follow: @vinnietortorich @bigfatsurprise @garytaubes @fatemperor @daveketo
Food newsletter, website or book you can’t stop reading: Fitness Confidential podcast with Vinnie Tortorich
Your motto: Food-wise? Limit carbohydrates and eliminate sugar.
Social media of Peter Curtis Pardini: