Inspired living

Get to know Food Matters film-maker James Colquhoun

Food Matters film-maker James Colquhoun

Credit: James Colquhoun

Changing lifelong habits is hard. Even when faced with a serious health crisis, for many of us the idea of changing our entrenched thoughts about food, medicine and what “health” is can feel like an impossible ask. We are creatures of habit. So, when it comes to trying to convince someone else of the need for change, it’s an even harder battle.

Ever tried convincing a family member that they should change the way they eat or live their lives? It’s not only near impossible; it can often be taken the wrong way. Which is exactly why James Colquhoun, producer and director of the widely successful documentaries Food Matters and Hungry for Change, embarked on his mission to create life-changing films about the reality of food, health and disease: to convince his own father to change his diet and his life.

The turning point

A natural film-maker despite little formal training, Colquhoun tells the story of the moment his life changed like an opening scene in a movie.

Picture this: a “normal” Australian family gathered around the family dinner table for their usual catch-up over a meal of meat and veg. “I remember the evening really well,” he recalls. “It was warm, there were a lot of doors open around the house and we were all sitting down together — which is one of the great things we’d do as a family. It was a beautiful ritual. My mum and dad, my sister, my wife and I were all there. And the conversation that took place that night was something none of us expected and none of us were ready for.”

To put this dinner into perspective, a little background. About five years earlier, Colquhoun’s father had started to struggle with his health. Roy was an accountant and company auditor and, as Colquhoun describes it, was eating the “typical Australian diet” of the heart-tick-of-approval, low-fat kind: white bread, margarine, diet soft drinks, some meat and veg. As a middle-aged Aussie bloke, Roy also had the usual stress-coping skills of his generation too: no relaxation or meditation practice and a pretty cynical view of it all.

“If we couldn’t get my father to read about nutrition and natural health, we figured we could probably convince him to watch a film on the subject.”

Eventually, feeling completely rundown, sick and flu-like all of the time, Roy took himself to the family GP to look for a diagnosis. After many and varied tests, he finally received a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome and was immediately prescribed medication.

“But what happened was his health continued to deteriorate,” says Colquhoun. “He went to see more specialists and doctors and was eventually also diagnosed with depression and anxiety — which resulted in more medication. In the end, he spent nearly five years on six different medications, mostly bed-ridden and forced to sell his practice and retire from professional work. The side-effects of the medication were horrible: anxiety, night sweats, panic attacks. The more he’d take, the worse he became.”

And then came the dinner in 2007, when the reality of the years of health stress became very obvious. “Everything was normal, we were sitting there eating our dinner, when Dad turns to us and says, ‘Today, I thought about taking my life.’”

Despite telling the story over and over again since then, it’s still an emotional moment for Colquhoun to recall. “How could the head of our family, someone who used to be so strong and so passionate, so driven in his purpose and mission, end up with this diagnosis and all these medications and then, boom! — we end up at that dinner table with that conversation? We just couldn’t understand it. That moment set us off on a mission to find out how this could have happened.”

A documentary was born

At the time of that fateful dinner, James and his wife Laurentine had begun to study nutrition through the Global College of Natural Medicine’s nutritional consultant program in the US. They were, he says, “blown away” by what they were learning. As they went deeper into their studies, they kept thinking of Roy — surely they could help him.

As anyone who’s tried to convince a family member to change their ways knows all too well, however, convincing James’ father of the benefits of diet and meditation was not easy. They’d send countless books and articles to Roy, pointing out the various studies and research, but he wasn’t willing to see it. “We’d send him a 300-page book on herbs and natural healing … but, when you feel like he did, of course he didn’t read it!”

In the end, they decided maybe a film would help him see the truth. “If we couldn’t get my father to read about nutrition and natural health, we figured we could probably convince him to watch a film on the subject,” says Colquhoun. “We had researched many of the films that existed on the topic. Although many were good and some were excellent, we weren’t convinced that any of these films would win over my dad.

“What if we went and started interviewing people and made a documentary? We were so overly optimistic that we could do this, we quit our jobs and just decided to go and make a film.”

Not that they had any experience. In fact, prior to studying nutrition and travelling the world interviewing the top health experts, Colquhoun had been a ship’s officer, driving tankers, ships and large yachts around the world, including the private yachts of two of the globe’s top-10 richest people. You’d imagine that would be a completely different world, but the role had influenced him. “I can tell you that money does not equal health or happiness. One of these people had a physician on his staff full time to massage his leg so he wouldn’t have to have it amputated because of weight and diabetes, despite being able to afford the best chefs in the world.”

Since its launch in 2008, Food Matters the documentary has been seen by millions of people online, in theatres, on television, in airlines and even in hospitals and community centres around the world.

So, with a list of experts they wanted to interview, he and Laurentine headed off on their mission to make a film for Colquhoun’s dad. They invested their life savings, travelling from Holland, Laurentine’s Home country, to England to the east and west coasts of the US and then to Australia, interviewing all of the doctors, nutritionists, scientists and wellness experts they could get access to, including Andrew Saul, Charlotte Gerson, Dr Dan Rogers, David Wolfe, Professor Ian Brighthope, Jerome Burne, Phillip Day and Victor Zeines.

“After our second month of filming, we brought the raw footage to Roy, telling him we weren’t leaving until he got well,” recalls Colquhoun. “We were on a mission and no one could stop us — not even Roy or his team of doctors. As a family, we watched the unedited interviews. Before long, Roy was hooked.

“What stood out, he told us later, was the story about one of his many medications and how it often caused suicidal thoughts. This was Roy’s worst fear. He couldn’t believe the pharmaceutical and medical industries would knowingly produce and sell a product that could potentially cause people to physically harm themselves. Not only was modern medicine’s better-living- through-chemistry approach not helping, it was making him worse. Almost immediately, he went from believing in the medical profession to believing in the age-old adage ‘you are what you eat’.”

Finally, Roy was ready for change. Colquhoun and his wife conducted a “fridge audit” and threw out any food that wasn’t real, including all of the diet products, all of the processed foods and fats and all of the factory-farmed meat and dairy. Roy was also gently weaned off his long list of medications and, within a few months, his transformation was astounding.

“He was back to his old self, maybe even better. He was out of bed, moving freely and energetically around the house. He lost weight and was no longer anxious or depressed. He slept through the night and woke up each morning refreshed and ready for the day. He even started jogging again, something he hadn’t done in years. It was amazing to watch.”

Hungry for more

Since its launch in 2008, Food Matters the documentary has been seen by millions of people online, in theatres, on television, in airlines and even in hospitals and community centres around the world, from Connecticut to Cambodia, in nine different languages. Many communities have raised funds to show the film in local centres and it’s become one of the standard bearers for this growing genre of film.

Not long after Food Matters first appeared, the couple began receiving notes from viewers about their struggles with weight and other common symptoms of poor diet such as bloating, acid reflux, skin irritations, food cravings and addictions to processed foods and sugar. Out of this, their next documentary Hungry for Change was born. This feature-length 2012 doco looked at the basics of how to navigate the supermarket aisles, why we’re addicted to some foods and the truth behind the terms “diet” and “fat free”. Once again, James and Laurentine’s film was one of the early voices on debunking health and diet paradigms around the world, pulling together some of the big names in this area.

With two films and millions of viewers now on board, Colquhoun and his wife created the FoodMatters.tv website. It’s had 3.7 million visitors since 2008. Another incarnation later and FMTV has grown into a global business, with products, events and health programs.

Colquhoun explains: “After living quite a while in the US, it was evident that online streaming TV is the way of the future and one day DVDs will be relics. And then we had the lightbulb moment: why not create the Netflix for health and wellness? Fast-forward to March, 2014 — after over a year of building and sourcing, we created FMTV.” The online subscription channel offers a growing library of over 350 health and wellness documentaries, expert interviews, recipe videos and more, yoga classes, guided meditations and inspirational videos to help people transform their health.

“It’s not just a viewing platform for the latest health documentaries and videos any more; it’s a total wellness health hub with programs, courses and practical tools to really change the lives of our members.”

And, as of April 2016, all of it can also be found on Apple TV.

It’s obvious the drive that saw Colquhoun show up on the doorstep of the world’s best health experts with nothing but passion and a camera hasn’t waned. His dedication to exposing what he feels to be the “truth” of the health and wellness industry is still unwavering, if not stronger than ever. The duo has more plans for expansion, as well as another film in the works, with no end in sight to where they believe they can take this.

“People used to think that natural therapies was a hippy naturopath wearing tracksuit pants and holding crystals — but hopefully that’s starting to change. A lot of science and research is starting support nutritional therapy as a real way to heal the body. Just this year we’ve seen our reach span even more, from the hard-core health enthusiasts and individuals looking to get healthy to more and more health professionals in the field of modern medicine showing interest in natural health solutions. There’s definitely a shift happening and it’s occurring on a global scale.”

With James Colquhoun and his family — including his biggest fan Roy — at its centre.


Amy Taylor-Kabbaz

Amy Taylor-Kabbaz is a journalist with more than 15 years' experience, specialising in health, mindfulness and motherhood. She is also the best-selling author of Happy Mama: The Guide to Finding Yourself Again, and is the creator of the website Happy Mama.