Ohhhh Netflix documentaries on trendy diets. Last year it was “What the Health” and this year it’s “The Magic Pill”. Usually ten times out of ten I vehemently disagree with the majority of the points made in these so called health documentaries. However as a dietitian, I think it is extremely important for me to know what information is being fed to the public so that I can accurately address them when clients or patients or friends or family bring them up in conversation or ask my opinion.
One thing that the majority of these “health” documentaries have in common, and “The Magic Pill” is no exception, is the use of fear as a persuasion tactic. So many of the statements and word choices they deliberately use are fear mongering, to convince the viewer that they must eat this way or else xx horrible thing will happen to them.
Another thing they typically do is make large, overgeneralized and dramatic claims that are not backed by sound science. “The Magic Pill” led the viewer to believe that the ketogenic diet can cure cancer, cure type 2 diabetes, help you lose weight, prevent you from developing cardiovascular disease….and the list goes on. Don’t you think if there was anything on this planet, be it a diet or medication or what have you, that had the power to do that, that we wouldn’t just be hearing about it from a documentary made by some random celebrity chef? Which, by the way, after researching Pete Evans, the director and producer of this documentary, I found out that several years ago he was put under fire for making exacerbated “potentially damaging” paleo diet advice to people. Looks like he changed his mind about the magical benefits of Paleo and decided Keto was the new magical way to eat.
After watching the documentary and taking tons of notes, I thought it would be helpful to lay out the points they made that were sound arguments, and those that were irresponsible and straight up cray cray (definitely more of this category).
- At one point in the documentary one person said “the very first thing doctors should be doing when they see a patient is ‘what are you eating'”. While we likely disagree on the dietary advice that follows that question, I do agree with them that doctors are ignoring a very important piece of the medical question by not tapping into dietary patterns.
- They mentioned the research flaws in the “low-fat” movement that started in the 1950’s and when you extract the fat from foods, sugars and salts are added back into the food to makeup for the lack of fat.
- Their anecdotal evidence of the little girl’s improvement in seizures after starting the keto diet is actually backed by nearly 80 years of sound evidence of keto diets helping pediatric epilepsy. This can be a very effective nutritional therapy for these children, and they got that correct in the video.
- One individual made the comment in the video that diet should be an adjunct therapy. Meaning both nutrition and traditional medicine should work together to help treat medical conditions. They didn’t necessarily nail this home (for instance when they showed the woman with breast cancer only using nutrition as a treatment therapy) but they did at least mention it.
I could say “everything except for the 4 points above were less than truthful and potentially harmful” but let’s dig in a bit more than that.
- One of the big points the documentary wanted to drive home was to avoid processed foods. Yet in the same breath, they recommend eating bacon. Bacon is one of the most processed foods you can buy……makes me wonder if they are entirely sure what processed foods are.
- When cleaning out one of the pantries, a fella made the statement “If a brand goes out of its way to tell you how healthy it is, it probably isn’t”. There is extremely strict laws on what is allowed and what is not allowed to be put on food labels. So if a brand meets the requirements to put a statement such as “this food is a great source of fiber” then you can bet your bottom dollar that it has a ton of fiber in it.
- They make a blanket statement that all carbs are bad. However at no point was there mention about the positives about carbs such as the fiber content or the essential nutrients they provide. Sure, the general public could back off on the ultra processed carbohydrates, but to make a blanket statement about all carbs and not talk about the different kinds of carbs is irresponsible and deceiving.
- In their keto food pyramid they placed animal fats and protein on the bottom (aka recommending that people should eat the most of these foods) the vegetables and fruits in the middle and grains in the top. So they are saying to eat more burgers and lard than fruits and vegetables. Research shows that a diet based around plants has the most health benefits. But the documentary disagrees with the large body of evidence suggesting otherwise.
- The individuals presenting all of the nutrition information were a journalist, a filmmaker, a nutritionist (anyone can call themselves a nutritionist btw), a food activist and a chef. The only time a dietitian, aka a true nutrition expert, was interviewed was in regards to the neurological benefits of a keto diet in pediatrics, the one area we have sound evidence to support. There were absolutely zero credentials behind the people feeding all of the information to us in this interview. I’m not going to take medical advice from an astrologist just as I’m not going to take nutritional advice from a journalist, or a filmmaker. It just doesn’t work like that.
- They provided us with no insight into the individuals that they followed for the entirity of the documentary and what their diet looked like before they started the keto diet. For instance, the singer in Las Vegas that went on a keto diet and supposedly felt so much better, was losing weight and had no more respiratory problems- all we know is that prior to starting the keto diet she was going out to eat 3 times a day. We don’t know what exactly she was eating on the reg, what her lifestyle was like, etc. Simply from deductive reasoning, I would be willing to bet her diet was pretty poor, lacking in fruits and vegetables and very high in sodium. So when she started cooking at home, incoorporating more vegetables into her diet, it’s no wonder she started to feel better.
- The amount of saturated fat they encourage is mind blowing. At one point in the documentary, they were teaching a family how to cook and they completely covered a head of broccoli in straight lard. There is extensive research showing that saturated fat (aka fats that come from animal products) contribute to cardiovascular disease, and yet they encourage smothering everything in as much lard as they can.
- And finally, what I found to be the most frightening and irresponsible was showing the woman with breast cancer who only treated her cancer through diet. What happened with her tumor suppression was remarkable no doubt. But to show that and in a way demonize other medical treatments for cancer such as surgery or chemotherapy is out right delusional and wrong. I have been heavily involved in research surrounding nutrition and cancer and 100% believe in food’s ability to assist in the fight of cancer. But that is by no means to say that it should be the one and only treatment option.
I could go on, but I will stop there. I took a poll on my Instagram to see how many people had watched it and was very pleasantly surprised to see that only 12% of the people that responded had watched it. And also that 100% of the people that responded were interested to hear a dietitian’s take on it. If you do watch it, I would recommend taking it with more than a few grains of salt, and to remember that nutrition is so individualized on a person to person basis and should never be so generalized to “everyone should eat this way”.