Dietitians everywhere release a collective sigh every time Netflix releases a nutrition documentary, and with good reason: historically, these docs are full of bias, bad data, and sensationalism…none of which actually helps anyone take change of their health.
Like I always say, misinformation doesn’t empower anyone. Just the opposite, actually.
When I heard that You Are What You Eat was directed by the same person who directed The Game Changers, I knew I needed to watch and review it.
In this You Are What You Eat review, I take a look at Netflix’s latest nutrition documentary.
The doc focuses on the execution of the Stanford Twins Study. This 8-week study, which was just published at the end of 2023, used 22 pairs of twins to determine the cardiometabolic effects of a vegan diet versus an omnivore diet.
Twins are genetically identical, which afforded researchers the rare opportunity to gain valuable insight into how each diet may impact one twin versus the other. According to Christopher Gardner, nutrition scientist and one of the study’s investigators, individuals respond differently to the same food, so getting people who are genetically the same eliminates this confounder.
Twins have the same genetic makeup, making them the perfect controls for one another.
Over the course of the 8 weeks, investigators will monitor indicators of cardiovascular health, metabolic status, and gut microbiome via poop and blood samples.
They tell viewers that they are looking peoples’ biological clock, body composition, microbiome, and brain. The actual study, which I talk about in the last part of this review, doesn’t mention the microbiome, brain, or biological clock. I’m wondering if those parts are upcoming.
You Are What You Eat Netflix Review
In Episode One of You Are What You Eat, we meet some of the experts that were involved in the study, along with 4 sets of the study’s twins.
In the first 4 weeks, each twin is randomized to either a vegan or omnivore diet. Everything they eat is made for them and delivered, so there’s no guesswork, and researchers can control everything about each diet. Both diets were deemed to be ‘healthy’ by scientists.
After the first 4 weeks, the twins remain on their assigned diet, but are left to cook their own food.
The twins also have a trainer, who they work out regularly with.
It was easy to see where this documentary was going when Dr. Michael Greger, doctor and known promoter of a vegan diet, pops up on the screen. He was also in The Game Changers and What The Health, both Netflix documentaries whose overarching message was promoting a plant-based diet and basically scaring people about eating animal products.
I’ve mentioned Dr. Greger in my writing before, essentially calling him out for twisting facts and blowing up claims to suit his agenda.
He quickly does the same thing in You Are What You Eat, telling viewers how too much dairy increases risk for Parkinson’s disease and prostate cancer (without citations or proof, naturally). He lets us know that ‘the #1 cause of death in the US is the American Diet’ (according to the CDC it’s heart disease, actually, but there are many factors that contribute to this), and what we put in our mouth is more important than anything else.
This is classic Greger, making claims that are overblown and absolutely without nuance.
Dr. Michael Greger
We also meet a ‘plant based dairy innovator’ named Miyoko Schinner, who tells us that cheese is ‘biologically addicting,’ which is ridiculous and not factual. She follows up by trotting out the vegan calling card that ‘milk is for baby cows, not humans.’
She tells us that ‘most populations in the world didn’t eat meat and dairy, except in very small amounts if at all.’
Again, we have an ‘expert’ who is clearly biased to towards a vegan diet. I have nothing against the vegan diet, of course, but in a documentary, it’s always good to represent both sides of an argument.
I kept waiting for someone without a plant-based agenda to be revealed as an expert, but SPOILER: I was disappointed.
As the documentary progresses, we learn about food deserts and urban farms.
Tracye McQuirter, a Public Health Nutritionist and self-proclaimed ‘vegan activist,’ explains how to create a balanced vegan plate. while talking about food apartheid for African Americans in urban centres.
This is a really valuable lesson, and it’s accurate – food deserts do exist, especially in racialized communities. They are intimately linked with poor health outcomes, and we most definitely need to do something to improve access to healthy foods in North America.
Another good lesson we get is around the conflicts of interest among the dietary guidelines committee, and how agricultural lobbyists influence the verbiage in the guidelines. This is also a problem, and the reason why Health Canada refused to have food industry at the table when developing the latest food guidelines.
The rest of You Are What You Eat, unfortunately, seems like an ad for a vegan diet.
We learn about the animal agriculture industry. We’re taken inside factory farms. We hear how dirty they are, how the animals are injected with antibiotics, and how hog feces and urine are sprayed all over adjacent fields. We see a little injured chicken and contaminated ponds.
Dr. Greger pops in to tell us that more antibiotics are fed to farm animals than are used in all of human medicine to promote growth and prevent disease in a stressful, unhygienic environment. ‘Lifesaving, critical drugs are being squandered just to make cheaper meat.’
Or, maybe there are a lot more animals than humans, which accounts for those numbers?
Should the average person be concerned?
I’m not sure, because we were only presented with one side of the argument. The average person will probably take that unchallenged side as fact, which is problematic. I would have liked to hear from an unbiased farmer and scientist about this, and about, well, the entire documentary.
We hear a chicken farmer who obviously hates what he does, talk about how disgusting the smell and filth of the chicken barn is. That birds are bred to have such large breasts, that their organs and skeletal system can’t keep up. The birds scratch each other, leaving wounds that are infested with bacteria.
We see an environmental activist lawyer talking about antibiotics in meat, and Pat Brown, the Founder of Impossible Foods, who tells us that ‘every time you eat a steak, a little puff of smoke goes up in the Amazon. That smoke is the ‘second hand smoke from your burger.’
George Monbiot, an author, journalist and environmental activist tells us how the meat industry is basically killing the planet. ‘the agricultural industry is one of the greatest sources of greenhouse gases on earth.’
We’re shown a graphic that states that greenhouse gases from the agricultural sector are 31%, versus 14% for the transportation sector.
I thought those number looked a bit weird, so I went looking for the stats.
Turns out, the EPA has some different numbers:
Moving from the horrible dangers of meat to what’s awful about farmed fish, we’re introduced to more activists, one being Don Staniford, who campaigns against salmon farms. He tells us that ‘if people realized the full horrors of salmon farming they’d avoid it like the proverbial plague.’
Hyperbole seems to be one of You Are What You Eat’s great strengths.
We see Don telling the twins how companies dye their fish red to hide the fact that it’s farmed. He says that this artificial color has been ‘linked to human health problems,’ although we don’t get any details about which problems.
He talks about how farmed salmon is far fattier than pizza and bacon. And, lest you believe that farmed salmon contains healthy fats, he gives us the garbage take of ‘those aren’t good oils, they’re omega 6s.’
Please Don, stop talking. The twins pick up on his fear mongering, calling the farmed salmon ‘diseased food’ and throwing it into the actual garbage.
We’ve gone from talking about food deserts and access to nourishing food, to throwing a perfectly good piece of fish into the garbage. Disgusting.
Alexandra Morton, Biologist and activist, tells us that tons of waste is ‘pouring out of these farms’ and shows us disturbing photos of diseased fish. She claims that more than 98% of the samples fish she bought in supermarkets and sushi restaurants were infected with a salmon blood virus, although she admits that there’s no research on how these pathogens impact humans.
I’m not going to say that these issues the activists are talking about are false, but without any counterbalance, it all comes off as people pushing an agenda. As someone with critical thinking skills, this makes me very suspicious of their facts.
As a little sidebar, Eric Adams, the Mayor of New York, talks about how diet reversed his diabetes with Whole Food Plant Based diet. He tells us that his endocrinologist didn’t learn about diet and diabetes in medical school, so he took matters into his own hands.
I find the ‘doctors don’t know about the value of diet’ tactic to be a really disappointing, lazy way to turn people against conventional medicine and recommendations.
What did the Stanford Twins study find?
After all of the effort, did the Twins study outcome favor a vegan diet?
It did, in some ways.
As you can see in the graphic below, the vegan twins had a greater reduction in LDL-C, the ‘bad’ cholesterol. But, their HDL or ‘good’ cholesterol also went down more than the omnivores,’ and the vegans’ triglycerides ended up far higher than the omnivores’.
In fact, the only metrics that were significant between the two groups were LDL-C, insulin, and weight, although both groups lost weight.
It’s important to note that the study was short and small, and the subjects were predominantly women. The second week was not controlled, so theoretically, each group could have strayed from their diets in weeks 5-8, confounding the results. We also have no longer-term follow-up.
In the study conclusions, did admit that the vegan diet fed to the twins was restrictive, and that “clinicians should allow patients to make informed choices that support them to choose which dietary approach is most suitable for them.
At a population level, wider adoption of a culturally appropriate dietary pattern that is higher in plant foods and lower in animal foods can promote health and environmental benefits.”
As a dietitian, my recommendations won’t change because of this documentary. Eat as many plants as you can. Buy what you can afford. Beware of fear mongering ‘experts’ who clearly have an agenda. Know that Netflix nutrition documentaries are low-bar and misleading.
You Are What You Eat review, in short:
You Are What You Eat is a classic Netflix nutrition documentary, flawed from the beginning with obviously biased ‘experts’ and activists going unchallenged throughout the film.
While I do support a plant-forward diet, I think it’s insulting and weak to not give a balanced perspective. Why not give viewers ALL of the information before allowing them to make their own decision? Isn’t that what a documentary should be about? It’s too bad, because ‘eat more plants’ is a great message. I don’t think it needs to be supported with misinformation and hyperbole.
The only part of You Are What you Eat that I thought was straightforward, was the messaging around food equity. Until all sides are represented and all facts are qualified by a mix of experts, You Are What You Eat is sensationalized vegan propaganda at its very finest.