February 9th 2021
What a dietitian really thinks of Netflix's diet documentaries
April 13th 2021 / 0 comment
Consultant dietitian Sophie Medlin explains why Netflix is not the place to learn about diets
Netflix has become a very close member of the family for many households over recent months, with the BBC reporting that the streaming service had 16 million new subscribers thanks to lockdown. Netflix gives us access to TV from all around the world which is excellent for entertainment but does highlight the cultural differences between the UK and the US. One of the things that we’re not used to in the UK is the US style of documentary making.
In the UK there is an obligation to be unbiased and evidence-based when producing documentaries. In the US, the public is not protected in the same way, so anyone with money and an opinion can produce and sell documentaries to networks and streaming services. While these may be labelled as documentaries, it is more accurate to refer to them as films. Films about diet have become increasingly popular and while undoubtedly compelling, these films are often heavily biased and rarely offer a balanced view. They are often commissioned by a wealthy individual with a fixed agenda seeking to prove themselves right rather than to explore a subject matter in a traditionally investigative way meaning viewers can end up wrongfully swayed towards a certain way of eating.
Here are my honest opinions on six of the most popular diet films on Netflix
We've long heard from the Marine Conservation Society that we should make more sustainable choices when it comes to fish and seafood and this March 2021 documentary has brought it to the forefront of our minds, aiming to highlight the environmental impact of fishing.
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If the documentary has made you want to cut fish from your diet, remember that there are things to be aware of when it comes to making dietary changes, one of which is that there are always nutritional consequences. Fish is a really useful source of protein and B vitamins, an essential source of omega-3 fatty acids and a key source of iodine. When we cut it out, there are health ramifications. I don’t know whether sustainably sourced fish is better or worse for the environment than having to take nutritional supplements to ensure you don’t develop deficiencies. I am not sure that anyone does. It’s also really important to remember that most people in the world, don’t have the privilege to make dietary choices based on sustainability, so if you can afford to do your bit, it would be great if you could!
We also see more and more foods being demonised and moralised for environmental and other reasons. We need to be particularly careful of this narrative, especially when there has been such a sharp rise in eating disorders over the last 12 months. Fish is often a ‘safe food’ as it is generally deemed very healthy and when that is whipped away by a documentary, highly nutritious food may be taken off the table for people who are nutritionally at risk.
Cowspiracy was released in 2014 and was arguably one of the first of its kind to capture the attention of a UK audience. The focus of the film is to highlight the impact of cattle farming for dairy and beef on the environment. Cowspiracy was so compelling to viewers that it is widely cited as the reason for many people turning to a vegan diet. It is vital to remember that other leading environmental scientists don’t agree with the conclusions drawn in this film. It is also key to note that in the UK we are protected from excessive antibiotic use, poor animal welfare and hormones in the meat industry which are all permitted in the US and are a key narrative in Cowspiracy.
What The Health
What The Health is the 2017 follow up to Cowspiracy. It’s another pro-vegan film which seeks to convince its audience that veganism will protect us from all diseases and that the government is trying to kill us. To date, there is no convincing data to support the claims made in this film that following a vegan diet will protect us from disease. There is indisputable evidence that more vegetables and plant foods are protective from disease but with the removal of all animal products comes the risk of deficiencies and the need to supplement which has health consequences in its self.
The Magic Pill
From a high carbohydrate, low-fat vegan diet to The Magic Pill, a 2017 film about how the carbohydrate-free, high fat, ketogenic diet is the answer to good health. The film claims that our ancestors lived almost entirely on meat and fat during evolution which is factually incorrect and it promotes bacon, cheese and coconut oil over fruit, whole grains and unsaturated fats. While less refined sugar and processed food is undoubtedly a good idea, anyone who demonises oats and root vegetables while promoting bacon has really let go of any science in their pursuit of recruiting to their ideology.
Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead
Now we’re turning to a diet that is almost entirely sugar! The 2010 film, Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead is about a man who did a 60 day juice diet which he claims saved his life and films himself spreading the word. Cutting out protein and only having juice for any extended period of time depletes the body of essential nutrients and depletes our mental health. Juicing fruits and vegetables removes the fibre which is so important for our gut health and it also releases the sugars from inside the plant cell walls meaning even pure fruit and vegetable juices contain a lot of free sugars which we all need to be careful of.
Game Changers certainly drew a lot of attention from the general public. In this male focused, pro-vegan film, producers James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan seek to convert people to veganism by talking to vegan athletes about their journey to success. The science used in the film is fundamentally flawed throughout and there has been significant backlash from evidence based nutrition professionals. It is important to note that the professional athletes featured will all be supported and monitored by a team of nutrition professionals and their diets will be heavily supplemented. It isn’t the absence of animal products that drives their success, it’s the presence of professional support, a big budget, hard work and supplementation.
The final verdict
According to Netflix, we all need a sugar free, high protein, diet with bacon and cheese but also it must be vegan and preferably only consist of juiced fruits and vegetables. Confused? You should be.
The truth with health is that it always lies in the middle of extremes. Balance is the key with our diets and in an ideal world, we’d mainly be eating plant foods (vegetables, fruit, nuts, whole grains) with enough animal products including fish, to prevent the need for supplements. Sadly, we all know that would make a very boring documentary and that I don’t have the budget to make it!