Netflix's "You are what you eat": experts' views on this trend

Over the past few years, we’ve seen several documentaries, some may even say ‘docufictions’, presenting the livestock sector and meat consumption in a negative, generalised way. But why is this?

Could it be because such a hot topic easily attracts audiences and investors? So-called documentaries such as “Cowspiracy”, “Seaspiracy”, “At the Fork”, “The Meat Lobby: Big Business Against Health?” etc., to mention but a few have been promoted via different streaming services and the latest mini-series on Netflix, titled “You are what you eat” is just one example of this. The aim always seems to be the same: to provoke a reaction of those watching by seemingly unveiling unspoken truths by the ever-present big, bad industry.

Shaky methodologies, animal rights activists’ views, and plot twists

All these films or series contain the same ingredients: a mixture of shaky methodologies, animal rights activists’ views, and some random plot twists that can be hard to follow. “You Are What You Eat: A Twin Experiment” is a documentary in which genetically identical twins change their diets and lifestyles for eight weeks in an experiment to see how certain foods affect the body (spoiler: plant-based takes centre stage). But what is the scientific basis?

Some nutritionists and animal health experts took to social media to share their views on these latest efforts.

Presented as a follow-up to a dietary study on twins, the time spent on the ‘you are what you eat’ test is marginal, insufficient for producing solid outcomes. Juan Pascual, a veterinarian, animal health expert, and author of the book Razones para ser omnívoro (Reasons to be an omnivore) points out that “The production is funded by the Vogt Foundation, whose aim is to promote a plant-based diet. Moreover, the doctor in charge of the study, Christopher Gardner, describes himself as mostly vegan and admits in the published paper that he has received funding from Beyond Meat, the plant-based burger company.”

“From a purely scientific point of view, the study is full of methodological errors“,– Juan Pascual comments – “For the first four weeks, the food given to the study participants is controlled, but after that, each participant cooks their food, making the study inaccurate. Each pair of twins has different goals, such as gaining muscle mass or losing visceral fat. Nothing is said about the participants’ other behaviours: smoking, sedentary lifestyle, etc., which are important factors, in addition to diet, that have a major impact on health”.

“It was unfair and dishonest that every time the experts in the film mentioned meat, they showed a picture of fast food”, – the nutritionist Diana Rodgers comments – “Meat doesn’t mean ultra-processed food. There are plenty of healthy ways to balance a plate that includes meat. A steak with a salad and roasted broccoli differs from a fast-food burger with chips, sauces and a large soda, yet we’re often conditioned to think that meat equals unhealthy meals. Humans have been eating meat for about 3.5 million years. Still, it’s only in the last century that we’ve been flooded with so much ultra-processed, “hyper-palatable”, high-calorie junk food. It’s so far removed from what our ancestors ate. For this reason, we should find the causes of our recent and dramatic rise in lifestyle-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes and obesity in modern diets, including vegan ones”.

“In addition, the founder of a vegan cheese company tells viewers that cheese is as addictive as some drugs, which is not true, and false claims that a vegan diet can prevent diabetes, Alzheimer’s or stroke are common” – Juan Pascual continues. All the films distributed by the entertainment streaming services try to expose the ‘hidden tactics’ of the food industry lobbies to protect their profits, revealing some ‘hidden truth’ behind the meat and dairy industries that nobody will tell you. In short, it is a list of falsehoods and contradictions typical of propaganda. Fishing and aquaculture are also discredited to make sure every living, sentient being gets a mention.

From a scientific perspective, the study’s results are not definitive. LDL cholesterol is lower on the plant-based diet, but they also lose a lot more muscle mass, which is pretty bad, and triglycerides are higher in the plant-based participants. The vegan group also had a decrease in vitamin B12 by 25% and HDL cholesterol, which are all negative changes that are known risk factors for increased heart disease. In other words, the experiment trades one good change (LDL) for two bad changes (HDL and triglycerides).

The majority of people prefer an omnivore diet

All these changes were over only eight weeks, so we don’t know whether these trends will continue“, – Diana Rodgers adds – “Vitamin B12 is also a critical nutrient for brain function, and deficiencies can lead to depression, which is more common in vegan populations than in omnivores. There are no real sources of B12 in a vegan diet, and deficiencies are quite serious, especially for pregnant women and children, causing permanent brain damage in newborns. Why isn’t this mentioned in the film?”

Most of the vegans were also on their way to serious vitamin deficiency, and although the vegan group lost weight, they lost mostly muscle, not fat. To lose body fat and maintain or gain muscle, you need to eat more protein, which supports muscle growth, and that’s what happened in the omnivore group, not the vegans. Based on these facts, nutritionists and health professionals should urge their patients not to go vegan because we lack the evidence to support it. Interestingly, the majority of people preferred the meat-based diet, and only one vegan participant in the group said they would continue to follow a vegan diet after the study, as the vegans reported that they weren’t satisfied with this deficient diet.

“That says that humans are omnivores, and a true omnivore diet is what we are designed to thrive on” – Diana Rodgers concludes.