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Food & Health Documentaries – Debunking, Red Flags, Review – Men’s Health

5 minutes, 52 seconds Read

STREAMING SERVICES HAVE made nutrition documentaries A Thing.

But be it 2017’s What the Health, 2018’s The Game Changers, 2021’s Seaspiracy, or 2024’s You Are What You Eat: A Twin Experiment—these nutrition documentaries all share similar red flags to me as a registered dietitian.

Yes, learning about ways to incorporate a healthy approach to eating is a smart idea. But viewers should be careful about where and from whom they’re getting their information.

As is this case with too many of these movies, the suggested “best” way to eat is often influenced by experts with a bias, data that is incomplete, and fear-based arguments.

Here are 5 red flags I look for when I’m watching a nutrition documentary—and you should watch out for too.

Red Flag #1: The Movie Seems One-Sided

Look, everyone has their own biases—and nutrition documentaries are often made to communicate a director’s perspective or belief system around a specific issue. There’s nothing wrong with this, but when a film presents only one side of an argument, it’s hard for viewers to make an educated decision about the topic.

It’s important to know who is making and funding the film you’re watching, and to be aware of any inherent bias they may have. So before you drastically change your diet after watching one of these movies, do some sleuthing.

For example The Game Changers and You Are What You Eat have been funded, in part, by the Vogt Foundation. The Vogt Foundation’s objective is to promote a plant-based diet and animal welfare. We don’t hear anything about that disclosure in either of the actual documentaries themselves, though the foundation is listed in the credits.

In my professional opinion, it’s unlikely that a film funded by a foundation that promotes plant-based eating can be unbiased.

Tanja Ivanova/Getty Images

In another example, Kip Andersen, the force behind the popular Netflix documentaries Cowspiracy, Seaspiracy, and What The Health, is the founder of A.U.M. Films & Media, “a non-profit focused on creating films and media that promotes thrivability, compassion, and harmony for all life.” (The subtext behind “all life” meaning animals, as Andersen has said he is vegan.)

I’ll say that while it’s not impossible for someone who is entrenched in the world of animal activism to make a film that’s neutral, it makes it challenging for me as a viewer (and a dietitian) to believe in a lack of bias.

Red Flag #2: There Are No Dissenting Experts

Like sleuthing for who’s behind these documentaries, you should also check the backgrounds of who is featured in them. (And then also consider who isn’t featured in them.)

In You Are What You Eat, the vast majority of the featured experts identify as activists for vegan or plant-based products, diets, and causes.

Miyoko Schinner, who developed Miyoko’s Creamery, a company that produces vegan cheese and butter, appears in the film. As does Don Staniford an activist who campaigns against salmon farms.

digital generated image of multi ethnic arms making circular pattern on beige background

Andriy Onufriyenko / Getty Images

It’s not their opinions that are a red flag to me—it’s that their opinions are never challenged.

If a film is balanced, there will be experts from all sides presenting their arguments for and against the subject. This way, viewers get all of the relevant information around a topic in order to make their own judgements about it.

Red Flag #3: FEAR

If you’re watching a nutrition documentary and hear frequent sensational claims, that should be a red flag. A few examples:

  • X food is just as bad for us as smoking Y number of cigarettes
  • Any consumption of Z food is harmful to your health
  • Drinking cows milk can decrease a man’s testosterone levels by a shocking amount

Scary-sounding claims are designed to hold viewer interest and stir up discussion. The issue is that these fear-stoking “facts” are rarely based in solid science.

That cow’s milk study you’ll find cited in The Game Changers and elsewhere? It was a 2010 study published in the journal Pediatrics International. In the research, scientists monitored 18 people (seven men, six children, and five women) who drank the milk from pregnant cows. They found that milk reduced testosterone secretions—not overall testosterone—temporarily.

And note that this result was in just seven men, an incredibly small sample size.

In another example, an expert in You Are What You Eat tells us that animal agriculture emits more greenhouse gas than the entire transportation sector. This claim goes unchallenged in the film, but is easy to disprove with a short search on the EPA website.

If a claim sounds too shocking to be true, it’s probably not.

Red Flag #4: It Stokes Doubt In Government and/or Food Supply

In many nutrition documentaries, the tone, music, and images are presented in a way that inspires doubt about where our food comes from. To me, this is a tactic to convince viewers to change their diets to align with the filmmaker’s.

In You Are What You Eat, we see images of pig feces sprayed over fields and environmental activists telling us that all farmed fish is diseased. This paints a picture that animal food is dirty, and produced without adequate government oversight.

food documentaries

getty

Ironically (or perhaps not), there is no coverage at all around the mass production of plant foods, which theoretically should be examined in a fair comparison.

The production of food for an entire nation is challenging in terms of food safety. The U.S. food system is actually safer than it has ever been, especially since the Food Safety Modernization Act was signed into law—and continues to be updated regularly to help keep consumers safe.

Is it perfect? No. Is it evil? I don’t think so.

Red Flag #5: It Stages It’s Own “Research”

It’s one thing to misconstrue research, but it’s another to mistake anecdotal evidence or staged experiments for actual research.

Take the famous example in The Game Changers, in which athletes eat either a high-fat, animal-based meal, or a vegan meal, and then have their blood drawn 2 hours later. The film focuses on the fact that the athletes who consumed the animal-based meal appear to have cloudy, fatty blood plasma. The athletes who ate the vegan meal appear have normal-looking blood.

The difference is show as “proof” that a vegan diet is healthier, but in actuality, having fat in our blood after a higher-fat meal looks shocking but it’s normal. This is how fat gets to our cells.

Claims should always be backed up by research, which in documentaries, rarely happens. It’s tough to fact-check a movie in its entirety, but there are sometimes indicators that something is being done for show versus actual proof.

The bottom line: A healthy diet has a variety of all foods. If you choose to eat a certain way, please make that choice based on fact, not on fear. Remember that nutrition documentaries are notorious for being heavy on sensation and light on fact.

Lettermark

Abby Langer, RD is the owner of Abby Langer Nutrition, a Toronto-based nutrition consulting and communications company.

This post was originally published on 3rd party site mentioned in the title of this site

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