What’s the Magic Health Pill?

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My take on the popular 2017 food and health documentaries: comparing and contrasting the high points. 

Over the past year, I’ve had people from all seasons of my life reach out to me and ask me what the H I think about the “What the Health” and “The Magic Pill” documentaries.

I have to be honest… I didn’t even watch them. Although I’m obviously pretty interested in nutrition, health, and what we can do to reverse chronic disease, I sometimes need to just watch a binge-worthy documentary on Netflix (um… Wild Wild Country and Evil Genius anyone?!). I just need to shut off from all of that. Plus, I get to the point where I only need to watch 5 minutes of a documentary, see which “experts” they’ve interviewed, and I can already predict the bent to the show.

So, I finally bit the bullet. 

I picked these 2 out because they’re 2 of the most popular/high impact (people are making big health/diet decisions based on watching these), and they were both published in 2017. Other food and health-related documentaries I could have talked about include Fat Sick and Nearly Dead, Food Inc, Fed Up, Forks Over Knives, Cowspiracy, King Corn, That Sugar Film, and honestly more than I realized existed before watching each of these.

I had an intern working with me the past couple weeks, and we sat down to watch them (lucky her, right? You’re assignment is to relax on my couch and watch movies with me). Together, we put this table (below) to compare and contrast the two documentaries. If you’re unlikely to read through the table, let me summarize it briefly here for you:

Ok, first before I go any further, I want to acknowledge that this is a very high level summary of what I see as the main themes, similarities and differences between the two documentaries. This is by no means comprehensive, and there is definite nuance to each.

So, now that we have that out of the way, here we go:

What the Health (WTH) claims that a vegan, plant-based diet is the best health approach to eating. You should eat zero animal foods, and any chronic disease that comes from poor eating comes from foods derived from an animal. Sugar doesn’t matter. Eat all you want. You can see in the table that WTH is most concerned about processed animal products without concern for processed or refined carbohydrates. WTH would say that there is also no difference between organic or conventionally-raised foods.

The Magic Pill (TMP) claims that an ancestral “paleo” or ketogenic-type diet is the most healthful. Get back to the way we’ve historically eaten and let our genes lead the way. TMP would care more about highly processed/refined foods, overall. Quality of food is the higher priority over whether foods are animal or plant-derived.

Both documentaries hold big ag and big industry (pharmaceuticals and food) responsible for the cultural drive for this way of eating. They also both emphasize minimizing highly refined or processed foods (whether meat or carb). They both tell compelling stories of individuals who have dramatically changed their diet to follow the purported “best” way to eat, and you watch these people share how the diets have transformed their lives, leading to lower pain, less medication, and an overall better quality of life. Both documentaries tell compelling stories, and that’s what we all love. I can see why people choose to change their diets after watching either!

My take away: each of them emphasizes the importance of plant foods. Although they don’t address it in either movie we need to be mindful of the idea that you can eat a “healthy” version of either of these “diets,” and you can eat a less-healthy version (soda & chips are vegan and bacon & cheese are keto). So, using some common sense with their application is always important.

So, What is the Magic Health Pill? I'm sure you can guess what I'll say, but there's no short cut to wellness, and eating more plants and less processed foods is always going to be a good way to approach your diet. The evidence is consistent in the literature that eating more plant foods is associated with better health outcomes. So, if you've never eaten your veggies, it's never too late to start.

I would say that if you’re unsure of what to do, just take a look at what you’re eating on a weekly basis (maybe keep a weekly log), and also pay close attention to how you're feeling. Do you have good energy, focus, good digestion? If not, your lifestyle may be playing a role in how you're feeling. As far as how you're eating, if half or more of what you eat is coming out of packages or windows (drive-thrus), then maybe a change would be worth it? If you’re eating mostly whole, minimally processed/refined foods, then you likely have a solid foundation. My only word of caution for the dietary approaches from each documentary is that they can both leave us vulnerable (similar to a Standard American Diet) to nutritional deficiencies if left unmonitored over a long period of time. There's no "one size fits all" approach to lifestyle changes, especially when it comes to diet. Integrative and functional healthcare practitioners are best equipped for monitoring and evaluating your nutritional status and would be a great sounding board for your efforts.

I know a really good nutritionist, if you’re looking for one...

So, what did you think about the documentaries? Have you made any changes since watching either or both of them?