"What do you need a qualification for? To talk common sense? Why do you have to study something that is outdated, that is industry backed, that is biased, that is not getting the results? That would be insane to study something you're going to waste your time with. That's just crazy," - Pete Evans, celebrity chef & creator of "The Magic Pill"
It seems like not that long ago someone told me I should watch a documentary about going vegan. I reluctantly did and cringed thinking about all the people who believe, incorrectly, that if something is in a documentary, it's true. This isn't always the case. I watched "What the Health" and decided it was not all bad, just not well cited and filled with a good amount of misinformation. At the suggestion of a friend, I also watched "The Magic Pill", a documentary that's also filled with inaccuracies. When there was talk about certain vegetable oils being poison and toxins in the film, I had to roll my eyes. The film is actually identical to "What the Health" right down to the guinea pig trials in which several people who are on loads of pills, have all kinds of illnesses, and are eating all the "wrong" foods try a diet for two weeks and are magically cured of everything they ever had. I don't think anyone would argue that taking a child off a diet of sheer junk and adding pretty much any real food would likely produce beneficial results, but since this is a film about a low-carb diet, that's the one that gets credit for the improvement in one young girl's health.
Almost right out of the gate, there were a bunch of lies in the film "The Magic Pill" that focuses on the Paleo diet, not necessarily the Keto diet, though there is some overlap with low-carb diets and their effects (or lack thereof) on health. Still, people conflate the two, so I will do my best to make the distinction when possible and necessary.
At the beginning of the film, we are told that there are no fat wild animals, which discounts the fact that some animals need to be fat in order to survive their cold climates. It's a slight error, but not the greatest way to start a documentary. Can you imagine a skinny seal doing well in the Arctic? Obviously, this is relative fat and not quite the same as being overweight, however, bears and other wild animals get fat seasonally to prepare for hibernation. If rodents get lucky and find a luxury wooded area that supplies loads of nuts and berries, they, more often than not, get fat. Most animals are too much on the go and can't afford to carry a lot of extra weight, so they are very lean. The movement and lack of an abundant, steady food source are what keep them lean more than their actual diet. Elephants must eat a tremendous amount, so it would be almost impossible for them to be outright fat. They are large animals but relatively lean. Again, this is a minor error but sets the tone for more misleading information to come. But I digress...
Diet for some people is like religion. For many, science doesn't matter when they believe in a way of eating. I'm fine with people digging in their heels and insisting on eating a certain way, but I'm not OK with people spreading lies in an effort to support their ways of eating. Perhaps I'm being harsh, however, the science around nutrition is evolving and largely based on anecdotal and observational data, not hard evidence. It almost has to be. Controlled human studies are rare mostly because they are incredibly expensive, and it's not always considered ethical to place humans in disciplined conditions to run experiments. One problem with observational data and surveys is that they can't control every aspect of a given person's life, even if people were 100 percent honest about their diet and exercise and general lifestyle habits.
Surveys and anecdotal information can be useful in terms of encouraging more credible studies to be done, but even then the promising studies have to be recreated in order to really suggest any kind of cause and effect. Simply noting a possible correlation doesn't mean there is. Vegans are notorious for twisting bits of fact about studies or incorrectly calling surveys studies to support their beliefs. The idea that milk causes cancer is a big one that's not accurate, for example. Now I see that the Keto and Paleo communities are doing the same thing, even though there really are some promising studies relating to insulin sensitivity, obesity, and even heart disease they could be citing instead, though there have yet to be any reliable long-term, repeatable and reputable studies done. A word of caution is that nearly every study relating to heart disease and this kind of diet shows an increase in cholesterol before any notable drop.
Despite the fact that Gary Taubes, an American science writer, is very careful about calling what he promotes in terms of diet a hypothesis and acknowledges that science hasn't yet proven the direct correlation between carbohydrates and sugar and fat storage, people still take this possible link as fact. Most of us can agree that eating more whole foods and less refined sugar is probably beneficial, but there's more to eating Keto and Paleo than that. And people love to take a small bit of truth from a flawed study and twist it into something to support the way they want to eat. For more on that, this article addresses what some of the critics are saying about the whole Paleo movement.
So much of the information relating to diet is based on flawed studies, partly because it takes flawed studies to generate enough interest to get anyone to fund more controlled studies and duplicate studies. Let's face it, though, if the Keto or Paleo diets really worked, obesity and diabetes would be on the decline, not increasing. One of the biggest issues with low-carb diets is that they're difficult to adhere to long-term, so many people get into yo-yo dieting, which wrecks havoc on both the body and mind. A balanced diet is much easier to follow, and general lifestyle is also important. Diet, exercise, sleep, and mental health all play a role in overall wellness. It's ridiculous to think that addressing only one of these would lead to complete health or drastic changes in health.
If the film focused only on diabetes, obesity, and sustainability (and there were some errors in the film regarding that last department as well) I probably wouldn't have felt the need to write such a long blog post. The fact that people try to claim a low-carb diet cures everything from autism and asthma to genital warts (not really) makes me want to write for days, and given all the bullshit in this film, I probably could. On that note, I couldn't help but notice a large number of Dr. Oz types associated with this production. It's funny that TV and celebrity doctors are taken much more seriously than most credible ones, but we live in the age of reality TV.
One of the main contributors to the film, William Davis, author of "Wheat Belly" is fond of claiming that wheat has changed, become some kind of Frankenstein grain that makes people addicted and makes their bellies explode into fatness. This, of course, is based on a study of one, himself, cutting wheat out of his diet in an effort to address his own diabetes and weight. Actually, there was one other study he cited that was done on dead rats. Oh, he also heard a few other people were successful after doing the same, cutting out wheat and becoming superheroes.
When it comes to Dr. Davis' claim that this new wheat is addictive, according to Joe Schwartz, a chemist a McGill University, food, or really the peptides that are created after a person digests food, can bind to opiate receptors in the brain but do not produce a morphine-like effect. I will address so-called food addiction in a separate post, but sorry, Dr. Davis, your theory isn't completely accurate. Also, Dr. Ravi Chabbar, the head of the Saskatchewan project, confirmed that even though wheat has been modified to produce high-yield crops, the basic structure of the grain including the gluten and gliadins is the same as it was in "ancient" times. Strike two. Strike three against Dr. Davis' claims could be some information about low-carb diets being correlated to a higher "all-cause" mortality, but I haven't done enough research to stand by that one yet, though it seems legit.
When it comes to diets curing cancer, "The Magic Pill" uses another anecdote and a hell of a lot of speculation, my God there is a lot of speculation in this film, to suggest that a low carb, high-fat diet can cure cancer. Many research titles are shown, but if you look at the results of these studies, they are not clear-cut. Showing titles like that is misleading. Some of the results of the studies shown read like the following below, promising but not definite. Others aren't even that favorable, and showing the title only, not the method, results, or conclusions, tells viewers zero, absolutely zero:
Although the mechanism by which ketogenic diets demonstrate anticancer effects when combined with standard radio-chemo-therapies has not been fully elucidated, preclinical results have demonstrated the safety and potential efficacy of using ketogenic diets in combination with radio-chemo-therapy to improve responses in murine cancer models. These preclinical studies have provided the impetus for extending the use of ketogenic diets into phase I clinical trials that are currently ongoing.
I admire people a hell of a lot when they are honest and choose whatever kind of diet they do for ethical reasons or simply because, fuck it, life is short and who doesn't want to eat bacon? Whether it's the Keto, Paleo, or vegan diet that calls to you, most people can admit that these are not necessarily the easiest to follow or best diets for the health of every single person worldwide, though some will try to persuade you otherwise.
In conclusion, just like with "What the Health" there are a few good takeaway points with "The Magic Pill." Unfortunately, both films are too filled with dishonest reporting to be all that useful. Take what you see and read with a grain of salt, or wheat, whatever floats your boat.
Oddly, I believe that the producers of these two films probably mean well, but they are so set in their beliefs that they twist the facts. In an interview last year with Sam Harris, I thought Gary Taubes did a good job of being fair. This article sums up a lot of what others think about his take on diet. He always cautions and lets listeners know that he is presenting a hypothesis that needs further testing, which I appreciate. He might be right, but the science just isn't there yet when it comes to overall wellbeing. He got a lot of flack for not properly quoting individuals in his famous New York Times article and misrepresenting some of the findings in various studies, but I have more respect for him than I do many of the others who promote low-carb diets.
I have no dog in this fight. If someone told me this or that diet would make me feel great, run the way I would like to, keep me healthy, and the science was really there to back it, I might give it a try. There are too many conflicting voices in the nutrition and science of nutrition worlds, and none of them address our spiritual or emotional side.
Maybe I do eat too much sugar and refined foods, and that's something I can work on. I'm not going to discount the part of me that occasionally needs food for comfort. I believe that's OK when we are aware, but I also acknowledge that a good diet can make us feel emotionally better, too. It's a lot to consider, but I don't think I will start my day with eggs, bacon, and cheese tomorrow or anytime soon.