Home Diet Plans Why we need to abandon the myth of the miracle diet once and for all

Why we need to abandon the myth of the miracle diet once and for all

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Five years ago, I decided to convert to a paleo diet. A lifelong vegetarian and believer in low-fat foods, the diet, which eliminates wheat and sugar while encouraging followers to consume plenty of meat, made me lose weight instantly. The extra protein made my nails grow stronger; my hair looked shinier.

I was converted.

And yet, six months into my new healthy lifestyle, I began struggling with a deluge of unexpected health problems. I woke up with heartburn, and went to bed with chronic stomachaches. My doctor seemed unable to fix my newfound ailments beyond a suggestion to pop Tums like Tic Tacs.

Desperate for alternative answers, I decided to visit an Ayurvedic doctor. He introduced me to the idea that everyone should eat according to their dosha, also known as a person’s mind/body type.

Years after abandoning the paleo diet, I continue to apply the wisdom of Ayurvedic nutrition: no two bodies are alike, and everyone requires personalized diet plans to meet their health and wellness needs.

Multiple studies, including those published in respected scientific journals Cell and PLoS One, have confirmed that lifestyle and genetics play an important role in determining nutrition. But even without science, you’d think we could have reached a similar conclusion. The health and wellness industries premiere new fad diets on an almost weekly basis. Each is marketed as the only answer to weight loss, vitality and health. But anyone who has tried a fad diet – from the popular Atkins diets of the 2000s to the juice cleanses of the early 2010s – knows that the regimens rarely work. And even when they do yield some results, the restrictive guidelines are never sustainable.

But despite decades of failed dieting, the myth of the miracle diet is as pervasive as it has ever been. Nowhere is this more evident than a new Netflix documentary made to promote the ketogenic diet.

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The documentary begins with a disclaimer about the anecdotal personal stories portrayed in the film: “We make no claims that these experiences are typical,” the disclaimer reads. But mere seconds after the warning, filmmaker Rob Tate introduces the first of many misguided theories. “Something had struck me as odd about our planet,” Tate begins. “When you look at every other species on our planet, they all control their weight automatically. The only exception was us, and any animal unfortunate enough to be fed by us.”

Tate structures the entire film around the aforementioned musing, but it quickly falls flat. Humans are also the only species to build grocery stores, fly airplanes and win Grammys. We do all of these things because we are smarter than other animals. Anyone who suggests otherwise shouldn’t be taken seriously when they dare to dispense nutritional advice.

And yet, Tate persists, claiming the best way to achieve optimal health is to return to an era when humans roamed free with wolves. He advises everyone to eliminate processed foods and maintain a diet similar to our paleolithic ancestors: composed primarily of organic and grass-fed meats and good fat, like coconut oil and avocados.

Certainly, there are benefits to glean from eating healthy fats and high-quality grass-fed meat, which has more vitamin E, conjugated linoleic acid (the same type of healthy fat found in coconut oil) and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids than conventional meat. But where Tate fails is in forgetting to explain the economic and environmental impacts of such a diet. Not only is organic, pasture-raised meat prohibitively expensive, but livestock is also one of the greatest environmental pollutants, with a single pound of beef taking 1,800 gallons of water to produce.

Many other pieces of nutritional advice in the film are glossed over. Midway through the documentary, the instructions to “fast intermittently” are broadcasted across the screen, only to never be referenced – or explained – again. Instead, what follows is a heart-breaking and exploitative portrayal of overweight, asthmatic, diabetic and autistic patients embarking on versions of the ketogenic diet as a last resort.

We meet Debbie, a woman on a dozen medications for everything from pain management to thyroid disorder who is also beginning to develop signs of Alzheimer’s and dementia. And Abigail, an autistic five-year old with epilepsy and sleep apnea. The most gut-wrenching scene, however, comes when we are introduced to Aaron Samuels, an autistic child. Once unable to speak in full sentences, Samuels’ autism has improved since beginning the diet.

He takes the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) exam, wherein his doctor asks if he feels sad, and why. “I feel upset because I’m a lonely person by myself,” Samuels replies before smiling widely at the camera, seemingly pleased with his newfound speaking abilities. It’s a private moment, one where Samuels is presumably unaware that he is about to become the guinea pig for the pro-keto documentary. And while the test may technically be a victory, a deep sadness permeates the scene.

Nevertheless, Tate parades Samuels’ success as yet another reason for everyone to convert to a keto lifestyle. Not to be outdone, he then goes on to suggest that a meat and fat-centric diet may also help to cure other serious diseases, including cancer.

But beyond the onslaught of harmful and manipulative misinformation, the worst part about the film may be the confusing context in which it is presented to us. A search for “health documentary” on Netflix displays the film alongside What the Health, the pro-vegan documentary that depicts sugar as harmless while all meat and animal products are portrayed as the ultimate toxic carcinogens.

Looking at both films, it’s easy to get confused. Both promise to help with chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes, obesity and liver disease, but the diets proposed in each film could not be less alike. The onus is therefore placed on viewers to determine what to believe.

Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to do so alone.

Following health professionals who are willing to examine and explain this onslaught of nutritional advice is one of the most effective ways to educate yourself. On an individual basis, there are potential benefits and downfalls to both vegan and a paleo lifestyles, and it might end up that a middle ground between the two diets will work best for you.

The Magic Pill relies heavily on the idea that everything we have been told about nutrition is dangerously wrong. It’s impossible to deny that there is some truth to this. And yet, promoting a single, meat-centric diet as the only option for optional health is just as wrong, if not even more dangerous.

Learning about nutrition should be empowering. But it takes time and a willingness to ask questions. You can’t skip the lessons and jump straight to the results.

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