This has been quite a year of lifestyle transformations for a lot of people I know, and a lot of it has been spawned by documentaries. Health documentaries aren’t new, perhaps the grand-daddy of this current generation going all the way back to Super Size Me in 2004. There is also no shortage of new awareness about problems with the Standard American Diet (SAD) between all of the various diet and lifestyle trends. It therefore makes sense that year after year more documentaries are being cranked out covering the topic of diet and health from a myriad of points of view. However the quality of these documentaries to seems to be plummeting, but they still seem to be showing success into converting people to healthier diets. The question I struggle with then is if that’s a net positive or still a net negative.
The three documentaries that keep coming up over and over again when I hear someone is switching to a healthy diet are: Cowspiracy, What the Health, and What’s Up With Wheat. I’ve tried and failed to finish all three of these, and it isn’t just because of a confirmation bias problem. I’m now eating an almost completely whole foods plant based diet, so the confirmation bias problem would go right out the window on the first two. As much as I like bread I don’t consider it a health food so I while the confirmation bias problem may factor in on the last one it wasn’t what they were saying about wheat consumption per se that drove me crazy it was other things.
The big thing all three did that really turned me off was to either grossly exaggerate or outright lie about certain aspects of their primary messages. I’ll pick on What the Health for a moment to hit some high points since that seems to be most popular and I can’t be accused of not liking the ultimate diet they are advocating. According to the documentary sugar can’t make you fat, only fat can. Also according to the documentary eating just one serving of meat a day is as carcinogenic as smoking. That is just two of the more ludicrous claims, and they happen very early into the documentary. All three have similar problems laced throughout it. You expect documentaries to advocate for their position, and therefore they will cleave to positions that generally support theirs and may even cherry pick things that more directly advocate for them. However making blatantly falsifiable comments, or slightly better grossly exaggerated claims, is far beyond that.
The other thing all three did was delve deeply into conspiracy theories. This is a common trope of health documentaries to some degree or another but again it seems to be on steroids with these three. It’s not just that the food companies are hyper-aggressive with their marketing and their lobbying. It’s not just that the medical community is overly dismissive of using diet to avoid or address health problems. These take it to the next level: the evil doctors working with the pharmaceutical and hospital companies coordinate with the evil food companies and corruptible politicians to intentionally make us sick to create a self reinforcing feed back loop for both. Seriously? Why do we have to read some Emperor Palpatine level plot into something that can easily be explained without all of the layers of sub-plots?
This is what creates the conundrum for me. These documentaries are raising awareness of legitimate problems with our modern diets, our food systems, and our medical systems. However when you do it is such a disingenuous way I fear a backlash. What happens when you find out that eating meat isn’t as bad for you as cigarettes, that it’s possible to get heart disease or cancer on a Paleo Diet, and that eating 100% plant based can lead to health problems? When we are surrounded by media and peer pressure to a norm other than these more healthy lifestyles what will happen is most people will revert back. You may have had a Pyrrhic victory in converting people shortly after the video but did you lose the war by lying to them? I’m afraid so. I remember watching the movie Day After Tomorrow rolling my eyes at the prospect that people could now have some grotesquely distorted version of climate change but leaving the movie with more concern about it. Sure enough several people I know did. Is it no wonder they became climate skeptics when the ludicrous climatological things (which by the way no one besides the makers of that film ever suggested) didn’t come to pass?
Ultimately it is clear that moving off of the Standard American Diet is beneficially to everyone. In the short term these sorts of documentaries my help move some people off the mark, but I think it will ultimately blow up in everyone’s faces and encourage people to believe the entire healthy eating movement is nothing but a land of conspiracy theories and crack pots. They may keep their die hard converted people, but it ultimately will turn most people into skeptics of these messages.