At a truck stop outside of Chicago, I lifted four pounds of hamburger to my face, and took my last bites of red meat.
I’d first seen the Premium Ethyl Burger on an episode of American High, and a group of my friends decided it was worth a trek to try: eat two pounds of hamburger, one pound of cheese and vegetables, and one pound of bun all in one hour, and it’d be free.
My friend Mary, who drove us to R-Place Restaurant, took her burger apart, eating meat, then toppings, then buns. The last bit of grease-soaked bread was too much for her, though. I ate mine the traditional way, and only made it through about a quarter.
In the months before, I realized the only beef I was eating came from McDonald’s hamburgers on 29-cent day. I didn’t buy it to cook at home; I didn’t eat steak at restaurants.
So, I decided I’d try not eating red meat for a year. A four-pound burger felt like the perfect way to mark the occasion. That was July 14, 2001.
The next summer, I stopped eating chicken, and I’ve been a vegetarian ever since. Okay, okay: technically, a pescatarian, as I occasionally eat salmon, though for the same reason I hate mushrooms (texture), I dislike other seafood.
I am not a vegan, and I’m also not under the delusion that being a vegetarian makes me superior and or healthier. After all, I use kosher salt as a salt shaker, and one of my food groups is Dr. Pepper.
Over the years, the more I’ve learned about how animals are treated, the more militant a vegetarian I’ve become. I buy toothpaste that was not tested on animals, and I have no intention of returning to meat-eating.
Then again, I also live with an omnivore (my husband) and a carnivore (our cat), and I don’t throw myself onto the floor and scream when people eat meat around me, though that does sound like fun.
All of this is to say: A Netflix show presenting evidence of the benefits of a plant-based diet is something I’d love: reinforcing my existing practice, teaching me new things, and offering some life-changing pop culture to recommend.
Alas, Netflix’s You Are What You Eat: A Twin Experiment, is not it. It’s just another in a long line of Netflix’s alleged documentaries wrapped in a glossy package. It’s also just bad storytelling and argument.
You Are What You Eat: A Twin Experiment is actually based on a real study out of Stanford Medicine, which brings a level of credibility to Netflix’s collection of bullshit “documentaries.”
“Based on” might not be quite accurate: the show’s cameras were there at the start, and the study and series are both partially funded by the same organization.
While we watch twins make beds and cook bacon, we learn that this program is “an OPS Production.” OPS is “Oceanic Preservation Society,” which also produced the Oscar-winning The Cove.
Both were directed by OPS founder Louie Psihoyos, who is vegan.
The four episodes of television are produced for Netflix “in association with the Vogt Foundation.” What does Vogt do? I could not find a website, but ProPublica’s tax filing for 2022 says it gave $250,000 “documentary grant” to The Game Changers, $100,000 to the Oceanic Preservation Society itself, and $250,000 to the Good Food Institute.
The Game Changers, which is on Netflix and about vegan athletes, was criticized for its arguments and facts. Even a critic who gave it a positive review referred to it as “dietary evangelism,” with “some cherry picking,” and could be “more thorough.” And a registered dietician who reviewed its claims concluded, “the science is not quite as black and white as the film makes it appear, and some contentions in the film are simply not true.” Is You Are What You Eat similar?
The twin study’s senior author, Christopher Gardner, and the first person we hear from in the show, is the director of nutrition studies at Stanford Prevention Research Center.
So a documentary directed by a vegan, based on a study done by a vegan (who directs a program funded by vegan food), somehow miraculously comes to the conclusion that we should all be vegans.
And absolutely none of this is disclosed. Huh.
Certainly, vegans can make a fair and compelling series about veganism. Starting in high school, I was trained as a journalist to believe in a neutral, objective approach to reporting, but have come to understand that is bullshit. It pretends journalists or documentarians alike do not have perspectives and are not making subjective decisions in their work, suggesting they are coming from literally nowhere, and is an idea that plagues journalism.
But You Are What You Eat is adopting that sort of pretend neutrality, despite the arguments it’s making, and despite the undisclosed potential conflicts of interest.
The study that gave the documentary series its life has been criticized for its methodology and conclusions.
Stanford’s Gardner repeatedly tells us that the study will check the 44 twin participants’ “blood, poop, and pee,” and his colleagues also test the twins’ mental acuity and look at their microbiome.
A researcher who commented on the study called it “a landmark in vegan diet literature” but pointed out that the “study does not provide reassurance on the sodium content of the intervention used nor does it report the effects of blood pressure.”
So the study examined gut bacteria and did detailed body scans, but did not check for and/or report on the participant’s blood pressure? Why not?
As is usual for scientific studies, the participants are telegenic and beautiful, and include “Cheese Twins” Charlie and Michael Kalish, who were previously on Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race. (The credits list a “twins casting producer,” Debbie Ganz, who has also cast Hell’s Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares.)
The twins, four pairs of whom were followed for the show, certainly can make great moments of television together.
Yet episode three spends less than two minutes with two participants—who are already in study week five of eight—buying vegan groceries, and then we’re back to a lesson in factory farming.
You Are What You Eat is mostly a fire-hose of information and vague claims, few of which are substantiated beyond generic references.
A trainer who talks about protein says that after two to three weeks people will have more energy, get better sleep, and have better sex. They won’t also get rich and have killer abs?
Michael Greger, of nutritionfacts.org, tells us, “If you look at the largest study of human risk factors and disease in human history, the number-one cause of death in these United States is the American diet.” What is that study? Who did it? What about the American diet was problematic? Why can’t we have any details?
Senator Cory Booker, who has a degree in law, tells us, “So many people in America in general are dying from diet-related diseases, and a lot of it is because of what we are putting in our mouth.”
That’s at least four separate claims that overlap, and then we’re on to the next one.
On-screen citations like Adam Ruins Everything gave for its claims would be ideal, but why not just mention what study found x fact, or how we have evidence of y claim?
Another inexplicably frequent interviewee is New York mayor Eric Adams (!), who tells us about being diagnosed with type-2 diabetes, and then says “I googled ‘reversing diabetes'” and shares what he told his doctor: “I didn’t use the medicine, I went on a hopeful, plant-based diet.”
Netflix opens the documentary with a disclaimer that says this “is designed to entertain and inform—not provide medical advice.” They should have flashed that on screen while he was talking, so no one is inspired to trash their diabetes medication.
You Are What You Eat often uses appalling imagery, like chickens and pigs smashed together in cages, turtles caught in nets, large pools of blood, feces spraying in the air, salmon in farms with sores on their bodies.
But it settles on nothing. After some animal footage, we’re on to antibiotic resistant bacteria, with Greger saying, “How can you do surgery without these life-saving, critical drugs that are being squandered just to make cheaper meat?”
Wait, what? Who said we can’t do surgery? I looked that up, and The World Health Organization says antimicrobial resistance “makes other medical procedures and treatments—such as surgery, cesarean sections and cancer chemotherapy—much riskier.” Okay, that’s more detailed.
The WHO also says antibiotic resistance is caused by “misuse and overuse of antimicrobials in humans, animals and plants.”
So, wait: It’s not just cheap meat, but also plants! What is a vegan to do!? This is a legitimate problem and societal concern. But why leave out two of three causes? Just because they don’t fit the vegan, anti-meat narrative?
Again, this is a narrative I want to be convinced by! I’m probably on the filmmakers’ side! If it’s annoying me, what hope does it have of convincing an omnivore of eating more plant-based foods?
You Are What You Eat just barrels ahead, on to testing raw chicken and showing two twins how much they contaminate a kitchen while cooking chicken.
As I watched the four episodes, I kept pausing to search for evidence for claims, but the way they’re stated and/or my inability to find more scientific ways of phrasing those things led me to dead ends. I also don’t know if the producers and director have gathered together trustworthy people or the vegan equivalents of Dr. Oz.
The oddest thing for me was how You Are What You Eat: A Twin Experiment was pathologically uninterested in its own study.
The last two minutes of the third episode check back in with the twins—and then the fourth episode is back to plant-based meat. At the end of that final episode, we get the study results: 10 whole minutes.
And even those 10 minutes are weird. When results reveal that some vegan-diet twins have lost muscle, they’re blamed for their own eating. The researchers literally controlled what they ate for the first four weeks.
If the twins broke the rules of the study, is that bad study design, or should those results have been excluded? Shouldn’t the show at least address that? Why not go deeper into how this kind of research is conducted?
You Are What You Eat spends considerable time with people in the plant-based food industry, which would itself make for an excellent subject, if it didn’t seem like they didn’t have something to sell.
So much of this could make better television and better argument. If only the presentation wasn’t so superficial, and it didn’t come across like an infomercial for veganism instead of a more open, detailed exploration of vital issues and compelling ideas.