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you are what you eat - my thoughts

Updated: Jan 17

Upon first glance, I admit to emitting an audible groan when this documentary, "You Are What You Eat: A Twin Experiment," appeared in my Netflix 'Recommended For You' feed. As a nutrition professional, I'm usually skeptical about nutrition and food-related documentaries, especially those on platforms like Netflix; it's a reflex. To my surprise, the series presents a compelling research study that captured my interest. I find it fascinating that the educational content in the series is a combination of information drawn from various books I encountered during my graduate studies and beyond. These books include, and aren't limited to, Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, books by Marion Nestle, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite by David A. Kessler, and more.


In addition to informative content in the series, the documentary unmistakably presents a particular viewpoint, not so subtly guiding the audience towards a specific set of feelings. As we explore my observations of "You Are What You Eat: A Twin Experiment," it becomes evident that the creators intended for viewers to depart with an understanding of differing health outcomes with the diets as well as distinct impressions on industrialized food systems. The multifaceted nature of this documentary series, blending science with advocacy, sparked my interest, prompting me to explore my thoughts and write this blog post.


The researchers embarked on a  journey I find incredibly fascinating. Even though I’m not a fan of the words ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy,’ I do love the fact that the researchers utilized ‘healthy’ diets for both cohorts within the study. Unlike many studies, these researchers chose a level playing field by using 'healthy' diets across the board. This deliberate avoidance of the typical vegan vs. SAD (Standard American Diet) comparison ensures a more accurate evaluation - it’s closer to comparing apples to apples. Furthermore, the participants' dedication to the study and adherence to dietary guidelines is admirable. It’s vital, and the study does well with this, to shine light on recognizing the potential nutrient deficiencies of various diets. While following and reaping the benefits of a vegan diet, it’s also possible to become deficient in Vitamin B12, iron, calcium, among other nutrients. This underscores the need for careful nutritional considerations and guidance for optimizing these nutrients, and the participants had this support as a part of the study. 


A standout aspect of the documentary is just how quickly the health benefits from the dietary changes went into effect. In just 8 weeks, participants witnessed significant improvements, especially in lowered LDL-Cholesterol. For anyone whose doctor recommends that they go on medication for high cholesterol - following many of the plant-focused dietary recommendations listed in the study is likely your best non-medication solution.


Equally impressive are the guidelines surrounding food and food choice for the participants! They were encouraged to emphasize:

  • Their selection of minimally processed foods.

  • Build a balanced plate.

  • Embrace variety within food groups.

  • Make individualized choices based on preferences and needs.

(Do any of these sound familiar 😉)

Additionally, participants were encouraged to eat until satisfied instead of fixating on weight loss. This non-restrictive approach aligns with a holistic, intuitive view of health, recognizing the importance of overall well-being. For me, all of this contributes to the study's credibility and is refreshing compared to many other, conventional studies.


In a revealing conversation with a researcher, both participants of a set of twins, whether vegan or omnivore, expressed that their carefully curated "healthy" diets had "too many carbs." Notably, both twins experienced weight loss and a decrease in metabolism. The vegan twin lost nearly 8lbs, predominantly muscle, while the omnivore twin, despite consuming animal products, also lost muscle. This suggests that a combination of slowed metabolism and the energy demand of their workouts led the body to utilize muscle as an alternative energy source because carbohydrates weren't available.


As one of the twins clearly stated: "We have to eat more to be successful."

 

Yes, yes, yes! ESPECIALLY when it comes to building strength, stamina, endurance, and all those wonderful qualities that shape us into the artists we are on stage, it's crucial to consume a diet that fulfills our daily energy requirements.


As I was watching the documentary, it struck me how similar it is to "The Biggest Loser," but not in terms of extreme weight loss. It was the comprehensive lifestyle shift experienced by participants. Educational components, exercise regimens, market visits, and cooking classes collectively create an all-encompassing and supportive environment for making sustainable diet and lifestyle changes. This is SO vital - no matter what your goals are - and often unattainable for the average person.


While the study presents valuable insights, it's crucial to acknowledge that it doesn't bring forth an entirely novel finding. The existing body of literature already supports the notion that a healthy, plant-based diet offers a protective cardiometabolic advantage compared to other diets. What I did find absolutely wild and unforeseeable was the dramatic change in arousal between the vegan and omnivore female participants! After 8 weeks of following a vegan diet, two of the female participants, each from a different twin set, saw a 371% increase and 383% increase to their arousal (measured by blood flow to genitals). HOLY COW! Note that the omnivore twins also saw an increase but certainly not to the degree of their vegan diet following twin. So, generally, consuming a well-balanced diet and incorporating consistent exercise will have an effect on arousal for women (and I guess it's bonus points for going vegan 🌿😊). What I was unable to find, and isn’t mentioned in the documentary, was any data on the male twins and their sexual arousal. 


There is also some information that I found myself craving while watching the documentary. It’s interesting that the stated and compared data (at baseline and at 8 weeks) varies among the documentary and the two papers. While the published paper focuses on some measurements like BMI (which we've discussed here on the blog) and waist circumference, other body composition measurements, such as muscle mass and fat mass - both mentioned in the documentary, are omitted from the paper. Other stats that were mentioned but not tracked or published include the male arousal, cognitive abilities, and more. Leaving out these data points could mean that there weren’t statistically significant changes (as was mentioned with other data points). I’d be interested to see if including these numbers would make for an even more comprehensive understanding of the study's outcomes.


Finally, in reflecting on the documentary, a notable concern arose during the presentation of information about Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and industrialized farming. The manner in which this information was conveyed reminds me of scare tactics used to encourage people to drastically change their food buying habits. While the environmental impact of our food choices is a crucial consideration for many reasons, it's essential to acknowledge the diverse circumstances we all face. Not everyone has the financial flexibility to completely overhaul their purchasing (or meal prep) habits. 


This resonates with key points I often discuss with clients when considering the environmental impact of their food choices:

  • Cost + Time - The consideration of cost and time is paramount in making food buying decisions. Factors such as the time available for meal prep and the practicality of choosing between raw or pre-cooked frozen options are critical.

  • Buy Seasonal - There are financial benefits to buying seasonal produce that aligns with the natural rhythms of our bodies/the seasons and can be a practical way to save money.

  • BYOB + BYOC - I encourage the practice of bringing your own bag and container, especially when buying in bulk. These practices not only contribute to sustainability but also align with practical considerations.

  • Food Sourcing - The closest grocery store is often the most convenient and economically viable option. For anyone with access to one, farmers markets can be a great alternative, but choices depend on individual circumstance and preferences

  • Themed Meal Days - I love introducing themed meal days, such as Tofu Tuesdays or Meatless Mondays into my schedule. Doing this can be a practical and effective approach to gradually reducing meat consumption without imposing drastic changes.


Navigating the balance between sustainable choices and realistic, everyday constraints is crucial. We must ensure that our pursuit of environmental consciousness is inclusive and achievable for each of us.


In conclusion, "You Are What You Eat: A Twin Experiment" offers valuable insights into the realm of diet and lifestyle (and epigenetics, if you read the unreviewed article). As viewers explore the documentary and delve into the published research, it's crucial to appreciate its strengths while also examining its limitations. I do think that the study's impact will reach beyond the screen and prompts thoughtful reflections on our own dietary choices and their implications for overall well-being.








If you’re interested, here are a few other observations I have with the documentary as well as the unpublished and published papers:

  • Researchers attempted to correlate epigenetic tests, such as DNA methylation, to age acceleration or deceleration. The prospect of determining one's internal age through a simple blood test adds a really interesting and unique dimension to the study. You can find more on this in the unpublished, not-peer-reviewed version of the study here.

  • Transparency is key, and it's commendable that the lead researcher, Dr. Gardner, disclosed receiving funding from Beyond Meat, a California-based plant-based meat alternative company. After reading the published paper and finishing the documentary, I don’t think he had any space to incorporate this bias into the study, and it’s still worth noting.

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I'm a Nutrition Educator & Wellness Coach based in and serving Washington, DC and the DMV region. My lifestyle-focused method has successfully helped clients achieve personal results and enhance athletic ability, eMpowering performance in class, rehearsals, and on-stage. As professional dancer myself, I have gained nutritional balance and improved my own relationship with food through many years of practice and a Masters of Science in Nutrition from University of Bridgeport. I bring this depth of personal and academic experience to a variety of clients, particularly performance athletes and fitness enthusiasts. In my spare time, I teach yoga and manage Ballet Embody, a professional contemporary ballet company.
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