The art of the alarmist food documentary

Salad isn’t everyone’s favorite.
Salad isn’t everyone’s favorite.
Image: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
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The Magic Pill, a new documentary on Netflix, argues that a ketogenic diet—a way of eating that is very high in fat and very low in carbohydrates—is the healthiest and best way to eat. It strongly implies that eating like this can cure cancer and vastly improve autism in a way that is outrageous—if not breathtakingly reckless.

The basic premise is not as crazy as it might sound. Fat has had an unlikely comeback as a hero in the nutrition wars in recent years, and some people with epilepsy follow a ketogenic diet to help control seizures with good success.

The problem with The Magic Pill–other than the fact that Pete Evans, one of its stars, has been called out for quackery in his home country of Australia—is that it’s part of a worrisome trend in alarmist food documentaries. Sharing a similar spiritual DNA, these flicks call out real issues like our industrialized, highly subsidized system of agriculture, and the deep profit motive in the pharmaceutical industry—and then offer seemingly simple solutions, that are in reality, highly impractical for the average diner.

No matter what type of diet you can dream up, all fat, all vegan, all green juice, all turnip (okay that one is available), there seems to be a documentary touting the benefits of eating in the extreme. Watch enough of them and you’ll discover that there’s a fairly simple formula for success. Follow the steps below and then wait to blow up on Netflix.

1. Be a white American or Australian dude

With the exception of Katie Couric’s narration of Fed Up, nearly every diet and food policy documentary out there features a white American or Australian man as your host. Once on screen, said white-Anglophone embarks on a journey through a house of nutritional horrors, reliably including the cereal aisle, industrial meat production, a pantheon of experts, and perhaps the most horrific of them all, the host’s own tale of personal transformation.

2. Come up with a simple solution to a complex issue

It’s important to reduce the long history of humans eating food into a simple set of culinary guidelines, the more radically restrictive, the better. Eat mostly fat. Don’t eat any sugar ever. Go vegan. Drink only green juice to reclaim your health. Note: high-carb regimens are currently out of style, but an ambitious filmmaker might start prepping for a 2024 “everything we thought was wrong is right, again,” release.

3. Find some celebrities who embrace this diet (they might even produce your film)

What the Health, which advocates for a vegan diet was produced by Joaquin Phoenix, and for some unfathomable reason features Steve-O—yes from Jackass—as a voice of reason. Forthcoming vegan documentary Eating You Alive features James Cameron, Samuel L. Jackson and Penn Jillette. That Sugar Film, which is actually quite fun and reasonable, has cameos from Hugh Jackman and Stephen Fry, as well as a few Australian celebrities like Isabel Lucas.

4. Use yourself as a guinea pig

We have Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 film, Supersize Me—in which he eats only McDonald’s for one month—to thank for this technique. There are two ways in: start off healthy, as Spurlock did, and eat an unhealthy diet to illustrate the consequences of a particular diet; or start off unhealthy and embark on a radical new diet (see above) and chart the changes. Check in with medical professionals along the way and share as many test results as possible. If you choose the Spurlock method, extra points for dramatic vomiting.

5. Get some doctors

If they believe the eating philosophy you’ve setting on and have letters after their name, this is a person you must interview. Watch enough of these films and you start to see the same doctors, saying the same thing, over and over again. And if an expert only supports part of what you want to argue, that’s okay, it’s what editors are for.

6. Blame corporations, especially Big Food and Big Pharma, in a way that makes you seem like an investigative reporter

This is not Weight Watchers, the movie—the goal isn’t to carefully lay out a diet plan, it’s to crack open a vast conspiracy that only you can fully see. Get at least one vignette where a sick (and ideally obese) person outlines how many medications they take each day—then cut to one of your doctors above talking about profits from treating chronic diseases. Pro-tip: if you want to show how unwilling corporations are to speak directly with an investigative journalist, film yourself calling their general information line and then being put on hold when you ask a complicated question about an obscure study, just like Kip Andersen does repeatedly in What the Health.

7.  Claim to cure cancer

Interview at least one person who claims to have cured cancer with the diet you are championing, as well as several diabetes patients who were able to go off their medications through dietary changes. Bonus points for additional diseases.

8. Use the right vocabulary

Toxins. Chemicals. Crisis. Dependency. Epidemic. It’s important to catastrophize as much as possible. Use the proper visual vocabulary, too. Footage of fat people walking is a must.

9. Do not discuss poverty or food insecurity

You know how this is supposed to be a simple concept, and also crack open a corporate conspiracy? It’s essential not to confuse viewers with the idea that it might be difficult to actually live with your super simple solution. Definitely do not address the difficulty of affording healthy foods of any kind, or break down the cost of a standard diet versus the cost of your diet, or provide specific details about how to make your diet work. Never address the way culture, food, and heritage interact if it doesn’t fit your thesis—though do feel free to use indigenous and colonized cultures as a way of bolstering your argument. People may accuse you of cultural appropriation—but, hey, that’s an entirely different movement ripe for its own celebrity-filled documentary.