Health documentaries focused on food and diets can have both positive and negative impacts on individuals. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bjorn Mercer discusses these impacts with APU’s Dr. Stacey Malinowski and explores the best ways to uncover thoughtful, unbiased information.
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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and today we’re talking to Dr. Stacey Malinowski, Associate Dean in the School of Health Sciences. Today, we’re talking about health documentaries. Welcome, Stacey.
Dr. Stacey Malinowski: Hi, Bjorn. Thanks for having me.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: This is a great topic. There is a booming industry, that sounds funny, of health documentaries out there. Some are good, some are in the middle, and some, eh, not so great. There are some really great documentaries available on different components of health. What are some that you’ve seen and what did you like about them?
Dr. Stacey Malinowski: Oh, I’ve seen a lot of them. I have to admit, this is kind of my guilty pleasure. I absolutely love watching them. I will say the most recent one that I really enjoyed that I thought was well done was called “The Game Changer.” I don’t know if you’ve seen that one. It’s focused on the importance of a plant-based diet, but in the application of human performance. Think your athletes and ultra-athletes. I liked that one.
I really liked “What the Health?” I thought that was a good one. There are so many good ones that I’ve seen, but I think overall, the theme is what makes something good for me, “good documentary” is how the information is presented.
I like to see information presented on both sides where I understand what the position is of the filmmaker, but they seem to explore the issue fully, and can present information on both sides of the topic without necessarily villainizing anybody and letting the viewer come to their own conclusions while providing factual information.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, I think that should be the stated goal of every documentary, but it’s amazing how when you watch “a documentary,” it’ll be very biased, honestly.
Dr. Stacey Malinowski: Yes, there are several that I have seen out there like that, and that’s when I sometimes want to just turn my attention off because you can find research, I feel like, to support or refute anything if you look hard enough. When somebody focuses on just all of something, or not at all on something, it just doesn’t provide a very objective opinion overall.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, and there are some documentaries which are very interesting, and it’s one person’s journey through their health issues, or finding a diet that works for them, or different things like that, and that’s one person. Typically, what’ll happen is that it’s a snapshot in time, but then, of course, we don’t see what happens to them for the next five years.
A good health documentary would really be longitudinal where you watch people or watch an individual for a very long time, but then at the same time, it’s just one person, and we’re all individuals, and so how my body reacts to certain foods, or different things like that will be similar to a million other people, but not similar to another million other people it’s so, so difficult.
Dr. Stacey Malinowski: Yeah, it’s funny, the first thing that popped in my head when you were talking about a longitudinal thing is, do you remember, I’m sure you’ve probably watched “The Biggest Loser” and there’s extreme weight loss shows in the past, and then you see where are they now? A lot of them aren’t at the same place where they were right after the show got done filming.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: My wife and I used to love watching “The Biggest Loser” because to be honest, I’ve never dealt with having to lose a lot of weight, so I don’t know what that’s like, but watching them go through that, it’s such a difficult and emotional experience for them, and when they do lose the weight, it is so amazing. But at the same time, they’re in such a controlled environment, where their food is controlled, they have physical trainers, personal trainers, everything there to help them, everything about that experience is helping them lose weight. But then after the cameras are turned off, and they have done this amazing weight loss, they go back to home, and changing those eating habits, that’s the hardest thing for the long term.
Dr. Stacey Malinowski: Absolutely. That’s why I like the documentaries that will show you the benefits in not such an extreme way, where they can really show you how these things can be incorporated into anybody’s diet. The ones that aren’t all or nothing, and hey, we’re not saying you have to be a vegan, but these are the benefits of incorporating as many plant-based foods as possible, or not saying, “Oh, never eat meat again because the cattle industry does this and the dairy industry does that.” But, “Hey, you might want to consider reducing your intake because…” Because once you get into extremes, then people, I would say, find it very difficult to maintain those changes.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: No, I agree, and I think for several years now, have encouraged people, friends, and I’ve said it on podcasts, I’ve said in a very nonjudgmental way, eating more fruits and vegetables is a good thing, especially vegetables, reducing your meat intake is a good thing. But nobody has to go vegetarian. Nobody has to go full vegan. Because I don’t think, well, first of all, the science doesn’t say one or the other is the absolute best because as you said, previously, if you have one study, there will be another study that could refute it, or parts of it, maybe not completely, but having more vegetables in your diet, and having leaner meats is always a good thing.
Dr. Stacey Malinowski: Right. I don’t think you’ll ever find research that says vegetables are bad. I don’t think that exists. But then you look at things that say, “Oh, if you grill things, the char from the charcoal creates this chemical compound that’s dangerous to your health, and could be carcinogenic.” So, really, you can find research out there on anything.
For example, the egg. The egg was a superstar, and then the egg was the worst thing you could ever put in your body, and then the egg is okay again as long as you eat it in moderation. So, that’s where it’s consumers have to, as they’re watching these shows, they need to be like, “Hmm. Okay, A, well, when was this done? B, who funded this study? Where is this coming from?” Then combine that with, “Well, what makes sense for me? What makes sense for my health conditions that I have?”
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. I don’t know, this sounds funny, I think we’re the same age-ish, but I remember growing up, and bagels were big, and oh, bagels are healthy. They’re extraordinarily dense carbohydrates. Again, there’s nothing wrong with carbohydrates, but you don’t need hundreds and hundreds of calories of carbohydrates without any good proteins.
Dr. Stacey Malinowski: Yeah, but do you remember back when bagels were good, do you remember how big bagels were, and now how big bagels are?
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I don’t. Oh, okay.
Dr. Stacey Malinowski: If you go to a bagel shop and get a bagel, they’re pretty big, and if you look at the calorie count on the wall, it’s like, “Wow, do I really want to put a 500-calorie bagel in my body?” Go in the freezer section of the grocery store and I’ll pick Lender’s bagels. If you look at them, they look tiny. That’s the size a bagel supposed to be like. But now, the whole portion distortion theory, now they look so tiny, and it’s not enough. That’s a serving size.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. I’m going to pitch you a health documentary. There should be a health documentary, which there probably is one already, where couples just go out to eat and they just share their meal, because at most places, in no way should you eat the entire meal. You should eat a portion of it, or even half of it. Whenever we go somewhere, my wife and I usually share a meal, or when you get a burger and fries, you shouldn’t eat the entire… Okay, you can have the entire burger, but should you eat all the fries? Should you have a 1,500-calorie meal in one sitting? I mean, I would say no.
Dr. Stacey Malinowski: Yeah. I find that interesting because any mainstream diet plan that you do, because unlike you, I have had struggles with my weight a lot in the past, and I’ve done the Weight Watchers, I’ve done the LA Weight Loss Centers, and I’ve done everything out there. One of the first things they teach you, if you go out to eat, ask them to just box half your meal before they even bring it out, so they’re just serving you a more reasonable size portion. I know my parents, when they would go out to eat because they were older and couldn’t eat that much, they would either go out at lunchtime to get lunch-size portions, or they would often share a meal. But most places now will charge you for sharing a plate. Sometimes it feels like everywhere you go, there’s these things that are trying to prevent you from doing the right thing.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: No, I completely agree. It unfortunately then makes me think of the economics of food. Like with bagels, why are bagels so big? They shouldn’t be so big. We will often give our kids half a bagel because a full bagel is just massive. Or if you go out to eat, if you get that one entree for you as an individual, it’s too much. Yeah, I think that’s a great idea of just boxing up half of it because when you’re in the moment of eating something that’s so good, you have to have a lot of will to say, “Nope, I’m going to stop, and not eat the rest of those,” or if you’re eating french fries that are just the perfect crispiness and saltiness, it’s very hard to say, “I’m not going to eat this huge, massive basket that’s essentially a bunch of empty calories,” but they’re so good.
Dr. Stacey Malinowski: Yeah, I’ll say I’m guilty. There’s the distracted eating. A lot of people will suggest practicing mindfulness when you eat and actually taking the time to put thought into what you’re doing, to savor every bite. What is that mouthfeel? What is sensation? Making sure that you’re chewing thoroughly and just really engaging in every bite. Through that practice, it slows your eating down. You can maybe have more of a sensation that you’re full, and it can lead to less overeating, and more enjoyment.
I think a lot of times now, we’re so busy, and we’re rushing from one thing to the next, and even if maybe you didn’t stop and get fast food, you’re still rushing and you’re rushing to get through dinner, to get dinner cleaned up to do homework, to get the kids in the bath, to get to bed. I think everything has just shifted so much where we’ve just gone so convenience and convenience and an inconvenience all at the same time, that you actually have to stop and eat, take time out of your day.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, I completely agree. We can talk about this actually for days about the structure of life here in the US where we’re going from place to place to place, and food is easy, but the food is typically lower quality, higher fat, but tastes great. Those are all just things working against you.
The next question we have is, so health documentaries, these films sometimes present information that isn’t always in line with government or agency recommendations. How do we know what the right information is?
Dr. Stacey Malinowski: That’s a tricky question, and it’s a great question. I think first thing to remember is, again, when was it made? I watch a lot of stuff on Netflix. It doesn’t mean it wasn’t made several years ago and hasn’t made a reemergence, so check and see when the film was made. Actually, after watching one of the last ones that I watched, they made some claims that I was like, “Huh, I didn’t know that.” They were saying that I believe it was, “Well, dairy actually can cause cancer,” yet the Cancer Society recommends including dairy, and they were trying to get a response from that industry and couldn’t get one, and I was like, “Huh,” so I started to do my research.
Now, this documentary was a few years old, and all of the things throughout that documentary that that filmmaker had uncovered had indeed been changed now on all of these organization’s websites, so at the time, he was very cutting edge and he actually did uncover some things that we had known to be true for a long time that really weren’t, so I will say the most important thing you can do is think of what makes sense for you. If you’re thinking about as you’re watching this and thinking, “Oh, I should do that,” talk to your doctor, or your healthcare professional because while a lot of the times they say, “Oh, eat more vegetables,” those things, again, not going to hurt you. Some people have, certain diseases, have certain lifestyle restrictions where if you watch a show about Atkins, but you have kidney disease, you cannot go on a high protein diet just because that documentary told you to, so making sure that we’re running through what we’re feeling through our healthcare providers that knows our medicines, our histories, those types of things.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It reminds me of when those health documentaries about juice diets came out. Again, there’s nothing wrong with potentially having that as an option of maybe a few times a week or something, but going to where that’s the only thing you have, that could be a little rough on your body.
Dr. Stacey Malinowski: Yeah, I agree. I’m not saying that’s extreme, but as you’re watching them, if something just feels a bit extreme, maybe take a bit of time to do some more investigation on your own. I think an important thing, if you hear something and you look into it further and you’re finding these articles, it’s so easy to find stuff on the internet now, but it really does pay to see who’s driving the research behind some of these things. You should be able to tell easily who is funding the research if it’s hard to tell, that should be a red flag that, okay, maybe this was not such an unbiased study. That’s something I think consumers need to think about.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, and it reminds me of decades ago when the research studies were funded by the cigarette companies, “It’s okay, it’s okay. Cigarettes are okay,” funded by cigarette companies. We’d like to think that this still does happen. It happens all the time where certain industries will fund research and that research will be biased. Science should never be biased, but it is, and so yeah, it’s very important to always double-check. Information literacy, especially health information literacy is so critical, and it’s confusing. That’s why it’s important to put in the time to look things up and ask questions.
Dr. Stacey Malinowski: Yes, and it certainly doesn’t mean that every study about how beef is great supported by the Cattleman’s Association is incorrect. It doesn’t. But people need to think with a critical mind and look at things with a critical eye and say, “Well, there’s this one study that says it’s really great by this organization, and there’s all these other studies that kind of don’t. Where should we believe?” So, looking at the full scope of an issue, really educating yourself on whatever that issue. Let that health documentary be a catalyst for you, whether it’s, “Oh, plant-based diet,” or juicing, or whatever it might be, let that be the catalyst to empower you to do your own research and to talk to your healthcare team before making any decisions.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: This brings us to the next question is, as a healthcare professional, when you watch these films, what are your thoughts?
Dr. Stacey Malinowski: I always am fascinated. I’m fascinated by the drive that these filmmakers have. I love that they’re so passionate about their topic. I learn something new every time I watch them, or I should say at least I find a new point for myself to go down a rabbit hole of discovery, and looking at different topics. Again, some of them are very sensational, so I tend to lean towards the ones that are a bit more, “Okay, well, this seems realistic, and much more objective than some of the really sensational ones.”
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That’s great advice, because unfortunately, when somebody says “sensational stuff,” that always gets more attention.
Dr. Stacey Malinowski: Absolutely.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I’ll say the whole Twitter rule, if you scream something sensational, or that just creates conflict, you’ll get more attention versus somebody who’s very moderate and looks at both sides and tries to be very fair and balanced. Usually, that gets lost in the conversation, but that’s also typically the more reasonable approach, especially when it comes to health.
The last question we have is, what advice do you have for consumers who watch these documentaries about following the advice within them?
Dr. Stacey Malinowski: When you learn these new things and see, you can examine the same topic from a different viewpoint, I really think it can encourage people to do a deeper dive into the topic. See the full scope. What is the impact on your health, what’s the impact on the environment, and what does that mean to you? These should be very personal choices for people. They shouldn’t be, I don’t want to say “bullied” into them by watching a sensational film, but they should allow people to start mindfully processing the information and making the best choices for them that make sense for their unique situation.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, I completely agree. Also, what you said about following the money, who funds different things? Are these documentaries made by small little documentary makers who want to get out a message, or are they funded wholly by big agri? All these different things.
Also, I remember watching a documentary, and I apologize, I don’t have it off the top of my head, where they’re talking about cow farming, where it’s, what is it called, open pasture, free-reign cow farming, and there’s not enough land to have that acreage of land to have that kind of free range kind of organic meat for American consumers. However, Americans also consume more meat than anybody else in the world, besides, I believe, Pacific Islanders, so we eat too much meat. That’s very judgey, I agree. But do you want to have organic healthy site burgers, or do you want to have highly industrialized burgers that also is a detriment to the cows’ health? That sounds funny, but industrialized farming, accurate statement, is not good.
Dr. Stacey Malinowski: Yeah, it’s interesting. As I watch these documentaries, and when I do approach it, every time I sit down, I want to approach it for the health aspect, I always leave a little mortified, no matter which one I watch, when they start talking about the industrial farming. After the last one I watched, I will never eat pork again, I’ll just say. I love pork, I love bacon. It’s one of my favorite foods. But yeah, there’s definitely a lot of personal choice and personal decisions that you have to make as you watch these things.
They give you these statistics, “Oh, if everybody replaced one meal a week with a plant-based meal, we would save this much in greenhouse emissions,” and I do think there’s something to that. I do think beyond the health benefits for our planet, for the animals. I do think it’s all important. But then at the same time, I think, “Well, if I stop eating meat, they’re still going to have all of that meat in the case at the grocery store. Then what happens to it? Are they going to keep producing it and then it’s just going to go to waste because a few less people aren’t buying it?” It’s tricky. It’s hard. What is the right thing to do? It all goes down to your personal choice. Okay, yes, I could save the planet by not eating it, but you know what? For me, I’m not going to choose to eat it because of… Hopefully, if everybody kind of makes those decisions for themselves on a larger scale, there will be a bigger impact one day.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Right. Choices should be made by the consumer. I will often say that it’s not the government’s job to tell us how to eat. The government should give us good guidelines on how to eat. But at the same time, I would say Americans should reduce their meat consumption by half just because as a country, we eat so much meat. Now, if they did that, that would also destroy the meat industry. If everybody ate only high quality burgers, McDonald’s would go out of business, so there’s all these different things that are completely interconnected to people’s personal habits. That’s why it’s so difficult because each individual person makes that choice. Then you multiply it by, say, 330 million Americans, and that’s the economy we have today. But if things do change, that’s not a bad thing. But change is slow.
Dr. Stacey Malinowski: Absolutely. It’s slow, it’s painful, and it’s going to come at a cost. While we might reap the benefits, you’re right, there are other industries that are not going to be sustained if we make better choices. But if we think about the end of the day, if we make decades from now, and our children’s children, which world is going to be the better one? Which world do you want to live in? The one with the healthy people and the green open pastures and access to healthy, fresh food? Or do you want to live like the world, I’m sure you’ve seen WALL-E, where the planet’s been destroyed, and everybody’s living on a spaceship with no physical activity. I know it’s very futuristic, but if we keep going the way we’re going, what’s going to happen if we don’t make those changes?
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. Eating and one’s health is a choice. I mean, there’s so much that goes into that choice. There’s where you’re born, who your family was. It’s very, very complex. However, as an adult, there’s ways to change it, and so to have a good healthy life is about change, and change isn’t easy, but change is important. Yeah, I’ve done many, many podcasts about climate change and different environmental things with Dr. Kristen Drexler, and there’s just little changes that we can all make here and there that can make not only our food better, healthier, and taste good too, but also just the world around us. At the end of the day, I think health documentaries that say they have one way to do things, you should be wary. Like you said, it should be a starting point to ask more questions, to do more research.
Dr. Stacey Malinowski: Absolutely. That’s my one main takeaway from today is just everybody should make their own choices based on what’s best for them and people should be empowered to do what’s best for them and in doing what’s best for them by researching it, too, so they know what they’re getting into, they could make the best choice for themselves, their families, based on their health. But these documentaries can be great starting points for them.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Completely agreed. Absolutely wonderful conversation, Stacey. Any final words?
Dr. Stacey Malinowski: Nope. Thanks for having me today.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. Today we’re speaking with Dr. Stacey Malinowski about health documentaries. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. Thank you for listening.