A friend pointed me to a new documentary called “Hungry For Change“ that’s from the folks that brought us Food Matters. Now I have not yet watched Food Matters, though I’ve heard many good things. Here’s the trailer for Hungry For Change if you haven’t seen it yet:
Sounds like it could be pretty good, right? Well, it definitely hit on some good points once you waded through the incredible amount of hyperbole and correlation = causation missteps. The story focuses on a young woman, Natalie, who is depressed about the life she leads and the food choices she makes. Her body image issues prevent her from pursuing an office romance with Jason, the debonair, coiffed gentleman we only see briefly. To illustrate the dire situation that our protagonist is in, we see her chronically making poor choices and spiraling ever downward into a pit of despair. She’s drowning in processed food, which brought me to my favorite gaffe of the film:
Uh-oh, since when do diet sodas have calories? While I agree they’re terrible for you, it’s because of the nasty compounds and the hormonal response, not the calories.
The film gives us a panel of “teachers” (it’s how they’re billed in the credits, I’m not being a dick), from a variety of backgrounds. Some of them are health care practitioners, some are just incredibly motivational people who have turned their lives around. I do wish they had included some more scientifically-minded folks in the group, because by not doing so, they left the very controversial and sometimes wacky, Dr. Joseph Mercola to discuss much of the science behind real food.
I did appreciate the film’s vehement anti-sugar approach. I completely agree that excess calorie consumption from sugar-laden processed foods is largely responsible for obesity and the diseases of modern civilization. I still could have done with less hyperbole and a little more science, but I am a giant nerd, so I understand if that’s not what everyone wants.
One of the teachers that I really liked was Daniel Vitalis (if that’s his real name he was born for this kind of stuff). He believes strongly in the Ancestral Movement, almost to an extreme, where he teaches a lot of historical reenactment. But that was why I liked him; he had a great quote that I’ll paraphrase: “We need to start thinking of a diet as what a species habitually eats.” For countries other than America, this is largely true; a “diet” is just the term for your daily regimen of food. Only in this country has it gotten to a point where we’ve perverted that word to be an oppressive term. The central tenant of the film that I’ll echo here is that diets don’t work; what we need is lifestyle change.
I also appreciated how the teachers stayed largely macronutrient agnostic, choosing instead to focus on micronutrients and the nutrient density of food. See the reason that the SAD (Standard American Diet) is so effective at promoting weight gain and disease is that it is largely hypercaloric (provides more calories than needed) while lacking micronutrients. This creates a state of being “overfed, yet starving to death.” As Vitalis pointed out, most hunter-gatherer-gardener populations had a diet that was adequate in calories or low in calories (hypocaloric), while still being very nutrient dense.
Here’s where the film got really uncomfortable for me as a scientist. The film proceeded to compare Frankenfoods to cigarettes and paint MSG as the cause of all disease and death in the past 70 years. While I agree that both are terrible for you and you shouldn’t use them, unfounded scare tactics provide very little credibility to discerning viewers.
Perhaps the claim that annoyed me the most was made by Dr. Mercola. As his reasoning for avoiding the aspartame found in diet sodas, he cited an urban legend that in the airline pilot community, they know not to drink diet sodas while flying because when aspartame is consumed at high altitudes, it can cause hypotoxia (lack of oxygen to the brain). Furthermore, he claimed, aspartame will make you depressed. Whoa, that’s some bold stuff right there. Join me in putting your thinking caps on for a minute, and let’s take a closer look at this.
Planes are pressurized so that they have a similar pressure to what you’d experience on the ground. Otherwise, passengers and pilots would both feel the effects of hypoxia, altitude sickness and more. The idea that aspartame can some how cause people to experience vision loss or drop dead as Mercola would have us believe, just because you’re at altitude, is just silly.
I pulled up the study that he referenced to see if it was actually proving the claim he made. This study was conducted with two fairly small groups where one group had severe mood disorders and the other was considered “normal.” The individuals were given doses of pure aspartame several times per day to simulate the consumption of diet soda, or a placebo, but in alternating weeks so that each subject served as their own control. The study was halted early by the school running it because the symptoms of those with mood disorders became more severe. In fact, two of the patients started having problems with their eyes (a retinal detachment and a conjunctival hemorrhage). While these are severe results, they can’t definitively be pointed to the aspartame due to the way the study was set up.
The aspartame study used a dosage of 30mg/kg/day. For a 165lb (75kg) person, that’s 2250 mg of aspartame. There are 15mg/oz of aspartame in Diet Coke. That means it takes 150oz or 4.4L or 12.5 cans of Diet Coke to get the same dose. But because the data is incomplete, and the dose is so large, the only conclusion you can get out of it is there may be a correlation between high doses of aspartame and mood disorders, and maybe those people shouldn’t drink 4 liters of diet coke a day for a week straight then go off it.
And Mercola knows this. He totally does. In fact he can’t even look at the camera straight when he makes these outlandish claims:
This review is getting a bit long, and the movie does makes some good points about skin health, fermented foods and the opioid effects of sugar, flour and dairy. But the rest is more sensationalism without too much practical knowledge transfer. In fact, it seems like the only practical suggestion that the film gives for improving your health (besides the stop eating fake food mantra, and get more sleep) is that you can juice your way out of anything. Just throw a bunch of fruit and veggies in a blender and you can beat all disease! Anyone who’s tried to lose weight and who helps people get healthy know that it’s far more complicated than that.
There was one more part of the film that I wanted to mention, and it was where the protagonist started watching the Hungry For Change documentary herself. That’s right, they went totally meta with it.
This is where I totally lost interest in this documentary as a serious tool for helping people make change. I liked a lot of the teachers that were featured, but the film made too many logical leaps and hyperbolic statements to be effective. I’d rather show people films like Fat Head, Food, Inc. or King Corn. At least they don’t charge for a gimmicky recipe book.