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RDN's Film Review: The Magic Pill

Registered Dietitian Nutritionists Analyze Claims in the Popular Netflix Documentary

Cover of "The Magic Pill" documentary.

By: Maureen Bligh, MA, RDN

  • Tuesday, June 18, 2019
  • 4 Minute Read   

The Silicon Valley Registered Dietitian Nutritionist's Book Club reviewed the 2017 Netflix documentary, The Magic Pill. The documentary, featuring celebrity chef Pete Evans, promotes a high-fat, low-carb diet more commonly known as the paleo or keto diet, and it recommends this way of eating as the solution for many modern-day ailments. The film makes this claim based on the premise that processed food is not “natural” and that dietary intake should align with human history as hunter-gatherers.

The documentary opens with a disclaimer stating that the personal stories depicted in the film are anecdotal; it makes no claims that the results featured are typical.

The people shown in the film have very serious health issues such as diabetes, autism, seizure disorders, ADHD and more. Before changing their diets, their food choices were very high in added sugars and processed foods and low in fresh foods. They were also taking many medications. The premise of this documentary is that food is the magic pill, and by changing eating patterns, people can live a healthier lifestyle and stop taking so many medications.

Where We Agree

  • Consuming fewer sweets, sugar-sweetened beverages and salty snacks may benefit health since these food choices tend to be highly processed, providing more calories, sodium and sugar and fewer nutrients than whole or minimally processed foods. 
  • Eating whole and minimally processed foods is a beneficial change. While a raw apple (whole food) has more fiber than apple sauce (minimally processed), both can be healthy food choices. Other minimally processed foods include salad in a bag, baby carrots, pasteurized milk, roasted nuts and whole-grain bread. 
  • For some people, eating more protein and fewer carbohydrates helps with weight loss and satiety. In fact, some individuals with type 2 diabetes are unable to eat unprocessed carbohydrates like oatmeal without a big rise in blood sugar. For this reason, diets should be individualized based on personal health needs and lifestyle preferences.
  • Healthy eating patterns and lifestyles that include regular physical activity can reduce the need for medications. However, it is important for individuals to always check with their primary care provider before changing their medical routine.

Where We Differ

  • The film claims there is very little evidence to support the national dietary recommendations and that a lot of evidence has been largely ignored. This simply isn't true. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans is based on a scientific committee report that includes an extensive list of current scientific evidence from studies with rigorous study designs. Click to read “Sifting through Nutritional Science: Separating Hype from Scientific Research,” a paper describing accepted study designs.
  • It is an incorrect inference that humans are biologically identical to our paleo ancestors. Both the foods available to us and our bodies have adapted and changed. For more details, read a previous book club blog reviewing The Paleo Diet.
  • As for the ketogenic diet also featured in this film, it certainly has its place in treating epilepsy (a case study in the film), since this is an accepted medical nutrition therapy. While some clinicians have success treating individuals with type 2 diabetes with a ketogenic diet, this treatment is considered controversial since it is based on very little evidence. More details can be found in a previous book review of The Keto Reset Diet.
  • The case study about the woman who cured her cancer with the ketogenic diet is potentially dangerous. Though the woman in the film had a cancer remission, we do not recommend such a dietary change without the approval and supervision of a health care provider since this is not a standard medical practice.

Bottom Line

The Magic Pill is entertaining and includes elements of truth; however, we cannot recommend it since it also includes too many inaccurate or misleading statements that are not based on consensus science.

The healthy eating pattern recommended in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans include nutrient-dense foods from all of the food groups: Dairy, Vegetables, Fruits, Grains and Protein. These healthy eating patterns aid in optimal growth and development and reduce the risk of chronic disease.

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Maureen Bligh, MA, RDN

Maureen Bligh, MA, RDN

Maureen is the program director of marketing and communications and a practicing registered dietitian nutritionist with over 35 years of experience.

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