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5 takeaways from Netflix’s ‘You Are What You Eat’ docuseries

A popular new Netflix documentary tracking identical twins’ diets shows the potential health benefits of a vegan diet. “You Are What You Eat: A Twin Experiment” is a four-episode series that studies four sets of twins over eight weeks. One twin is assigned a vegan diet, the other an omnivorous diet.

It’s based on a 2022 Stanford Medicine study in which researchers analyzed the baseline health of each twin before undergoing the experiment. They monitored various measures such as weight, biological age, heart and gut health over the two-month experiment to compare the benefits of a healthy vegan diet versus a healthy omnivorous one.

Although the show covers similar ground to earlier Netflix plant-based documentaries such as “What the Health” (2017) and “The Game Changers” (2018), the series’ significance lies in its use of twins.

Nutrition science and health outcomes from diet are notoriously difficult to manage because of the inherent genetic variation of test subjects. But genetically identical twins level the playing field somewhat to create a closer like-for-like comparison of dietary choices on health.

In addition to the health outcomes, the series also looked at the various environmental, ethical, social and cultural factors that can be barriers to eating a healthy, plant-forward diet.

Here are five key takeaways from the experiment:

The food system is flawed

The series uncovers how the infamously poor average American diet came to be. According to experts in “You Are What You Eat,” many post-World War II Americans were underweight, and as a result, many men didn’t qualify for the military. There was also a rapidly growing population that was increasingly time-poor.

Industrial farming allowed production to scale quickly, and mass-produced packaged food became widely available. These high-calorie foods fueled American workers and a generation of growing children, but eventually this swung too far in the opposite direction.

Americans’ dependence on convenience food, combined with what some experts call an addiction to unhealthy food, culminated in the standard American diet. It is now widely recognized as the culprit for health issues such as Type 2 diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

For those struggling to give up fast food, start by thinking of plant-based alternatives to your favorite takeout. Love fried Buffalo wings? Try air fryer Buffalo cauliflower wings instead. Craving a burger? Try making your own at home with a plant-based meat alternative.

Healthy food isn’t always accessible

In addition to the experiment, the series acknowledged that Americans face challenges accessing fresh, healthy food.

In California, the population of Loma Linda lives up to 10 years longer than the average American. Marked as one of the world’s Blue Zones, the town has easy access to fresh produce. Most of the population is vegetarian, following the Seventh-day Adventist religion.

However, fresh food is less readily available in the neighboring town of San Bernardino, the birthplace of McDonald’s. These towns are separated only by a freeway, yet their populations experience significantly different health outcomes.

Areas like San Bernardino are known as food deserts — meaning there is insufficient access to grocery stores with nutritious foods. So, buying fresh groceries and eating a balanced diet may be more challenging, depending on where you live.

Benefits on heart health

“As an immigrant, there are so many health issues in the Filipino American community,” one of the study participants, Rosalyn Moorhouse, says in the first episode of “You Are What You Eat.” “We have heart disease, diabetes.”

It’s not just Filipino Americans who are affected. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for most racial and ethnic groups in the United States, with one person dying every 33 seconds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Reducing “bad cholesterol” or low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C) is critical for heart health, as elevated levels are associated with an increased risk of atherosclerosis and coronary artery disease. Atherosclerosis occurs when LDL-C builds up on artery walls, forming plaques that can lead to blockages. If left untreated, these blockages can result in heart attacks or strokes.

The vegan twins substantially reduced their LDL-C by 15.2 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), while the omnivorous group had a more modest decline of 2.4 mg/dL.

Eat as much as you want and still lose weight

On average, the vegan participants lost 4.2 pounds compared with their omnivorous counterparts. Interestingly, the study did not aim for weight loss, as all twins ate until they felt full.

Overall, the vegan twins consumed fewer calories. Eating high-fiber meals like mushroom stroganoff, plus plenty of legumes and protein, is the key to feeling satisfied.

For those who have struggled with weight gain and yo-yo dieting, this could be the holy grail — a diet that doesn’t leave you hungry but still helps you lose weight.

Reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes

Poor nutrition, obesity and lifestyle choices such as smoking can cause Type 2 diabetes. It can lead to serious complications, including heart disease, stroke, kidney issues, nerve damage and an elevated risk of lower limb amputations.

Insulin resistance and elevated blood sugar levels are textbook characteristics of Type 2 diabetes. The vegan twins reported a significant drop of over 20 percent in fasting insulin levels compared with the omnivorous twins. Higher fasting insulin levels indicate insulin resistance, a factor associated with Type 2 diabetes.

Of course, there are some limitations to the study. It had a relatively small sample size of 44 participants and was conducted over only eight weeks. In addition, the last four weeks of the experiment allowed participants to choose their food rather than providing them with pre-prepared meals.

The study further establishes the scientific evidence that a predominantly plant-based diet can promote positive health outcomes. Does this mean you should go vegan overnight? Not necessarily. Those who eat a more plant-forward diet with less-processed foods such as fruits, vegetables, seeds, legumes and grains will reap many health benefits.

Lead researcher Christopher Gardner hopes that the study and the documentary convey a simple message: eat healthier.

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