The Australian film has caused quite the controversy after suggesting that a high-fat keto diet is the answer to everything from cancer to autism.
The ketogenic diet has been surging in popularity, so it's no surprise that a new documentary on the subject has emerged on Netflix. Dubbed The Magic Pill, the new film argues that a keto diet (a high-fat, moderate-protein, and low-carb meal plan) is the best way to eat—so much so that it has the capability of curing cancer, obesity, and liver disease; improving symptoms of autism and diabetes; and reducing dependence on prescription drugs in as little as five weeks.
If that sounds like a stretch to you, you're not alone. The film has raised red flags about the potential to mislead audiences that there is a "quick fix" solution to serious medical conditions, some of which have perplexed even the most educated and committed researchers.
The film follows several individuals and families across the United States and Aboriginal communities in Australia who are encouraged by the filmmakers to ditch their unhealthy diets and, instead, embrace a ketogenic lifestyle under the promise that it will help heal their respective illnesses.
Those people are advised to eat organic, whole foods, eliminate processed foods, grains, and legumes, embrace fats (such as coconut oil, animal fat, eggs, and avocados), avoid dairy, consume wild-caught and sustainable seafood, eat nose to tail (bone broths, organ meats), and fermented foods, and adopt intermittent fasting. (Related: Why the Potential Intermittent Fasting Benefits Might Not Be Worth the Risks)
Since its release, people have sounded off on their concern about the overall message of the film. Australian Medical Association (AMA) president Michael Gannon, for instance, compared the documentary to controversial anti-vaccination film, Vaxxed, and said the two were competing "in the awards for the films least likely to contribute to public health," as reported by The Daily Telegraph.
"I enjoy [the] emphasis on protein because there's no question that lean meat, eggs, and fish are superfoods...but exclusion diets never work," Gannon told the Telegraph. (To be fair, keto is actually not a high-protein diet. This is a common keto diet mistake many people make, though.)
While it's already understood that restrictive diets like the keto diet are difficult to maintain, people are still looking for weight-loss plans and fast fixes for health issues, and it's the latter part of the doc's keto claims—its ability to cure a slew of health conditions—that seems to be striking a nerve.
"There is no magic pill for anything, and saying a keto diet can cure cancer, autism, diabetes, obesity, and asthma is a bit overkill," one Reddit user wrote. "These people all had terrible diets before they started keto, so it's likely they would have seen some improvements in their overall health just by reducing processed foods and exercising more." (Related: Is the Keto Diet Bad for You?)
Other viewers took their feelings straight to the film's reviews section on Netflix. "What this documentary shows is how little people understand science and how it works," one user said in a two-star review. "This is a documentary about anecdotal evidence and theories. Anecdotal evidence is interesting and can lead us to explore important questions, but anecdotal evidence on its own is not 'proof.'"
Another reviewer mirrored similar emotions about the credibility of the film, giving one star and writing: "No interviews with food/nutrition researchers from respected universities, opinions came from chefs/'health coaches'/writers. Observational studies without randomized placebo control double-blind properly powered (statistical) studies. Not convincing to rational viewers."
Australian chef Pete Evans is one of the experts interviewed for the documentary who is raising some eyebrows. Despite his lack of credentials, Evans is seen in the film promoting the medical benefits of the ketogenic diet—and this isn't the first time he's been at the forefront of nutrition controversy.
A few years ago, he found himself in hot water for suggesting that the paleo diet is the cure-all to everything, including osteoporosis. At one point, his unprecedented medical advice got so out of hand that the AMA was forced to tweet a warning about the celebrity chef.
"Pete Evans [is] putting his fans' health at risk with extreme advice on diet, fluoride, calcium," the AMA wrote on Twitter. "Celebrity chef shouldn't dabble in medicine." With this background, it's easy to see why viewers would be skeptical of The Magic Pill.
While the documentary is stirring up a hot debate on an already heated topic, this isn't to say that the ketogenic diet is all bad or that ~some~ of the documentary's claims don't warrant further attention. While it's served as a way to successfully lose weight for some people, the keto diet actually does have a history as a medicinal diet.
"Ketogenic diets have been therapeutically used for over a century to treat refractory epilepsy in children," said Catherine Metzgar, Ph.D., a registered dietitian and nutritional biochemistry expert in "8 Common Keto Diet Mistakes You Could Be Getting Wrong." "In addition, clinical trials of ketogenic diets demonstrate that they can result in profound health improvements and medication reductions for people living with type 2 diabetes."
So, while following a keto diet may help you shed some extra weight, gain energy, or—in specific circumstances—reduce symptoms of some medical conditions, there's little to no chance it (or any other diet for that matter) is the end-all-be-all "magic pill" for health. If it isn't obvious by now, remember to always consult your doctor when considering a drastic diet or lifestyle change.