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You Are What You Eat: A Twin Experiment (2024)

If there’s one thing that Netflix does well, it’s health documentaries. We found their 2023 film, Poisoned: The Dirty Truth about your Food to be positively gripping and eye-opening and their 2024 You are what You Eat: A Twin Experiment is equally informative if a little less edge-of-your-seat entertaining. While both films deal with the life-or-death issue of healthy eating, the former highlighted deadly human encounters with tainted food and the latter seeks to awaken us  to the very real repercussions of our daily eating and exercise habits. Produced by The Vogt Foundation and directed by Louie Psihoyos, the film brings a smart new twist to the tried and true health documentary format. As the title indicates, the film is about twins who present the perfect test subjects for isolating the causes and transformations that are possible when we change our behaviours. Since identical twins are biologically identical, studying the impact of different foods and health regimes on sets of twins allows researchers to isolate for variables like food and exercise, while avoiding the genetic distinctions in sets of unrelated human subjects.

The film followed twenty-one sets of twins, highlighting the daily activities of four sets intensely. Significantly, the study included twins of various ages, racial backgrounds, ethnicities, and sexes. One person in each set of twins was assigned a healthy vegan diet and the other, a healthy diet that included animal protein. While the first month saw both twins dig into prepackaged foods uniquely prepared for the experiment within each of their assigned categories, by the second month, they were expected to strictly maintain their own programs while preparing food for themselves.

The film assembled an interesting group of experts and commentators who together drove home the vital importance of such a study. American eating habits are, well, horrible and Canada is not lagging far behind. The most obvious sign of this is a health epidemic in the form of obesity which has in turn led people to risk all on a new breed of as yet unproven drugs called GLP-1’s like Ozempic. If you haven’t heard already, we’re here to let you know that many of us are eating far too many of what our go to functional medicine doctor Mark Hyman of the Doctor’s Farmacy podcast calls “food-like substances”; that is, ultra-processed products that are designed to addict us through their combination of unhealthy fats, sugars, salt, and refined carbohydrates. (As Dr. Mark reminds us, if you can’t pronounce the ingredients on the label, you should not be eating it.) Besides various scholars of the academic and scientific persuasion, the film’s experts include a Detroit-based social justice farmer who notes the racial injustice inherent in the lack of access to fresh produce, a former factory chicken farmer from North Carolina who, after witnessing the disease and death inherent in overcrowded chicken pens has since switched to growing mushrooms, Senator Cory Booker who comments on the corporate greed behind disparities in access to healthy foods, and New York City Mayor Eric Adams for whom a shift to a vegan diet literally saved his life.

At its heart, the film is also a wakeup call for meat-eaters to reckon with what our consumption of animals is doing to the planet we call home. But the tests to which the twins were subjected also provided important results about how their bodies responded to these two diets with measurements of things like sexual function and lean muscle mass. But there were other results  too. For instance LDL or “bad” cholesterol was lowered significantly in the vegan study group who also saw an improvement in the healthy bacteria in their gut microbiome. Perhaps most dramatic was a significant improvement in the length of the vegan group’s telomeres.

What are they, you ask? Well, telomeres protect the ends of our chromosomes from becoming frayed or tangled. According to Lisa H. Chadwick PhD, a telomere is “a long stretch of a specific short DNA sequence repeated over and over hundreds of times”. Picture the plastic coating on the end of your cloth shoelaces. The problem occurs when this “cap” starts to break down, fray, age, and fall off, exposing the material beneath. Similarly, in our bodies shortened telomeres have been associated with increased disease and poor survival. Unsurprisingly then, telomere length decreases with age. But what the twin study revealed is that our epigenetic clocks can be changed with diet and lifestyle. Yes, the vegans in the study, after only two months, had longer telomeres than their omnivore twins! The conclusion is this. A healthy vegan diet can slow or reverse biological aging.

So, for those of you who feel you have been duped by yo-yo diets and derailed by fast food franchises, all is not lost. We can change and improve our biology in profound ways for the better by changing how and what we eat. This film may be just the place to start.