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The Magic Pill film review: Pete Evans’ intellectually poisonous diet documentary

With the addition of the Pete Evans-produced health documentary The Magic Pill to its library, Netflix continue a slate of commissions and acquisitions that are either bold or tone deaf, depending on your perspective. See also: the second season to the controversial 13 Reasons Why, among the most socially irresponsible television shows of the 21st century, and an as-yet unnamed series from comedian Chris Lilley – whose career, at least in terms of local broadcasters, seemed all but over. Evans is the much-maligned paleo and activated almonds enthusiast, quite possibly the most scorned Australian chef in history.

Evans might consider this derision proof that he has upset the establishment, ruffling the feathers of vested interests and medical professionals supposedly duped by them. Like many outspoken and against-the-grain (in this case, in more ways than one) critics who have been repeatedly called out by experts, Evans, instead of retreating, got his back up and doubled down. Thus a feature documentary machine-tooled to prove his point, directed by a true believer: the filmmaker Rob Tate. The Magic Pill’s critics include Dr Michael Gannon, head of the Australian Medical Association, who nominated it as the film/TV production least likely to contribute to public health.

The warning that precedes The Magic Pill – advising viewers to consult with medical professionals – does not absolve the filmmakers of responsibility.

Evans and Tate present a paleo (high fat) diet as, in effect, a miracle cure for cancer and diabetes, and a powerful way to treat autism. The film begins in East Arnhem Land, explaining the poor health of the Yolngu people as a result of a western style diet. There is unquestionably a connection between health and diet; everybody knows that. But the filmmakers set the tone for the rest of the documentary when they present this issue in isolation. The truth, of course, is that many factors contribute to the health of Indigenous people – such as poverty, high rates of alcohol and drug consumption and lack of access to health services.

Were the filmmakers aware of this? If the answer is “no” they come from a position of ignorance. If the answer is “yes”, and they decided to leave these considerations out (when quiered on such matters, documentarians will often say they ‘couldn’t fit it all in’) this constitutes an act of intellectual subterfuge. Like the ideologically putrid men’s rights activist documentary The Red Pill, which reported that the vast majority of people who have died fighting in wars throughout history are men (but neglected to mention that woman are often not allowed to even serve) The Magic Pill reminds us that omission can be a powerful thing.

The contents of the film may champion a healthy diet, but the construction of it reflects deeply dubious thinking.

About 20 minutes in, one anti-wheat advocate explains that wheat was added to our diet 10,000 years ago. This “sounds like a long time” but in fact “represents less than one half of one percent of (sic) human race’s time on earth.” The obvious inference is that our health is rescinding, and there is virtue in winding the clock back. But did human beings actually live longer, healthier and happier lives many thousands of years ago?

Of course not. As Scientific American recently reported, “analyses of fossil teeth indicate that grandparents were rare in ancient populations, such as those of the australopithecines and the Neandertals.” According to this story published by the BBC, capturing more recent data – and there’s plenty more where that came from – the average life expectancy of a human in the UK circa the 1200s was around 31 years.

Evans and Tate might respond to these reports by claiming such observations miss the point; they might question the veracity of the data. But by not addressing these obvious counter arguments in the documentary itself, they have constructed a hypothesis that is weak at best. Any academic worth their salt will tell you that an important part of constructing a thesis is anticipating criticism and preemptively addressing it. In a world of complexities and competing ideologies, where the truth often gets distorted, this is a necessary discourse. It also demonstrates what we often call ‘nuance’.

This is a very dangerous message. It might compel a sick and vulnerable person to think they can put down their medicine, and replace it with a juicy steak and some veggies.

Deploying inspirational cliches such as costal images and people riding bicycles in sunshine, The Magic Pill visits subjects who are desperate and ill. They try out Evans’ paleo diet. Returning only weeks later, the filmmakers observe startling transformations. The asthma sufferer apparently no longer needs their Ventolin. The diabetic apparently no longer needs insulin. The autistic child is speaking for the first time. One woman with cancer discusses how, after switching to a high fat diet, she no longer requires surgery or chemotherapy.

Let’s assume, for argumentative purposes (because this is a big assumption) that Evans’ diet did indeed provide a panacea for these once-unfortunate peoples’ woes. By focusing only on these case studies – and not mentioning examples of times when the diet didn’t, or might not work – the suggestion is that it works every time.

This is a very dangerous message. It’s the sort of message that might compel a sick and vulnerable person to think they can put down their medicine, and replace it with a juicy steak and some veggies. The warning that precedes The Magic Pill – advising viewers to consult with medical professionals – does not absolve the filmmakers of responsibility. The contents of the film may champion a healthy diet, but the construction of it reflects deeply dubious thinking: either ignorance or subterfuge. It is reasonable not just to scrutinise the film and its makers, but to question Netflix’s motives for acquiring it.

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19 responses to “The Magic Pill film review: Pete Evans’ intellectually poisonous diet documentary

  1. So let me get this right – A film critic expects us to believe he speaks with authority and is capable of exposing experts like Professor Noakes and all the other doctors.

    The beauty of social media today is how ignorant critics like Mr Buckmaster are quickly debunked and exposed. He almost seems like a patsy!

  2. How can anyone take this critique seriously when the author is calling it a paleo diet? The diet in the film is a keto diet, very distinctly different than a paleo diet in several ways. A keto diet does, in fact, have quite a bit of documentation on it and has been used for over a hundred years as a premier epilepsy treatment. The author could have found this out by simply using google, or digging even further and getting real information. Or even reading some of the studies done on it. Too much work? Easier to just write incorrect information?

    1. Agreed! Paleo is not necessarily ketogenic.

      If we are thinking about macronutrients then I would say:
      Vegan: high carb, moderate protein, low fat
      Ketogenic: high fat, moderate protein, very low carb
      Paleo: high protein, moderate fat, low carb

      Obviously the Western Diet doesn’t work. (High refined carb, high/moderate protein, high/moderate fat)
      All three can work in different scenarios. Why is there so much argument?

  3. The examples in this doc are most likely not typical. We should all have enough common sense to know that not everything suits everyone. The people in the doc did not just simply STOP their meds. They were able to wean themselves off with help from their doctors and the new lifestyle. It may not work for everyone, but we can HOPE. Eating foods that come from nature makes sense. Once people get their obesity under control they may be able to add healthy carbs back into their diets. There are some of us that are suffering from multiple conditions caused by our obesity. We’ve tried everything and nothing is working. I’m on Keto. but I do have days where I do eat carbs, but I find them in food that it occurs in nature. We want to get away from all the chemicals and GMO’s that food manufacturers are labeling as FOOD. If you want to keep eating processed food with ingredients that our bodies can’t identify, then you go right ahead, but there are some of us that want to eat REAL food.

  4. ” … did human beings actually live longer, healthier and happier lives many thousands of years ago?”

    The truth, of course, is that many factors contribute to human health.

    Does Luke Buckmeister present all the ‘facts’?

    If the answer is “no” he must come from a position of ignorance. If the answer is “yes”, and they decided to leave these considerations out (when quiered on such matters, documentarians will often say they ‘couldn’t fit it all in’) this constitutes an act of intellectual subterfuge.

    I’ve not seen the show and have a son with autism who became anorexic on the anti-wheat diet. I do not support it but I also know that this kind of moronic ‘review’ is counter productive. It is about diet – what we eat every day and as you say, nobody really knows yet how diet truly impacts upon the various human genomes. So why the shutting down all the time? I am absolutely fascinated and love hearing about other takes on what is absolutely and surely a real issue. Also, I gave up wheat and sugar, lost heaps of weigh and never felt better. Not alone.

  5. Carbohydrates (glucose,fructose, alcohol) directly cause cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, dementia, liver disease and if you believe this move – Autism. It’s time to face reality people and wake up from your sugary nightmare.

  6. There are some really bad comments present here.

    I for one, am NOT a Pete Evans fans. He’s said some pretty outrageous things over the years that don’t quite stand up to the test of logic.

    But it Cannot be denied that the modern diet of the average human is Rubbish. That is the message here, and its 100% correct. Sure, they are cherry picking data and results in a few items found in the film…but just take a look at your average newspaper article – wow.

    Fact is, by removing alot of the junk from peoples diets, the Vast majority of people will see large benefits.
    Some of us have already been taught this by our own parents, IE, eat mostly whole natural foods and you’ll be fine. Again, that IS the underlying message of the film.

  7. in matters of healthcare, I always defer first to celebrity pizza chefs/cooking show hosts. Especially when they’re about to release a book or product that provides an alternative to whatever it is that they are currently scaremongering about. Who else can you trust? Would honestly put your faith about something as important as your health in the hands of a doctor with more than a decade of training and decades of experience? Pizza chef first, every time.

    1. In matters of healthcare I always line up at my local medical centre to see any random non dietory trained GP to treat my ailments with the magic pill ..
      The non doctor Pete Evans promotes good eating and less soft drinks and you have a problem with that .!?!?
      Shudder the thought that people start to realise that we actually are a reflection of the fuel we put into ourselves and our children. The day a GP turns away from his prescription pad and starts to recommend you purchase a juicer is the same day that he decides to reduce the waiting time in his medical centre foyer and extend the time it will take him to pay off his mortgage.
      Im not a big fan of Palio Pete however common sense tells you he will always be non popular, particularly with GPs who are just now beginning to push an add campaign for obesity relief with there prescription pad at the fore for what they hope should be your 10 minute help me NOW Doc session . All said and done who needs a book deal when you have a licence to corral people like cattle and milk the system with 10 minute intervals of divine Dr wisdom .

  8. All I know is that a friend of mine has changed his diet to Paleo and is feeling a thousand per cent better. I have also changed my diet to Paleo and feel so much better. haven’t seen the film though.

  9. Thank you for an intelligent and common sense review. This Ketogenic fat driven diet has very little common sense nor science associated. Carb dense diets are prominent amongst ie Seventh day adventists, Italians, Greeks, Costa Ricans, Okinawans…and they have done so for many many years and series of their generations. Show me one, just one person somewhere who has lived on a high fat low carb diet for much of their life and are disease free and fully functional? I cant find one, seriously.
    Why is this all the rage? Talk about against the odds. It’s Atkins reincarnated with a twist of lemon.
    I have contacted a few of these low carb high fat organisations with a few questions and not one has answered me because they just don’t have the answers to common sense and logic.

    1. “Show me one, just one person somewhere who has lived on a high fat low carb diet for much of their life and are disease free and fully functional? I cant find one, seriously.” Inuit survive almost entirely on a saturated fats and proteins. As do Maasai, with a diet of milk, meat and blood.

      As to there being no science associated with this type of diet, read a little of Gary Taubes or Nina Teicholz. Carbohydates / sugars are responsible for triggering hormonal insulin response, and essentially tell the body to begin fat storage. Proteins and fats do not trigger this response. A diet high in proteins and healthy fats (including saturated animal fats) and low in carbohydrate has been demonstrated to reduce weight and reverse Type-2 diabetes in many cases. See also Banting diet, Tim Noakes and Tasmanian doctor Gary Fettke.

      BTW, I should have begun by saying I am no fan of Pete Evans. But even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

    2. No facts in your comment. Why all the “rage” about considering what you eat has an impact on your health?

    3. Show me one person who has lived a long healthy life eating the processed crap they sell on the shelves at your local grocer and call it food. Show me one of these people who do not have health or weight issues. Do you believe that early man survived on twinkies?

  10. Interesting article, although your arguments about human life expectancy are flawed.
    Your quote a As Scientific American which notes that australopithecines and the Neandertals didn’t live long enough to be grand parents, what about Homosapians, after all that is who we are. Also you mention the life expectancy of people in the middle ages circa 1200, if the location of that research is in Europe, humans were in full farming mode by then and were very restricted by how well their one or two crops did. The point being made in the movie was that a low carb diet followed for a lifetime would not result in many of the lifestyle diseases that are prevalent in today’s society, as the Aboriginals who were interviewed at the start of the movie said you would be more likely to die from an accident or fighting, not disease.

    1. Ed, the people living in Europe circa 1200 were homo sapiens. The article states their average a life expectancy of 31 years. So grandparents would also have been rare among those people at that time. If you want to refute this apparently flawed argument, can you tell us the life expectancies of non-agrarian civilisations elsewhere in the world? If your premise is that the life expectancy of 13th century Europeans was negatively impacted by farming, provide an example from somewhere else where their lives were extended by not farming.

      As for indigenous people being more likely to die by accident or fighting, could it be that apart from all of the introduced diseases from Europe, their lifestyles as warriors & hunters left them more open to dying in battle or on the hunt? With modern healthcare & sedate lifestyles, people are living longer & becoming susceptible to diseases that afflict the aged. Europeans in the 13th century didn’t live long enough to die from the diseases that kills modern 65 year olds

      1. This article flawed
        “If we look again at the estimated maximum life expectancy for prehistoric humans, which is 35 years, we can see that this does not mean that the average person living at this time died at the age of 35. Rather, it means that for every child that died in infancy, another person might have lived to be 70. The life expectancy statistic is, therefore, a deeply flawed way to think about the quality of life of our ancient ancestors.” (from ancient-origins)

        do we even need statisitics? clearly the indigenous people’s on a traditional diet were healthy and fit. Those on the western diet got diabetes because they lacked access to doctors?

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