Let me tell you what the haters AREN’T saying about the documentary series, “You Are What You Eat: A Twin Study.”
In the ever-evolving landscape of dietary discourse, one thing remains the same, critics often wield strawman arguments as a weapon to undermine meaningful dialogue and perpetuate the status quo. By suppressing, distorting, or misrepresenting opposing viewpoints, these critics sidestep engaging with the core scientific data, hindering progress and perpetuating misconceptions.
From governmental dietary guidelines to groundbreaking studies, in this article, I’ll share a few instances where strawman arguments have been used to discredit valid scientific findings and discuss strategies for recognizing and countering these misleading tactics. Through greater awareness and vigilance, we can foster more informed and constructive discussions on matters of public health and nutrition.
A brief history of Strawman arguments in the plant-based movement
One example of special-interest groups suppressing data occurred nine years ago. Every five years, our government releases updated dietary guidelines purportedly grounded in the latest nutritional science. However, these guidelines often include foods that scientific research has shown to be unhealthy. But in a groundbreaking move in 2015, the guidelines for the first time acknowledged that a plant-based diet not only promotes health but also benefits the environment and combats climate change more effectively than the standard American diet.
Predictably, the meat and dairy industries reacted swiftly to this inclusion. But rather than engage in meaningful discourse about the health benefits of plant-based diets, they instead focused their objections to the committee’s statement on the environment and climate change, claiming it amounted to governmental overreach beyond the committee’s mandate to focus solely on nutritional data. This objection culminated in the passing of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, H.R. 2029. Which, section 734 limits the committee to providing nutritional and dietary information only.
Similar pushback was seen against Dr. Colin Campbell’s book, “The China Study,” which presented compelling evidence linking dairy protein to cancer development and progression. Rather than engaging in a meaningful way about the scientific data, critics argued that extrapolating these findings to all animal proteins was unjustified.
And in 2019, the documentary “Game Changers” challenged the notion that animal protein is indispensable for peak athletic performance. While the film faced criticism for its narrative, particularly regarding the dietary habits of Roman gladiators, the scientific evidence it presented remained unchallenged.
Fast forward to 2024, when a new Netflix documentary series, “You Are What You Eat,” highlights the results of an eight-week study at Stanford University involving identical twins. One twin followed a healthy omnivorous diet, while the other adhered to a whole-food, plant-based diet. The outcomes revealed significant improvements in cardiovascular health markers, including lower LDL cholesterol levels, insulin levels, and body weight among those on the plant-based diet.
Like the previous examples, the critics of “You Are What You Eat” focus disproportionately on the peripheral aspects of the documentary series and are guilty of committing a Strawman fallacy or fallacy of relevance.
However, critics of the documentary series once again resorted to attacking perceived biases rather than engaging with the scientific findings. They argued that the inclusion of topics such as food justice, environmental sustainability, and climate change indicated a “vegan agenda” and detracted from the study’s focus.
In response to these criticisms, a closer examination of the documentary reveals that discussions on sustainability, dietary guidelines, and food accessibility, while not directly related to the twin study, are nonetheless relevant to the broader conversation on food quality and production. Despite comprising a fraction of the total runtime (three minutes, seventeen seconds in a three-hour-plus documentary), these discussions enrich the viewer’s understanding of the interconnected issues surrounding food consumption and its impact on health and the environment.
Like the previous examples, the critics of “You Are What You Eat” focus disproportionately on the peripheral aspects of the documentary series and are guilty of committing a Strawman fallacy or fallacy of relevance. By fixating on tangential points instead of engaging with the core scientific data, they undermine meaningful discourse, perpetuate the status quo, and label advocacy and educational efforts as biased and therefore not to be trusted.
Why do critics resort to strawman fallacy tactics? Because they’re effective. People consciously or unconsciously resort to strawman tactics to discredit a position or theory they don’t subscribe. Often, critics engage in this manner as a way of turning their opponent’s position into something unpopular and to rally support against a position that threatens social norms and the status quo.
The prevalence of strawman arguments in discussions on diet and nutrition underscores the importance of vigilance and critical thinking. By recognizing and addressing these fallacies, those of us advocating for change can elevate the quality of discourse, promote evidence-based decision-making, and advance toward a more informed understanding of dietary choices and their impact on health and society. Proponents for a more plant-forward, sustainable future, must remain steadfast in our commitment to truth and integrity, challenging misconceptions, and biases wherever they arise. Through collaborative efforts and a dedication to open-minded dialogue, we can pave the way for a healthier, more sustainable future for all.