We have all heard the saying ‘You are what you eat,’ right? Many believe that its meaning is simply telling us to watch what we allow our bodies to consume because of the effects the types of food you eat can have on your body.
A new Netflix documentary has put this theory to the test, You Are What You Eat, showcases sets of identical twins as they adopt different diets. The experiment is compelling because, being genetically identical, the health of each twin is very similar before the trial.
Published in the medical journal JAMA Network Open in November 2023, the first-of-its-kind study recruited 22 pairs of identical twins, split up by diet. In each twin pair, one was randomly assigned to eat a healthy vegan diet for eight weeks while the other was assigned a healthy omnivore diet that included meat, eggs, and dairy. Those in the vegan cohort ended the study with much better health outcomes, particularly lower fasting insulin and lower cholesterol — a key indicator for heart health.
In the world of nutrition research, the recent twin study has captured significant attention, especially with the release of the Netflix documentary series.
The study’s findings align with extensive research promoting the advantages of healthy plant-based diets. During the Stanford study’s initial four weeks, participants consumed pre-prepared frozen meals, while the subsequent four weeks required them to follow basic principles, emphasising minimally processed foods and a mix of vegetables, starches, proteins, and healthy fats.
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Of particular interest to researchers was the impact on participants’ low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels (LDL-C), commonly known as “bad cholesterol,” a crucial indicator of heart health. The omnivorous group saw minimal changes in LDL-C levels, averaging 116.1 milligrams per deciliter, which exceeded the recommended 100 mg/dL maximum. In contrast, participants on the vegan diet experienced an average 13 percent reduction in LDL-C levels, dropping to 95.5 mg/dL. Additionally, fasting insulin levels decreased by an additional 20 percent for the vegan group, showcasing potential benefits in diabetes risk. Surprisingly, the vegan participants also shed an average of 4.2 more pounds than their omnivorous counterparts, even though weight loss wasn’t a primary focus of the study.
While the vegan group did show a slight decrease in vitamin B12 levels, it wasn’t at a deficiency level. Nutrition experts suggest that vegetarians and vegans take a B12 supplement, though this was not recommended in the study. Recognising the study’s short duration (eight weeks) as a limitation, experts emphasize the preference for longer-term studies in the complex and intricate field of nutrition science. Adhering to a diet is crucial for its effectiveness, and many individuals, even in the vegan cohort, found it challenging to maintain the lifestyle post-study.
Despite the low retention in full veganism, the two-month experiment had a positive impact, with nearly all participants expressing a commitment to incorporating more plant-based foods into their diets. For those aiming to enhance their health and reduce their environmental impact through plant-based eating, experimenting with a flexitarian diet might be a practical and sustainable starting point.
In essence, while You Are What You Eat: A Twin Experiment takes significant strides in raising awareness about diet, health, and sustainability, it represents just the beginning of a much larger, more nuanced conversation. There’s a wealth of potential for future explorations in this field to provide more balanced, comprehensive, and culturally sensitive views on nutrition and its role in our lives.
Feature image: You Are What You Eat/Netflix