DVD Review: My Big Fat Diet

A Journey to the Past Brings Back Health

Bare Bones Productions/Mystique Films

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Imagine you are on a low-carb diet in a small community where a significant percentage of the population was pledging to eat the same way. There would be potluck dinners that were entirely low in carbs. The grocery store in town would start stocking lots of low-carb foods. And...oh, yes, a camera crew would track how everyone was doing. This excellent documentary by filmmaker Mary Bissell follows the journey of a diet study conducted in Alert Bay, British Columbia.

Reviving Old Traditions

Alert Bay is small community on the coast of British Columbia made up largely of aboriginal Canadians (Namgis tribe). Unfortunately, the residents of Alert Bay are coping with extremely high rates of obesity and diabetes. Researcher Jay Wortman, M.D., hypothesized that the problem was caused in part by a change in their diet, when they moved away from eating as their ancestors had to a more "modern" diet with more processed foods.  Dr. Wortman decided to try to find out what would happen if these people returned to a more traditional diet.

Probably the most notable difference between the modern Namgis diet and the traditional one is that until relatively recently the Namgis tribe ate no starches or sugars. Their diet had been largely made up of seafood, wild game, and a fat extracted from local fish called oolichan grease. Fats comprised most of the calories of the traditional diet as the grease was liberally used in most traditional dishes.

The only plant foods eaten were seasonal wild plants and berries. However, in more recent years, starches and sugars have infiltrated the food supply, until the cupboards of Alert Bay were as full of pasta, crackers, and sweets as any typical North American kitchen.

To mimic the traditional diet but make it more accessible, a group of 100 people went on a diet similar to the Atkins Diet.

They were monitored by medical personnel throughout the process. The main differences between the diet in the study and the traditional diet were that the participants were allowed a greater variety of foods such as bacon, eggs, sausage, and non-starchy vegetables including that favorite of low-carb dieters: cauliflower. (The local store found it had to get 4 to 5 times more cauliflower than they usually ordered.)

Can A High-Fat Diet Be Healthy?

A nutritional expert who was interviewed in the film about the diet gave her opinion that the inclusion of "market fats" such as the bacon and sausage made the diet less nutritionally sound than if the diet had been more true to the traditional fats. (Oolichan grease was analyzed, and found to have a fatty acid composition similar to olive oil.) In response, Dr. Steven Phinney, M.D. and Ph.D., an expert in fat metabolism, explained that people on low-carb diets generally have less saturated fat in their blood than people who eat a lot of carbohydrate, because the body makes saturated fat from the excess carbs, while on a low-carb diet the body tends to burn dietary saturated fat.

I thought it was good that the standard nutritional point of view was represented in the film, even if briefly.

On the other hand, I couldn't help but think about the constant refrain that there are no long-term studies testing low-carb eating. Yeah, only hundreds of thousands of years or so by many of our ancient ancestors.

Working Through the Obstacles to Achieve Success

One thing I liked best about the documentary was that it showed what real people did when they ran into obstacles which threw them off track. People shared their reactions to difficulties with family and health, confessed to "cheating" on the diet, and talked about how they got back on the low-carb wagon. The film is filled with real people who I found myself rooting for, a sign that the filmmaker was able to forge an emotional connection between the audience and the people in the film.

But in the end, they kept at it, and the group lost over 1200 pounds. Cholesterol, triglycerides, blood glucose, and other health measures improved. Many were able to eliminate medications for diabetes or blood pressure, or at least cut back to a large degree.

At the end of the movie, the filmmakers interviewed people about their plans to continue the healthy low-carb lifestyle. It would be really great to check in with them and find out how they are doing.

About the DVD

This one-hour documentary was originally produced for Canadian television, and is now available on DVD. The price on the Website is in Canadian dollars.

Filmmaker's Web Site

Dr. Jay Wortman's Blog

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