Earlier in 2017 a documentary rocked the nutrition world. “What the Health?” created a lot of controversy after it was released on Netflix in June. Did you watch it? Did you love it, or hate it? I wanted to add my voice to the responses to this compelling and divisive vegan documentary. I’ll tell you five things I loved about “What the health”…. And three things I didn’t
Five things I loved:
What the Health? The vegan maker?
From the start I want to acknowledge that I am vegan. I also love documentaries. That is a lot of bias. I remember when documentaries used to take a measured and balanced approach. At least, I think I remember that. Now, it seems that documentaries are all about being loud and grabbing attention. I still love them.
I think it is wise to acknowledge, that even though documentaries may have some doctors or scientists appearing in them, that does not make them reliable sources of scientific information. Documentaries have become entertainment, but they also can get us thinking.
What the Health has got a lot of people talking about veganism, and has helped a lot of people go vegan! Popular singer and songwriter Ne-Yo went vegan after watching “What the Health” just once, and Lewis Hamilton, F1 race world champion also credits “What the Health” for guiding his decision to go vegan.
And, its not just celebrities making the switch. I had lots of clients come to my office this summer and say “I just watched What the Health and I want to go vegan. Help me do that healthfully.” Fabulous!
Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn are the filmmakers behind What the Health. They also made Cowspiracy. Cowspiracy is a film about the environmental aspects of agriculture that really got me thinking! Now, I could have been inspired by the United Nations report on the topic Livestock’s Long Shadow, back in 2006, but it is important to acknowledge that I was not. It took a friend sharing Cowspiracy on Facebook to really get me fired up about this issue. That is the world we live in today!
Shock documentaries and social media have a big influence. Of course, not all of that press has been positive, but on balance, I think the attention has been useful. So, What the Health has made veganism front page news, and has inspired a lot of people to go vegan – and I think that is good news.
The main message is the best message
The main message of the film is that eating meat is not boosting your health when it comes to most chronic diseases; in fact it may be harming it. There is a lot of evidence to show that this is true. Eating a predominantly plant-based, high-fibre diet lowers our risk of the biggest killers, including diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. Major studies including EPIC Oxford, and the Adventist Health Study 2 as well as the work done unlocking secrets to longevity in the Blue Zones all point to the fact that a plant-based diet is the healthiest one we can adopt.
Do we have evidence to say that we all need to go completely vegan to prevent disease? No. But if you walk away from What the Health knowing that you should eat mostly plants for your health, you’ve won. This is why it is important to not look at veganism from only a health perspective. It is an environmental and animal rights issue as well.
Pulling back the covers on animal agriculture’s strange bedfellows
The film gives big health organizations like the American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association a good kicking for links to animal agriculture. I completely agree that these organizations should not take money from animal agriculture. Kip maybe could have handled those calls and interviews better, but the key issue is that these groups should not be in bed together.
Nor should the federal government be spending millions promoting cheese sales – including fast food cheese pizza (!), through checkoff programs. That is scandalous stuff and good for What the Health for blowing the whistle.
4. Celebrating stories of hope
Everyone loves a good before and after! I’m glad that What the Health included some transformation stories, because a plant-based diet can change your life, and your health. I’ve seen people in my own practice turn around their health by changing to a plant-based diet. It is incredible when people can give up their meds (supervised by their doctor) and actually reverse disease!
The reality is though, of course, there are no guarantees and your personal experience may be different from what those in the film experience. I think we all know that, and this is just another time that we all need to remember, this is just a movie.
Exposing how animal agriculture is exploiting poor communities
You know how every wealthy community is plagued by a massive lake of pig sewage that seeps into their drinking water and contaminates their air? No? That is because these massive farming operations are generally located in poor communities.
National Geographic has raised the alarm that millions of pigs concentrated in a few states in the US are producing millions of tonnes of manure each year (for example,hogs in five eastern North Carolina counties produced 15.5 million tons of manure in one year) . To try to manage the poop, farmers spray it on their fields. This is a health hazard for nearby residents. Would you want to live next to that? I’m glad that What the Health is shining a light on this disgusting problem.
3 things I didn’t
1. Fear mongering
The biggest thing I disliked about What the Health was its fear mongering tone. I don’t like that they gave parents the idea that if they feed meat or eggs to their children it is the same risk as giving them cigarettes to smoke (it’s not!) or that “meat toxins” will cause immediate inflammation and disease when meat is consumed.
The part I liked least was when pregnant women were warned that eating meat and dairy when pregnant will likely harm their babies because of toxins used in animal agriculture. The experts did not discuss the level of risk, or adequately acknowledge that there are other sources of toxins in our environment. Those are all serious claims that get people very emotional, and potentially very scared. I’m sure the filmmakers are trying to grab attention, and I get that, but these claims cross the line for me.
2. Sick shaming/body shaming
One of the side effects of films like this is that people inside and outside the vegan movement think that all vegans should be slim, fit and healthy all the time. When vegans get sick, be it a cold or cancer, they may feel they are letting veganism down; that they are a poor representation of veganism.
I’ve met a lot of super fit vegans! I have also met vegans who are struggling with their weight or other aspects of their health. Vegans have told me that people ask them “I thought you were vegan? Why aren’t you skinny?” These are hurtful comments. Veganism is for everybody, not just the super fit. We need to be a welcoming community and recognize diversity.
3. Exaggerating the evidence?
There is a preponderance of evidence to show that eating a predominantly whole food. plant-based diet is good for your health. We just don’t have the weight of evidence yet, however, that shows that everyone needs to go completely vegan for the benefit of their health. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics agrees that a well-planned vegan diet is healthy for all stages of the life cycle. We don’t need to exaggerate the evidence! There is no nutrition intervention that has more high quality evidence behind it than the fact that eating lots of plants is good for you. Let’s not ever exaggerate or scare people into going vegan. We just don’t need to do that, and it is not right.
People have many reasons for going vegan. I’m vegan for my health, the environment and for the animals. My health and the environment may give me some wiggle room to still include some animal products in my diet; but not causing harm to animals does not. That is why What the Health is just one piece of the puzzle. I hope many people watch this film and that they ask great questions of the science and of themselves. To me, being vegan is about a lot more than health, and hopefully this documentary will be the start of some amazing transformations for many people; physically and philosophically.