A Dietitian’s Review of “What the Health” Documentary

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I enjoyed a rare Netflix afternoon this weekend (Daddy took the four-year-old swimming and I was rocking a sleepy/nursing two-month-old in my lap). I probably should have started the Game of Thrones series because it would have been more fun than what I chose: the new documentary “What the Health.” In the film, Kip Andersen uncovers the grim cause of all chronic disease and the conspiracy among some leading health organizations to cover up the source: meat and other animal products.

Following I will give a summary on the bad and the good in the film. Allow me to preface this by saying that I am a big proponent for a more plant-based diet and support the overriding message of the film, but I take issue with how it was conveyed.

The Bad

There are some problems with the film: fear-mongering, misinformation, and cherry-picking.

To start, it’s important to recognize that many documentaries are made with an end goal in mind. When Kip Andersen set out to make this film, his intention was to encourage the viewer to eat a vegan diet. For those not familiar, a vegan diet does not include animal products of any kind (eg. meat, dairy, and eggs). Kip uses lots of scare tactics to elicit fear in the viewer: ominous music, dark lighting, shaky hidden camera footage, and him feverishly driving around “trying to get answers.” In some scenes the dramatics go a bit overboard: for example, in one scene Kip calls the American Cancer Society and grills the phone operator about why their website has sliced turkey listed on a meal plan. When the operator says he needs to place him on a brief hold, Kip insinuates he was blown off because there is something to hide. I’m pretty sure the phone operator is not going to have an immediate answer to that kind of question! This fabricated drama takes away from the credibility of the film.

There is also some blatant misinformation provided in the film from how human metabolism works to current understanding of scientific research. For example, one of the doctors interviewed states that carbohydrates are either stored as glycogen or burned as fuel, and rarely turn into fat. I’m here to tell you that excess carbohydrate can absolutely be stored as fat (as can excess protein and fat). In another example, a doctor harps on the amount of cholesterol in eggs and associated disease risk. However, dietary cholesterol is less of a concern than it once was (saturated fat is another story). The Dietary Guidelines for Americans actually took out a limitation on dietary cholesterol in their 2015-2020 release.

The movie is also guilty of “cherry picking” research. This is the practice of picking research findings that align with the point you are trying to prove and not including adverse findings. Here’s an example: Kip questions the American Cancer Society about why they recommend dairy products on their website when a study linked dairy products to a higher risk of mortality after breast cancer diagnosis. He criticizes the inclusion of pink ribbons on yogurt tops. However, the study that Kip is referring to found this association in high-fat dairy products only, not low-fat dairy products. He does not mention this exception at all in the film which is misleading.

The Good

There are some great points in the film: eating more plants is good for health, eating more plants is good for the environment, and there are conflicts of interest in funding for health organizations.

No doubt, most Americans could stand to eat less meat and more plant-based foods. It is the battle cry of dietitians everywhere to “eat more fruits and vegetables!” A vegetarian or vegan diet done right is absolutely healthy and can help prevent chronic disease. But the reality is that it does not suite everyone’s tastes and lifestyle. For those of you married to consuming animal products, rest assured that a well-planned omnivorous diet, such as the Mediterranean Diet, can help lower risk for chronic disease too. (If you’re looking for ideas on how to incorporate more plant-based protein in your diet, check out my post on Plants: A Healthy Source of Protein.)

Eating more plants is also good for our environment. In the movie, we see some disturbing scenes of a neighborhood next to a pig farm in North Carolina, overrun with waste. This scene demonstrates that this type of centralized animal farming can certainly be detrimental to the environment. In my post on Plant-Based Protein, I go into more detail on the environmental impacts of meat. The film presents veganism as a solution, which is a good one. If we’re being open-minded, there are also other sustainable animal farming practices that would help too.

Lastly, in Kip’s sleuthing efforts, he “uncovers” that health organizations are sponsored by food industry giants. This is very public information and is listed on their websites. Does this arguably create a conflict of interest? I would say yes! However, funding is an issue for these associations as the money must come from somewhere for prevention campaigns and research. There is no simple answer. Another good point the film makes is the influence the food industry has on the dietary guidance provided by the USDA. For example, if you take a look at the government’s MyPlate graphic, you’ll see a glass of dairy at the top of the image. If you look at the Healthy Plate developed by Harvard in order to address “deficiencies” in MyPlate, the glass of dairy is replaced with a glass of water and it says to “limit milk/dairy to 1-2 servings per day.”

Conclusion

Frankly, nothing in this film was new or surprising to me. I don’t think it would be for you either. We all know that a steady diet of bacon cheeseburgers and hotdogs is not good for us. It was hard for me to sit through the entire hour and a half of this film, because of the hard-hitting fear-mongering and the sometimes ridiculous tactics used to scare the viewer. Using fear-mongering to convince a person to eat a certain way has detrimental effects. There is already enough fear of our food. Watch this movie, then read a book on the Paleo diet, and you’ll feel like there’s absolutely nothing on this planet that is safe for you to eat. In reality, different diets work for different individuals. The film’s overriding message, however, is very sound: eat less meat and more plants! As a yogi and a dietitian, I would have liked to see a more middle-ground message that would have the potential to effect change in more individuals. But that just doesn’t sell “What the Health” t-shirts, I guess.

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