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What the Health

I was lucky to sit down with Abigail Miller with the to discuss the Netflix documentary that claims we all should jump on the vegan bandwagon or die.

Perhaps that’s an exaggeration. But so is the film. In fact, it’s a compilation of “alternative facts” that are presented in some kind of post-apocalyptic, dark and gloomy setting. As a registered dietitian with a masters degree in nutrition from Columbia University, I cringe when I see such gross distortions of the facts.

I want to take the time to discuss the red flags of this film today – both the way the film is presented and the nutritional information provided.

  1. What the HealthThere’s no opposing point of view. The science presented, and doctors interviewed, all support veganism. There’s no problem being a vegan, but if it’s the only point of view being represented in a documentary, this is a big, flashing “beware” sign.
  2. Classism in nutrition. Being a vegan or vegetarian in such a meat-centric society requires a lot of work and conscientious planning. The documentary presents all meat products as poison. Getting organically grown food can be incredibly pricey. People in the lowest income bracket often rely on food stamps to complement their diets. They can be scared into thinking they can’t eat anything from the grocery store anymore, which is completely untrue.
  3. What the Health feeds disordered eating. Men and women who already have disordered thoughts about eating will now have more reasons not to eat. This scares me, as much of my practice is treating patients with disordered eating. 
  4. There are radical, partically true, and even outlandish, claims. Eating one egg in the morning is as bad as smoking five cigarettes. Red meat causes diabetes. Within minutes of eating red meat, our arteries stiffen and get paralyzed. By presenting a slanted view of any issue, conveniently leaving out the whole picture, the film succeeds in being radical and, well, ridiculous. Cherry picking scientific facts, then distorting the one piece of information that supports the claim sounds a lot like politics. Moreover, not all studies are good studies. As soon as we read, “latest study discovers people who like pink are smarter,” it makes the claim more “legitimate.” Beware! Studies can be underfunded. Studies can just be bad studies. So using the word “study” doesn’t necessarily make the claims reasonable, or even true!
  5. What the HealthIf they lie once … As soon as a film makes one far-out claim, then the rest of the documentary is tainted. If the filmmakers are going to misrepresent one thing, then how can the viewer trust the rest?

So is there any truth in the documentary? There are bits and pieces of truth the filmmakers build on to create those apocalyptic arguments. Here are some nuggets with clarifications.

  1. Fish is toxic. Eating fish can be tricky. Farmed fish, because of the density of fish in one area, are often given antibiotics and other chemicals to keep them from getting sick and dying. This is not healthy. To get the best, healthiest fish, try these tips:
    1. Go to a fish market for in-season fish.
    2. If you don’t have a fish market, look at the labels at the supermarket and buy American fish or local fish.
    3. If you live inland, go to the frozen section: Pacific cod, pollock, Yellowtail tuna … there are many good-quality options and are better than “fresh” when you’re a thousand miles away from any water source.
    4. Don’t dismiss canned or smoked tuna, trout, salmon … some are quite good.
  2. The food industry – large-scale agribusinesses – have lobby power. This is true. Not long ago, investigators discovered the sugar industry had distorted facts, bought off health groups like the American Diabetes Association among others, to oppose soda taxes. Similar corruption is found in many industries with money and political backing. This continues to be a problem in the industry today. But industry also supports valid studies. So it’s a complex problem with no easy answers.
  3. Vegetables and fruits are healthier. I won’t ever argue that we should increase our vegetable and fruit intake. That said, they aren’t always toxin-free, either. Some fruits and vegetables can have up to 67 toxins, so taking meat off the table doesn’t equate to taking chemicals off the table.
  4. Vegetarians are healthier. There are some important things to understand here. Vegetarians often come from a higher socio-economic bracket, are more health conscious, exercise more because of being more health conscious, often are non-smokers, limit alcohol intake, and participate in yoga, pilates, and the trendier classes. So there’s a combination of factors that make vegetarians “healthier.” Remember that correlation doesn’t equal causation. All the facts must be studied.

So my take is this:  What the Health is more science fiction than science, extrapolating the necessary facts to present an argument in hyped up language. It uses scare tactics and definitives. Misrepresenting so many things is incredibly irresponsible.