Become a vegan! That’s the message of the recent documentary from Netflix, What the Health. This is a purposely incendiary documentary in the same vain as Super Size Me, the documentary claiming – wait for it – that McDonald’s food is bad for you! In other words, this documentary tells us some things we already knew (like processed meats are bad) and uses inaccurate comparisons, filming and editing techniques to make us angry and emotional. But look past that. Don’t get caught up only on the issue of Veganism. There are several other messages worth focusing on in this documentary.
Appealing to the masses
Before I delve into the details, one aspect of this film that struck me is how well curated it is. They make no effort to give a balanced view on diet and disease. From the beginning, the film presses the issue of why everyone should consider a vegan diet. And in an effort to appeal to the masses, the filmmaker, who is also the narrator, doesn’t want to come off as a typical tree-hugging hippie. Which is why he goes to great lengths to wear a baseball cap thoughout the film, to hide his long hippie-esque hair! ?
Processed meats and dairy
Now, on to the film. We’re presented with the fact that the World Health Organization considers processed meats (deli meat, bacon, hot dogs, etc) as class 1 carcinogens, in the same category as cigarettes and plutonium! They also claim that eating one egg a day is similar to smoking 5 cigarettes per day. While the fact that processed meats are considered bad for you, and certainly not news, the comparison between eggs and cigarettes is outlandish.
For completeness, what’s the reasoning behind the eggs and cigarettes comparison? The claim is that the saturated fat in egg yolks can increase cholesterol and lead to cardiovascular disease in the same way cigarettes can. But according to this study, this claim is not supported. As a physician-viewer, you immediately feel insulted as to the false drama in these claims and presenting old news that though it’s hot off the press.
With the help of several experts, we’re told how what we eat affects our health – also something we already knew. In the process, they shatter some supposed myths about how sugar isn’t really the culprit to a bad diet. That meat and dairy are the underlying cause of our diseased human state.
As they promote conspiracy theories and debunk “myths,” you quickly realize you don’t know what to believe anymore. For example, they claim that carbs and sugar aren’t really that bad. The problem is fat. However, this NY Times story provides evidence that the sugar industry paid researchers in the 1960’s to write an industry-funded paper refuting the concerning link between sugar and heart disease, and instead shifted the blame to fat. But now, most reputable organizations and studies show the risk of heart disease is in fact due to sugars and fat.
Everything in moderation
At this point of the documentary, in my vulnerable state of uncertainty, I just fall back to the common mantra that, all things are good in moderation. But apparently that’s not true either. One of the “experts” in the documentary says moderation isn’t a good rule of thumb (Quotes added because I don’t know if they’re really an expert. They may know more about this topic than me but that doesn’t necessarily make them an expert). According to the interviewee, there isn’t a study that shows eating meat and eggs in moderation can turn your heart disease around. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and eat healthier, even if we don’t accept the vegan diet full stop.
A bariatric surgeon featured prominently in the documentary made an excellent point regarding diet, obesity and disease. He pointed out that in our current society, we’re sensitive to the idea of fat shaming other individuals. But the pendulum has swung too far. In the process of encouraging people to be comfortable with their bodies, we’re unwittingly encouraging people to be comfortable with being sick by not at least attempting to slim down and living a healthier lifestyle.
The bigger message: Corporate influence on healthcare organizations
The most fascinating discovery in this documentary is unveiled at 48 minutes 6 seconds into the documentary: the influence of the food industry on organizations like the American Diabetes Association, the American Cancer Society, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and the American Heart Association.
Companies like Dannon yogurt and Kraft (makers of Velveeta, Oscar Mayer weiners, Lunchables) are corporate sponsors of the American Diabetes Association.
The American Cancer Society takes money from Tyson chicken, one of the biggest makers of processed chicken and Yum! brands (Pizza Hut, KFC, Taco Bell).
The Susan G. Komen breast cancer foundation partners and receives money from KFC, Dietz Watson processed meats and Yoplait yogurt which is laden with hormones that can adversely affect breast cancer.
The American Heart Association takes hundreds of thousands of dollars from the beef industry, poultry and dairy producers and millions from fast food and processed food manufacturers.
In other words, all of these health organizations are taking money from companies that produce foodstuffs which are associated with the very diseases these organizations are supposedly fighting. The documentary makes the analogy that this conflict of interest would be like the American Lung Association taking money from the tobacco industry. Hard to argue with this observation.
This conflict of interest is evident on the healthcare organizations’ websites. On their webpages recommending healthy eating, the American Diabetes Association suggests bacon wrapped shrimp and the American Heart Association recommends processed sandwich meats.
Taking it one step further, the documentary shows how major pharmaceutical companies donate money to these healthcare organizations. While it may appear they’re on the same side – both are trying to end disease – the truth may actually be the treatment, not the elimination of the disease. In other words, they’re not addressing the underlying cause of disease – what we eat. The suggestion is that ending the disease doesn’t financially benefit pharma or these healthcare organizations.
Even the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) receives money from these industries which supports the Federal checkoff programs. Checkoff programs are responsible for the messages we see on TV and billboards. Messages like “Milk, it does a body good,” the “Incredible edible egg,” or “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner.” The USDA is there to protect the consumer and the producer, but that protection isn’t always balanced.
In essence, the USDA is helping the food industry market their questionable products to consumers in ever more effective ways.
Animal Agriculture: A focus on community health
The other major message of this documentary, bringing into focus an issue I did not fully appreciate, is bioaccumulation and the pollution caused by animal agriculture.
The amount of animal waste from beef, pork, poultry and dairy farms is staggering. According to the film, feces from pig farms in North Carolina alone is equal to the amount of feces from the entire human population in the eastern portion of the United States. Unfortunately, all of this animal waste is not treated in sewage plants in the same way human waste is. That means much of the waste eventually finds its way to rivers and ground water.
But it’s not just bacteria or viruses that can be passed on to humans. Many of the animals, including fish farms, that are raised in close quarters are susceptible to infection. To reduce the chance of an entire farm of animals becoming sick, they’re treated with antibiotics. This in turn can result in antibiotic resistant bacteria which can then affect humans.
Additionally, the typical airborne pollutants and toxins from coal or manufacturing plants can enter the food chain. It’s not hard to see how these noxious chemicals can move from the grass the cow eats, to their muscle, to the meat we eat or the milk passed on to a nursing baby. How many parts per million of these toxins pass along the food chain and how they affect humans is up for debate, but it does occur.
Myths “debunked” according to this documentary (take it or leave it)
- -sugar isn’t bad for you
- -you don’t need milk for strong bones (milk is not protective against fractures)
- -you don’t need animal protein – there’s plenty of protein in a plant based diet (consider that the largest animals on the planet are herbivores)
- -a plant based diet has every nutrient you need except B12 but even meat doesn’t provide B12 – this is obtained through B12 fortified foods or B12 supplements.
- -plant based diet doesn’t have to be expensive
- -meat and dairy in moderation doesn’t necessarily reverse the effect of cardiovascular disease
Throughout the documentary, we meet three very unhealthy, generally sick and overweight individuals. By the end of the film, once the case for a plant-based diet has been made, these three people switch to a vegan diet. Low and behold, they’re transformed into healthier, happier, more mobile versions of themselves.
The not so subtle suggestion is that they have a vegan lifestyle to thank for this turnaround. However, judging by the unhealthy lifestyle they were leading, any diet low in sugar and fat was likely to be beneficial.
In a study cited towards the end of the film, 99.4% of study participants who adhered to a plant-based diet avoided any major cardiac event including heart attack, stroke, and death. The message by the study’s author, Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr. of the Cleveland Clinic, is that a plant-based diet will reduce many of the ills known to humans including GERD, hypertension, diabetes, strokes, heart attacks, autoimmune disease, lupus, asthma, osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis. That’s the primary takeaway from this documentary.
However, even if you feel like there’s too much conflicting information out there to switch to a vegan diet or recommend one for your patients, or you don’t appreciate the heavy-handedness that is this documentary, there’s still much to consider.
Over the years, there have been many mainstream and fad diets. Whether it’s Atkin’s, Whole 30, vegan or any diet out there, the pros and cons are too overwhelming to process. Try to focus on some of the more unequivocal messages here.
For example, even if we can’t decide on Veganism as the diet du jour, I think many of us can agree that corporate influence on healthcare organizations that are supposedly fighting the diseases these corporate giants cause, is very disturbing. Additionally, the potential damage to the environment from animal agriculture should not be overlooked either.
This is a multi-faceted issue. Yes, of course genetics is a factor but it doesn’t have to be a death sentence. Regardless of the confusion surrounding this topic, eating healthy still means a diet low in fat and carbs, coupled with exercise and common sense. The rest is just details. Now go and do your own research.