The documentary, “What the Health”, is taking over the internet, but is it fact or fiction?

In 2017, directors Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn, the creators behind “Cowspiracy,” released a new pro-vegan documentary to Netflix titled, “What the Health.” Andersen and Kuhn sought to uncover the secrets to reversing the chronic diseases that are crippling the nation, the pair focuses primarily on diabetes and heart disease in the film. Unfortunately, the documentary exaggerates weak data and promotes pseudoscience to promote their plant based opinions.

When I first watched the documentary I really wanted to like it. I am a vegetarian myself and I love when films which share information about what I believe to be the healthiest way to live hit the mainstream. However, “What the Health” totally misses the mark.

While it is true that plant-based foods can help reduce the risk of certain cancers, the filmmakers exaggerate the negative effects of meat and dairy. One claim the film makes is that eating an egg a day is as bad as smoking five cigarettes a day for your life expectancy, this is based on outdated information and is false. It is true that the yolk of an egg contains the daily recommended amount of cholesterol, which can cause heart disease and clog your arteries, new nutrition research suggests that the cholesterol in foods such as eggs is not a nutrient of concern for overconsumption. The research asserts that the kind of cholesterol you eat is not solidly linked to blood cholesterol levels, and eggs are far from comparable to the effect of cigarettes. 

The film later makes another cigarette to diet comparison with processed meat. This comparison is slightly more based is reality because the IARC, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, does list processed meat as a carcinogen. However, while processed meat is in the same category of cancer causing substances as tobacco smoking and asbestos, the IRAC asserts that does not mean that they are equally dangerous. The World Health Organization reports approximately 34,000 cancer deaths per year can be attributed to diets high in processed meat, but 1,000,000 cancer deaths per year can be attributed to smoking cigarettes.

Up to this point I had somewhat followed along with the film. The meat industry treats animals horrifically, and diets high in meat are definitely not healthy. However, the filmmakers then brought in experts which claimed that sugar is not a highly unhealthy food. Their reasoning behind this statement is that your body needs sugar, and that it is actually fat, found largely in animal products, that causes weight gain and health complications. This statement is once again exaggerated and false. Is it true that your body needs sugar, yes, the primary fuel for the brain is glucose. However, excess amounts of sugar and diets high in refined sugar particularly leads to weight gain and diseases such as diabetes. Fat is also needed by our bodies, fat helps regulate body temperature, protect internal organs, produce important hormones, give our body energy, and support cell growth. Like with sugar, diets high in fat can result in chronic illness such as heart disease and certain cancers and weight gain, but pinning all dietary health problems on fat is incorrect.

With all this being said, “What the Health” did get some things right. The documentary highlights the absurd number of antibiotics and growth hormones in our food which is leading to health problems such as antibiotic resistance. The film also touches on the conflict of interest between food industry companies and national public health groups, who are often funded by the food industry in order to gain favor when public health groups put out dietary recommendations.

The problems with “What the Health” highlight an important note about documentaries and news in general, always get multiple opinions, check your sources, and above all don’t believe everything you see on the internet.

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