Why I Constantly Said “What the..?” While Watching What the Health

I am a big fan of documentaries- they are usually a good mix of entertainment and education (#nerdalert). But the latest documentary I watched, What the Health, missed the mark on both fronts for me. The film focused on promoting a vegan, plant-based lifestyle while denigrating all animal products including meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy. Now don’t get me wrong, most of us could benefit from eating more fruits and vegetables, but I do not think following a vegan diet is the only route to optimal health.  

My main problem with this film was that it focused on fear-based tactics and cherry-picked science to promote a very limited approach on establishing a healthy eating pattern. While watching the documentary, I found myself losing count of all the misinformation and inaccuracies. Here are a few that stood out in my mind the most.

1. World Health Organization (WHO) report on red and processed meat is taken out of context

This WHO/International Agency for Research on Cancer report caused quite a stir when it was released back in 2015, but simmered down quite a bit once the report’s findings were put in appropriate context. For what it’s worth, we covered this report, interviewing scientists for their additional insights and perspective on hazard vs risk. The film completely missed mentioning that hazard and risk are not the same. While the 2015 report assessed hazard, which examines the evidence around the cancer-causing effects of certain foods but does not take into consideration exposure or consumption amounts, the film discussed the report’s findings in the context of risk. This distinction may seem small but is quite significant when determining the safety of ingredients and foods. Using these words interchangeably only continues to spread misinformation and perpetuate fear.

2. Fear mongering phrases, not rooted in the scientific consensus, are used throughout the film

Here are just a few direct quotes from the film: “Meat causes diabetes”, “Drinking milk causes cancer” “Fish is toxic” and “Eating eggs are as deadly as cigarettes”. Although the film tried to justify this language with findings from one study or by interviewing a few medical professionals known to overwhelmingly support vegan diets, this “evidence” does not support such cavalier language. Using this type of declarative language without having scientific consensus is both inaccurate and irresponsible.

3. The film incorrectly links antibiotic use on farms to possible swine flu rates

My take on this one is short and sweet. Full disclosure: I received my PhD in microbiology and immunology. Stating that the use of antibiotics will increase viral infections is just plain wrong. Antibiotics treat bacterial infections. The swine flu is a virus. Antibiotics do not work on viruses. The end.

4. There is a disregard for essential macro and micronutrients

The film barely discusses some potential macro and micronutrients to watch out for if you are starting a vegan diet. For example, if you follow a plant-based diet, your diet will be much lower in some key nutrients such as specific omega-3 fatty acids (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid) as well as vitamin B 12 and iron. In addition, having an adequate protein intake may be difficult for some. To adapt to these dietary changes, fortified foods or supplements can help fill some of these potential nutrient losses or gaps.

5. The movie attacks several foods that have long been shown to support a healthy dietary pattern

Meat- Despite the documentary trying to scare us away from meat, there are many reasons to include some lean red meat and poultry to your diet. These options are good sources of protein and micronutrients like iron and zinc. Advice from the most recent 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines (DGA) states that “The recommendation for the meats, poultry, and eggs subgroup in the Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern at the 2,000-calorie level is 26 ounce-equivalents per week.”

The 2015-2020 DGA also included recommendations regarding processed meats stating a healthy eating pattern “may include processed meats and processed poultry as long as the resulting eating pattern is within limits for sodium, calories from saturated fats and added sugars, and total calories.”

Fish - Fish contains healthy unsaturated fats like omega-3s, protein, vitamin D and calcium. Fish has gotten special attention, especially in the 2010 and 2015-2020 DGAs due to the large amount of evidence on the “health benefits for the general populations as well as for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding”. Because of this large body of science, it’s recommended for adults to consume eight or more ounces per week. The one caveat is for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. They should consume at least eight and twelve ounces per week, from choices that are lower in methyl mercury.

Dairy - Dairy as a whole, including milk, cheese and yogurt, was attacked throughout the documentary, yet the 2015-2020 DGA state that healthy eating patterns can “include fat-free and low-fat (1%) dairy, including milk, yogurt, and cheese”. Dairy is a nutrition powerhouse, contributing a variety of nutrients such as protein, healthy fats, calcium, phosphorus, vitamin A, and vitamin D.

Eggs - Eggs have long been vilified due to their dietary cholesterol levels, mainly based on dated and limited scientific evidence. However, the totality of science demonstrates that there is no relationship between dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol, which has been reported by the 2015-2020 DGA, American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology. Eggs can provide healthy unsaturated fats, protein, and important micronutrients like vitamin D, choline, and selenium.

Therefore, whether you are a vegan, meat-lover, or somewhere in between, it’s key to establish a healthy eating style that works for you. Make sure to incorporate a combination of healthy unsaturated fats, lean protein (whether it’s animal or plant-based), whole and enriched grains, and plenty of fruits and vegetables. While the 2015-2020 DGA has outlined three healthy eating patterns, including a Mediterranean and a vegetarian eating pattern, keep in mind that these are roadmaps to help you get a sense of what to include in a healthy diet. What’s most important is to avoid overly restrictive diets. Focus instead on building a pattern that fits your lifestyle and taste preferences, and that supports your long-term health goals. 

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