While “What the Health?” gets some things right about plant-based diets, local dietitians were “shocked” by some of its overstatements and nebulous health claims.
When I watched the documentary “What the Health?” a few months ago, I quickly realized that I wasn’t watching a documentary about the benefits of plant-based diets — I was watching a propaganda film. “What the Health?” has a very strong pro-vegan agenda, with information tailored to support that agenda and footage edited for maximum drama. What’s more, the film makes a number of nebulous health claims, including “miracle cure” type testimonials that are literally too good to be true.
The final straw came when some of my patients who had watched the film told me they felt guilty — and even scared — that they had been “poisoning” themselves by eating milk, meat, poultry, eggs and fish. But before totally writing the film off, I decided to consult two of my favorite Seattle dietitians: Chris Vogliano, MS, RD, LD, who speaks frequently on how plant-based diets can improve the health of people and the planet, and Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, CSO, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and past chair of the Academy’s Vegetarian Nutrition dietetic practice group.
“After hearing rants and raves about this film for weeks, I decided it was time to check it out myself,” Vogliano said. “Within the first 20 minutes, I was shocked by the overstatements and bias presented. While there are sprinkles of validity, this film is ripe with cherry picking and over-exaggerations. ‘What the Health?’ is promoting a 100 percent plant-based, vegan diet. Can vegan diets be healthy? Absolutely. Must we all be vegan to be healthy? Absolutely not.”
Hultin said she loves to hear people becoming more interested in plant-based diets — whether vegan, vegetarian or simply eating less meat. “There are a lot of reasons to eat less meat but none of them should stem from fear,” she said. “I worry that this is the approach ‘What the Health?’ took.”
What the film gets right
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The research in support of plant-based diets is strong, likely because they are rich in vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fiber, while being lower in saturated fat. Hultin said there’s good reason to learn more about the benefits and versatility of plant-based meals. “Vegetarians and vegans are at reduced risk of many health conditions, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer, and obesity,” she said. “There are a lot of very valid, supportive resources on how to incorporate more plant foods or even become a vegetarian or vegan if that sounds interesting.”
On the environmental front, Vogliano said the film makes a valid point that industrial animal mega-farms disproportionately affect the health of their neighbors. “Animal agriculture is the leading source of water pollution, and one of the leading causes of air pollution in the United States,” he said. “As you can imagine, those living around these mega-farms are subject to higher rates of this pollution simply due to proximity. These neighbors are mostly of a lower socioeconomic status, and mostly people of color. This is an issue that needs to be addressed.”
Also true, he said, are the film’s claims that dioxins are primarily found in meat and pose major health concerns — especially for small children and pregnant women. “Dioxins are a byproduct of our coal-based energy industry, and these chemicals settle onto cereal grains. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states that dioxins travel up the food chain from cereal grain to animals, and most of our exposure comes in the form of animal fat. Trimming fat and eating low-fat dairy can help reduce exposure.”
Where the film falls short
Dioxins aside, the film exaggerates what science says about health risks of animal foods — while dismissing concerns about sugar. Research does show that excessive amounts of animal protein and fat may not do our health any favors, but the filmmakers make the leap that a little is just as bad as a lot. Research does not support that. The film also claims that processed meats are as dangerous as cigarettes because the World Health Organization lists both as Group 1 Carcinogens, which means that there is “sufficient evidence of carcinogenity.” It doesn’t mean they carry equal risk.
“The promotion of a plant-based diet is strong in this film, almost to a fault,” Vogliano said. “If you eat meat you’re not going to die, consuming eggs is not as bad as smoking cigarettes, and cheese is not ‘basically cow pus.’ ”
The idea that we can completely control our health based on how we eat is an enticing one. The reality is that a healthful diet can reduce — but not eliminate — our risk of disease. In today’s food culture, it’s easy to demonize a specific food or food group, but the truth is that it’s your overall eating pattern that matters most. “Studies show that diets without meat are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases,” Hultin said. “That doesn’t mean that if you eat meat, automatically you are unhealthy. And it doesn’t mean that every vegetarian or vegan is automatically healthy.”
How to view food documentaries
Are food documentaries little better than entertainment — or do they offer some valid food for thought? Hultin thinks they can inspire change and offer a new perspective, but that it’s important to assess whether the information is balanced and evidence-based.
“Some documentaries take a black-and-white, all-or-nothing approach, but health and nutrition just don’t work that way,” she said. “I hope that post-‘What the Health?’ people don’t radically change their diets without assessing whether or not these changes are right for their bodies and their lifestyles. I also hope that people don’t get frustrated and discredit vegans and vegetarians as extremists because of this one documentary.”
It’s a sentiment Vogliano echoes. “There are some major truths in this film that are unfortunately hidden by overstated embellishments wrapped in fear,” he said. “Sadly, this is a missed opportunity for those like myself who advocate for a predominantly plant-based diet to improve the health of our bodies and reduce our environmental footprint.”