In this day and age, with so much conflicting information and differences of opinions it’s hard to know what sources we can trust. To make matters worse, we have individuals and organizations with agendas that intentionally mislead people. Trying to figure out what’s true and what isn’t can be a very frustrating process, especially when it comes to the matters of our health. It’s no secret that America is facing a health epidemic, and it’s only getting worse. Sick and tired of being sick and tired, more Americans are interested in learning how to live a healthier lifestyle. Thanks to the internet and other mediums like documentaries on Netflix, we now have a treasure trove of easily accessible information right at our fingertips. However, with so much false and misleading information how do we know which sources we can trust? Our best defense against misinformation is doing objective research and plenty of it. If we believe the first thing we hear, read, or watch we’re likely going to end up being misled and mistaken. Take the new sensational documentary on Netflix, What the Health, for example. This popular documentary has taken the nation by storm. Countless Americans took the message in What the Health to heart and are now adjusting their lifestyles accordingly. As a fitness and nutrition coach I am thrilled that more Americans are taking their health seriously. What I am not thrilled to see is people being misled with false information. Unfortunately, What The Health is filled with misinformation that is misguiding hundreds of thousands of Americans.
I applaud any effort that encourages people to lead healthier lives, but intentionally deceiving people to further an agenda is unethical and potentially dangerous. In the case of What the Health, sadly, that is exactly what is happening. As a health professional, I feel compelled to set the record straight. I strongly encourage you to do your own research to verify or disprove my claims. To clarify, I mean truly honest and objective research. This type of objective research entails you diving into the subject and looking at it from all angles without prior biases. The idea is to not form an opinion until you have thoroughly done your research. If you already have an opinion on the matter then don’t be afraid to change your mind when presented with new information. It’s okay to be wrong, we all are from time to time. What matters more than anything is that you are willing to be proven wrong and that you can support your beliefs with ample evidence. After all your health is at stake here, right?
Before I move forward with my critique of the documentary. Let me first state that I fully acknowledge that if executed correctly a plant only diet can be very healthy. The fact is, you do not need to eat meat in order to survive let alone be healthy. If someone choses to be a vegan or vegetarian for environmental concerns then I completely understand and support that position. Don’t get me wrong, I want to protect animals and the environment just as much as the next person. I believe as a country we can and should do a much better job of creating more sustainable and ethical methods of producing food. Treating animals to be slaughtered well before they are quickly and painlessly put to death is the best we can do short of not eating meat at all. If you want to deny your biology for the sake of animals then I support you. However, anyone or any organization claiming that eating meat is detrimental to human health in order to further the vegan agenda I strongly oppose.
The horrific and inhumane treatment of livestock is a major issue in this country that needs to be addressed immediately. I commend the film for pointing this out. It’s a very serious animal rights violation and the industry needs to be called out and held accountable. I acknowledge that animals raised ethically in healthy conditions is often times not the case. In my opinion, the film was justified in calling out the livestock industry for a number of issues. Sadly, most commercial “farms” are more focused on speed of production and profits and are less concerned with the well being of the animals and the quality of the food source. A number of these food corporations have attempted to hide the truth by banning access to production sites as well as skewing scientific research in an effort to make their highly processed products look less harmful. Although I support the film’s efforts on this particular issue, I must make it clear that demonizing the eating of all animal products as well as all livestock production is misguided. The fact is, humans evolved to eat meat and it is perfectly healthy to do so. There are plenty of farmers raising livestock in an ethical manner and they don’t deserve to be included in the bunch. In addition, eating wild caught and or hunted animals is also a healthier and more ethical option. The moral of the the story is not all meat is created equal and that makes all the difference.
For the uninformed, What the Health seems to present a solid case against eating animal products on several fronts. Although the film gives the impression that its claims are supported by numerous healthcare professionals and backed by scientific research, that is certainly not the case when we dig a little deeper. The information they use is taken out of context, cherry picked and in some cases manipulated to support their false claims. For example the film highlights the fact that along with cigarettes, asbestos, and plutonium, meat is a Group 1 carcinogen. Equating meat consumption with plutonium and asbestos sounds pretty horrible right? The film goes on to suggest that processed meats like bacon could be as dangerous as cigarettes. Is that really the case? Well, let’s see. Cigarettes alone raise the risk of lung cancer by 1,900%! Approximately 1,300 people die a day from smoking cigarettes. That’s 480,000 deaths per year in the United States. Does eating bacon increase any kind of cancer by 1,900% and or kill anywhere near 1,300 people a day? Obviously, the answer is no. So where is the mix- up here? As they say, “the Devil is in the details”. To clarify, the World Health Organization states that in order for something to be included in Group 1 it must show strong evidence that it can cause cancer. The classification does not indicate the level of risk and it certainly doesn’t mean that everything in that group is equally as dangerous. Keep in mind processed meat is not the same as unprocessed meat. One might argue that over 100 epidemiological studies have indicated eating meat to be problematic. While technically that is true, the question to ask is, ‘what other factors are at play with respect to eating meat and health concerns”? Well, typically high meat eaters also tend to eat less healthy overall. Their diets tend to be high in calories while also lacking in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats. So maybe a diet high in calories, high in saturated fat that is also lacking in fiber, vitamins and minerals is contributing to the problem? Clearly this is a case of data being taken out of context and misrepresented to support their cause. This is but one of many examples of misleading information in the film. It is my opinion, in the best case scenario, that this was a poorly researched documentary. In the more likely and worst case scenario, the filmmakers intentionally mislead viewers for the sake of pushing the pro-vegan agenda. I could go on for days about the abundance of misinformation in What the Health but in interest of your time I will zero in on a few key issues.
So let’s start with the sugar issue. The film dishonestly downplays sugar’s role in causing health issues like diabetes in America while at the same time shifting the bulk of the blame to animal products. A great deal of research has linked a number of variables including consuming too much processed sugar to diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Often times studies that show the consumption of animal products to be the primary cause of diabetes and other health issues are skewed and fraudulent, not to mention funded by none other than the sugar industry. In 2016, the Jama Internal Medicine Journal produced a study titled Sugar Industry and Coronary Heart Disease Research A Historical Analysis of Internal Industry Documents. The abstract in the study clearly states that “in 1965, a literature review published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which singled out fat and cholesterol as the dietary causes of CHD and downplayed evidence that sucrose consumption was also a risk factor (Kearns, Schmidt, Glantz, 2016).” It reveals that “The SRF’s funding and role was not disclosed (Kearns, Schmidt, Glantz, 2016).” It goes on to conclude that “together with other recent analyses of sugar industry documents, our findings suggest the industry sponsored a research program in the 1960s and 1970s that successfully cast doubt about the hazards of sucrose while promoting fat as the dietary culprit in CHD (Kearns, Schmidt, Glantz, 2016).” Although moderate amounts of sugar included in a healthy diet is healthy in most cases, make no mistake about it, too much processed sugar can still be detrimental to your health. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting sugar to only 10% of your intake. Considering that a large percentage of the American population consumes significantly more processed sugar than recommended it’s disingenuous not to mention potentially dangerous to suggest processed sugar isn’t of major concern. Furthermore, the suggestion that eating animal products is the primary cause of diabetes, heart diseases, and cancer is absolutely ridiculous and not rooted in any valid scientific research and data. There’s is no debating that eating quality sourced meat in the recommended amounts is not only safe but also healthy when included in balanced diet. Of course one of the main doctors in the film claiming the contrary is the head of a pro- vegan organization. Clearly, this doctor is biased and has an agenda. The truth of the matter is that there are much more complex issues with numerous variables at play to consider on this issue. The reality is that consuming too much animal products as well as processed sugar can be detrimental. However, eating a moderate amount of either included in a healthy diet is permissible and safe. Decades of scientific research consistently shows that the main causes of diabetes is excess body fat, inadequate physical activity, and genetic predisposition. That’s not to say sugar is not a culprit as well, A 2013 study found “ increased consumption of sugar with increased rates of diabetes by examining the data on sugar availability and the rate of diabetes in 175 countries over the past decade. After accounting for many other factors, the researchers found that increased sugar in a population’s food supply was linked to higher diabetes rates independent of rates of obesity (Basu ,Yoffe ,Hills , Lustig, 2013).” To be clear, I am not suggesting that all sugar intake is bad. Naturally occurring sugar is healthy as long as it’s consumed in proper amounts. Even processed sugar is permissible in limited amounts when included in a health and balanced diet. There is a crucial difference between the fructose we find in fruit and the various processed sugars we have on the market today such High Fructose Corn Syrup. As the current research concludes eating too much processed meat and sugar can play a role in causing health issues. However, it is important to clarify that eating unprocessed quality meat and or real sugar from fruit in moderation is safe and can be part of a healthy and balanced diet.
One of the most ridiculous, yet hilarious claims made in this film was that eating 1 whole egg is just as bad for you as smoking 5 cigarettes. First of all, recent studies have begun to reveal that cholesterol found in animal proteins such as eggs isn’t nearly as bad for you as we once believed. Welcome to 2017, where nutrition experts no longer regard the overconsumption of dietary cholesterol as an issue of concern! In 2005, a study published by the International Journal of Cardiology concluded that “short-term egg consumption does not adversely affect endothelial function in healthy adults, supporting the view that dietary cholesterol may be less detrimental to cardiovascular health than previously thought (Spence, Judd, Howard, Safford, G. Howard, 2015).” Eggs are packed with key nutrients and, when eaten in moderation, they are indeed healthy for you. Secondly, this absurd and exaggerated assertion was based on only one poorly designed study. The study in question is Effect of Dietary Cholesterol and Egg Consumption On Mortality And Cardiovascular Risk in the REGARDS Study. There are several concerns of reliability with this study. For starters, the people involved were not under any supervision. They simply told their physicians what they ate without offering any real proof. In addition, this was far from being a controlled study. Other variables that were unaccounted for could have altered and or influenced the results of the study. Interestingly enough, it seems as if the researchers didn’t even ask about or consider the other variables. Essentially, they asked a few questions, took the people being surveyed at their word, compiled the data, and called it a day. In my opinion, this was a poorly constructed study that offered no real value. Even if the study had more controls that produced more reliable data it would still only show correlation and not direct causation. So essentially the 1 egg equals 5 cigarettes argument is based on a flawed study that produces charts and graphs on cardiovascular disease in egg eaters that looks somewhat similar to that of smokers. It seems as if the filmmakers are ethically okay with stretching the truth to mislead people in order to push an agenda.
This pro vegan/vegetarian film reveals its ultimate agenda when making various claims that suggest that eating animal products is one of the primary causes of health issues in America. As I demonstrated earlier they’ve even went so far as to minimize the negative effects of sugar while also comparing eating eggs to smoking cigarettes. Although I’ve focused on only a few issues there are plenty of other examples of them demonizing the consumption of animal products in the film. The assertion that eating animal products is severely toxic and unhealthy is flat out false and misleading. With respect to the effects animal products have on our health the real issues are how much meat is consumed as well as how the animal products are sourced. Admittedly, eating massive amounts of animal products is not only unnecessary but can prove to be detrimental to your health, especially in the case of processed meats. However, the general consensus among most health experts is that a plant based diet that includes moderate consumption of animal foods is indeed healthy. Animals raised in healthy environments can supply nutrient-rich meat that contains all of the amino acids as well as various micronutrients that we need to function in a healthy manner. Although, healthy in and of itself, a plant based diet isn’t the only healthy way to eat. After all, humans are biologically classified by scientist as omnivorous. We evolved to eat animal proteins so unfortunately animals dying on our behalf is a part of the circle of life. As nature’s food chain demonstrates, predators eat prey and sometimes predators are the prey themselves. Mankind has always been opportunistic in our eating habits. In other words, we evolved to eat what is available to us. As a result, humans have eaten just about every plant and animal that we can harvest, hunt, or breed. There is archeological evidence of our ancestors eating meat at least 2.6 millions years ago which is about as long as our species has existed (Pobiner, 2013). Therefore, if we have proof that our ancestors have always eaten animal proteins and we are biologically classified as omnivores, then that begs the question: why would eating animal proteins be seriously detrimental to our health?
I will close out my critique of this film with a quote from none other then Ginny Messina, a well known vegan dietitian who publishes TheVeganRD.com website. I actually agree with Ginny’s approach to promoting the vegan agenda because her arguments are rooted in scientific research and she takes the utmost care to be objective and honest. Ginny has a Masters in Public Health and is a Registered Dietitian. Unlike the filmmakers, nutrition science is her area of expertise. In her article, A Vegan Dietitian Reviews ‘What the Health’ written for Vegan.com, she closes with this “The vegan movement’s credibility is undermined when we make claims that are so easily refuted. If we get caught lying or exaggerating about the health aspects of veganism, why should anyone believe us when we try to tell them about the treatment of animals on farms, in zoos, and in research labs (Messina, 2017)?” She goes on to say “Why would we want to promote a film that makes our community look like an unreliable source of information? Getting people to take animal rights seriously is a huge challenge. I cannot imagine that it does our efforts for animals any good when we build advocacy around hyperbole, junk science, conspiracy theories, and transparent dishonesty (Messina, 2017).” Her statement sums up my issues with What the Health and frankly I couldn’t have said it better myself.
As I mentioned earlier, if executed correctly a vegan diet can be adequate. You do not need to eat meat to be healthy. If you choose to not eat meat because you truly care about animals then I respect your choice in diet. Despite what the film would have you believe not only is eating meat safe, but it can be included in a healthy and balanced diet. The idea is to get all of the nutrients that your body needs from a balanced diet consisting of mostly quality whole grains, beans, legumes, vegetables, fruits, lean animal proteins, nuts, seeds etc. When you eat nutritious whole foods in a balanced manner you can also include less than healthy foods that are processed, fatty, salty, sugary foods in moderate amounts and still be healthy. It’s all about common sense and balance, folks. No one food type or issue is the culprit when it comes to diabetes, heart disease, cancer and so forth. Most health issues are typically caused by a number of factors combined. Research has revealed that, more than any other single factor, the primary causes of the diseases mentioned above is excess body fat, inadequate physical activity, and genetic predisposition. As I have demonstrated, contrary to What the Health’s entire premise suggest eating meat is perfectly natural and it certainly isn’t toxic in and of itself. There isn’t much you can do about your genetic predispositions but what you can control is lifestyle factors such as how you eat and how often you exercise. These two variables alone can and do make a world of difference. In the abundance of the information age, it is crucial that you question everything, think critically, and do your own objective research before forming an opinion or belief. Ultimately, eating meat is a personal choice and that should be respected. We can agree to disagree on the issue but let’s at let’s have an honest conversation first!
My Sources and References
1. Sugar Industry and Coronary Heart Disease Research A Historical Analysis of Internal Industry Documents
Cristin E. Kearns, DDS, MBA1,2; Laura A. Schmidt, PhD, MSW, MPH1,3,4; Stanton A. Glantz, PhD1,5,6,7,8
2. The Relationship of Sugar to Population-Level Diabetes Prevalence: An Econometric Analysis of Repeated Cross Sectional Data. (n.d.). https://doi.org/Basu S, Yoffe P, Hills N, Lustig RH (2013)
3. The meat debate: Good for us or disease waiting to happen?
By John Berardi, Ph.D.
4. Egg consumption & endothelial function: A randomized controlled crossover trial.
International journal of cardiology. 99. 65-70. 10.1016/j.ijcard.2003.11.028.
Katz, David & Evans, Marian & Nawaz, Haq & Njike, Valentine & Chan, Wendy & Comerford, Beth & L Hoxley, Martha. (2005).
5. Effect of Dietary Cholesterol and Egg Consumption On Mortality And Cardiovascular Risk in the REGARDS Study
J David Spence, Suzanne Judd, Virginia Howard, Monika Safford, George Howard Stroke. 2015;46:A83
6. Pobiner, B. (2013). Evidence for Meat-Eating by Early Humans. Nature Education Knowledge, 4(6), 1.
7. A Vegan Dietitian Reviews “What the Health”
Repeated blunders and bad science make What the Health impossible to recommend By Virginia Messina, MPH, RD
Note: Please forgive me if I have not cited my sources correctly. I did my best to give credit where credit is due.