What the Health Documentary: Taking the 30,000 ft view
Let me start by saying I love documentaries.
Along with podcasts, books, and blogs, it’s one of my favorite mediums for transmitting information and conveying stories that hit us emotionally. Documentaries do very well with emotions, because they are visual, include music and other editing tricks to wrap the user in a story.
Documentaries like What the Health continue the trend of creating something to shine a light on a particular point of view. In this case, the trend in question is veganism.
It can’t be denied this documentary has caused quite a stir, even hitting what some may call “viral” levels. My social media feed has seen several people swearing off all animal products for good and instantly switching to veganism.
But, is this the right way to go? Is there validity to their arguments? Believing what I do about the power of paleo, I was intrigued…
Before I jump into my analysis of the documentary, I want to explain a bit about the way I think.
The thinkers I respect the most, in terms of health, wellness or any other topic, know how to have a nuanced discussion that brings to light all different viewpoints and provides some level of framework for how to think about a particular issue, versus some quick anecdotes on how to succeed or why they are right.
I find it is most important to understand how experts and thought leaders think versus what they think. It is the process of discovery, research, perspective and scientific method that lead this type of person to a position of clarity and educated opinion.
Unfortunately, I saw almost none of those characteristics from the documentary What the Health. It did not provide viewpoints for any opposing arguments.
Every doctor (or psychiatrist presented as a doctor) was 100% already bought into the vegan diet, and the arguments proposed wavered on ludicrous. (Picture a young girl with five cigarettes on her breakfast plate, indicating that scrambled eggs are equally as harmful).
In general, when someone is trying to make a case that their way is better than any one other option and makes blanket black-and-white statements about ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in totality, I am skeptical.
While it sounds like I am lambasting the documentary as a whole, that is not the case! If I were, that would not make me a very nuanced thinker; one who can objectively contemplate and discuss opposing viewpoints.
In fact, there was a huge takeaway from the documentary that I immediately put into action in my own life – being more conscious of where I am sourcing my animal products and how much I eat.
The one thing I believe What the Health got right, and has been proven in other documentaries like Food, Inc., Sustainability, etc., is that we eat way too much processed meat.
Now, I’ve known this fact for a while, but I seem to fall off the bandwagon from time to time. When eating out, I am guilty of ordering meat at restaurants where I suspect they are sourcing from CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) farms, or frying the meat in highly processed vegetable oils. When going to the grocery store, I pick up some salami or prosciutto that has been processed and dried using nitrites. I can do better!
We need to care about processed meats because CAFO farms are crowded, the animals are not fed their natural diet, and the farmers will take step to maximize yield.
This leads to the need for hormones (growth/yield), pesticides (grain-based diet) and antibiotics (crowding) to keep the animals alive. I don’t know about you, but I rather eat meat that does not contain these byproducts.
So what am I doing about this? I am modifying my lifestyle by trying to incorporate one vegetarian meal a day. This gives me the flexibility to still eat out at restaurants where I don’t trust their meat or fish procurement processes.
At the same time, I am monitoring my protein intake to ensure that I am not short-changing my muscles or organs, so this simply means more protein shakes (collagen, whey, etc.) or eating more vegetables or nuts that are high in protein.
Having said that, I do not think I will ever get remotely close to a true vegetarian or vegan diet, as I believe that animal proteins provide certain nutrients that are much harder to come by in the same quantities or effectiveness in plants. While I think it is possible to overcome those nutrient deficiencies via supplements, I think that point proves that a vegan lifestyle is not inherent to our biology.
For people who are willing to make sacrifices and put in the effort in the name of animal rights, I am fully behind that message and commend your goals. For me, it comes down to making the right choices about where my meat comes from and ensuring those practices are ethical and humane.
In addition, how can we possibly think that animal proteins are the primary cause of our current chronic lifestyle diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer?
This is where I just could not get on board with the message of What the Health. Specifically:
The documentary states that there is no link between sugar/carbohydrates and diabetes! How can anyone say that with a straight face? Anyone who has a baseline understanding of glucose, insulin and metabolism knows that simple carbohydrates have a direct impact on insulin resistance, diabetes, and heart disease.
What the Health makes a bunch of correlations between meat, dairy, etc. and health problems in certain countries using Epidemiology studies. We need to understand that correlation does not mean causation. Even if these correlations were 100% proven to be the cause, a basic category like ‘meat’ is too broad a category to convey results. Meat includes the entire spectrum, from pasture raised, grass fed cows to animals in stalls who eat unnatural diets, are stressed and sick, and die without moving more than a few feet in their entire lives.
There are many other assumptions from the documentary that I could discuss in detail, but I feel it is worthwhile to take a step back and see the forest from the trees.
It is important to understand that many of these different 'diets' (I’d rather call them eating lifestyles) being debated - Paleo, Vegetarian, Vegan, Whole 30, Mediterranean, Southeast Asian diet - have so much in common.
However, we end up spending all of our time fighting on the fringe to make our point and sell our views (and products/services).
Here are a few facts about our evolutionary biology to help us see the big picture:
Humans are omnivores and we have evolved to eat plants and animals
No human population in the history of human beings has survived on a strictly vegan diet. Very few even were classified as vegetarian, and that was mostly not by choice, but due to lack of available animals nearby.
Instead of worrying entirely about the outside, non-overlapping areas, let’s focus on what they all have in common.
Wouldn’t that be a huge benefit as a starting point for how we should eat?
What these lifestyles have in common:
High volume of vegetable intake
Protein requirements (regardless of the source)
Nuts, seeds, herbs and spices
What none of these lifestyles contain:
Highly processed carbohydrates
Full fat dairy
High quality meat
I think people should focus more on these common factors, and then dive into the debatable category and find out for themselves what works and what doesn’t work.
Our bodies are incredibly complex, and while there are fundamental principles that we can all apply, we all have different reactions to food and should find our individual ideal balances.
If you still need some convincing about the erroneous tenants of What the Health, or would like to dive into the scientific details, here are a few useful data sources: