Featured article in the Fall 2017 Issue of Nutrition Close-Up; written by Chris Mohr, PhD, RD
What the Health is the latest sensational Netflix documentary to make sound waves across the internet. I admittedly dragged my feet on checking it out, since most food documentaries confuse the consumer more than help them, usually trying to convince them there is only one way to eat. In this case, they do the same – and that one way involves eliminating all animal products from our diet.
Regardless, after so many questions about the documentary, I gave in to see what all the hype was about. Maybe, just maybe, this one was different. It is important to note that most of the people involved with the documentary, from the directors to the health professionals interviewed throughout, are vegan. This certainly plays a role in the perspective, direction and theme of the rest of the movie.
The documentary kicks off with an individual looking back on his youth, where he admittedly lived off hot dogs and cold cuts, then questions if he would be better off smoking his entire childhood. He then continues on to try to suggest health organizations, like the American Diabetes Association and American Cancer Society, are hiding the truth about diet.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to convince the uniformed consumer with the glitz and glam of a good story. As I often say, you can support or refute virtually anything when it comes to diet, if you slice and dice or cherry pick the data. And this documentary clearly selected individual studies to support a vegan lifestyle, ignoring the totality of the scientific evidence on diet and health.
The bold statements throughout the documentary are nothing more than scare tactics, but consumers aren’t aware that they’re such and this documentary surely has many people convinced they need to completely eliminate meat, eggs, dairy and any other animal or animal byproducts from the diet. And, sure, while no one can argue that eating more produce is certainly a wise idea, the notion that we have to give up all animal products to be healthy is just, plain false.
Below are a few comments from the documentary that I’d like to specifically address:
- Eating processed meats is as bad for you as smoking. This made headlines recently. Again, on the surface, this sounds very scary. And in fact, the study cited for this particular fear-mongering comment is very different from what was reported. The study itself also never stated eating processed meat is as bad for you as smoking.1 That is the interpretation when confusing relative and absolute risk. Enjoying some bacon or a turkey sandwich on occasion is far from the being as dangerous as cigarettes, which is the statement made. While I wouldn’t encourage people to enjoy bacon for breakfast, a salami sandwich and ham for dinner, occasionally eating processed meats is no big deal.
- Eating an egg a day is as bad as smoking five cigarettes. That statement alone is enough to scare people. It’s made worse by showing a mom sautéing cigarettes in a pan to feed to her kids for breakfast. Admittedly even vegan colleagues have laughed at this statement. Look, you may not get lung cancer by smoking, but the research overwhelmingly shows that it makes it harder for you to live a long, healthy life free from disease. On the flip side, eggs are one of the highest quality, least expensive sources of quality nutrition – from protein and choline to vitamin E and so many in between. Eat whole eggs. Enjoy whole eggs. And remember this documentary is so slanted you almost have to lay on your side to see it straight!
- Drinking milk causes cancer. Are we seeing a pattern here? Again, the scientific consensus doesn’t support this claim.
- Fish is toxic. No, actually, fish is one of the most nutritious foods in the world. The diet with more research than any other diet in the world is the Mediterranean Diet. And study after study after study demonstrates just how beneficial fish consumption is and encourages making it a regular part of the diet.
Sure, I could go on. But I think you get the point. The documentary is trying to convince everyone they too should follow a vegan diet. If you want to follow a vegan diet for whatever reason, go ahead. Is it the only way to live healthfully? Absolutely not. Is it a way to eat, just like most others? 100%.
1. Bouvard V, et al. Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat. Lancet Oncol. 2015;16:1599-600.