LLL Does the Research: What The Health - The Vegan Documentary with an Aggressive Message

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Hello, hello! It's been a little while since it's release, but I've been feeling real fired up about this documentary that everyone and their mother has been watching: What the Health! Let me start by saying that I don’t hate it, and there are parts I really appreciated but, I am frustrated by some of it and I’m going to tell you all about why. Forgive me if this ends up longer than it should be, I can be a little long-winded when I’m passionate about something, which you probably already know, if you know me.

So, if you haven’t seen it yet I’ll fill you in: it’s main theme is to promote a plant-based lifestyle, AKA veganism. As someone who is mostly vegan* I wholeheartedly believe in and have experienced, the benefits of a diet that is high in vegetables, and free of animal-based foods, so that theme isn’t a problem for me at all. My issue lies in the delivery of the information, and the information itself.

I personally don’t believe in trying to force any particular diet onto someone, every person is different, and therefore what works for me doesn’t necessarily work for everyone else (and vice versa). That said, a diet that includes plenty of vegetables, is undisputedly healthier than one that does not. So, if I were to write up my own documentary about plant-based lifestyles, I would focus on the positives of plant-based foods (there are plenty of them), as opposed to bashing the alternatives, as was done in What The Health.

When an important, and positive message like “eat more plant based foods” is presented in conjunction with a number of extreme, unproven "facts," credibility is lost, the message itself is questioned if not wholly disregarded, and the stereotype of the "crazy vegan” is perpetuated. By grossly-overstating the dangers of an animal-based diet, instead of talking up the good of a plant-based one, they alienate people who have yet to consider a plant-based diet, or who enjoy their animal-based foods, and when you alienate a person who's watching, the importance of the overall message gets lost, and people just say "fuck it" instead of actually being inspired to try some meatless meals, or include more vegetables in their life. The goal of a documentary** of this sort should be to inspire change, and encourage people to make a change rather than to disgust, or scare people into something (at least that’s what I think).

Oh! Don’t let me forget what got me the most heated about this documentary – that would be the part where they flagrantly downplay the role of sugar and carbohydrates in causing type II diabetes, even alluding to the idea that consumption of carbohydrates can reduce the risk type II diabetes. Discrediting the very real impact that sugar and refined carbohydrates can have on type II diabetes risk, in order to promote the benefits of a vegan diet is completely unnecessary, irresponsible, and dangerous as far as I’m concerned.

Now, you know I would never just say all this without doing my research, so below I’ve shared some of the most notable claims made throughout the film, and what I found when I dug a little deeper. The What The Health website actually provides links to their sources for just about every statement made in the film, so that’s where I started my digging.

“Eating 1 egg per day is just as bad as smoking 5 cigarettes per day, for life expectancy”

I’m starting with this one because, I mean...really? really?! Despite the fact that I knew there was no way this was an accurate statement, I still gave the benefit of the doubt, and read through the published studies, and journal articles that they cited as sources for this particular little tidbit:

  • The first source is a video that discusses a study published in 2012. Participants in the study were patients at a vascular prevention clinic, and the mean age was 61.5 years old, data about egg-consumption and smoking habits was collected via a questionnaire in which they were asked to estimate how many eggs they eat per week and cigarettes they smoked, and then this estimated number was turned into “egg years” and “pack years.” No other dietary factors were considered, all of the participants were people who were already at-risk for cardiovascular disease, the conclusion was that egg yolks should likely be avoided by people who are at-risk for cardiovascular disease, and by stating “This hypothesis should be tested in a prospective study with more detailed information about diet, and other possible confounders. 
  • The second source literally does not even mention an egg, eggs, or egg yolks at all.
  • The third, and final source is the just the study that the first video talks about.

CONCLUSION: If you’re at risk for cardiovascular disease, avoid egg yolks. If you’re a human, avoid cigarettes.  

Diabetes is not caused by eating a high carbohydrate diet, or sugar”

This one would have made my blood boil if that was an actual thing. Let’s just dive right into it:

  • The first source is a video that discusses a high-fat diet as a cause of insulin-resistance (not about sugar or carbs).
  • The second source is a webpage that discusses the benefit of a plant-based diet for reducing the risk of diabetes, it also mentions that overly processed carbohydrates are bad choices.
  • The third source is about meat-consumption as a risk-factor for type II diabetes, nothing in it discusses the impact of carbohydrates on type II diabetes, and sugar is not mentioned.
  • The fourth, and final source is admittedly a little above my comprehension level, but I was able to gather that it’s a study about predisposition to type II diabetes for children of people who have type II diabetes, and it does not discuss carbohydrates, sugar or diet at all.

CONCLUSION: They pulled this statement out of seemingly no where, and for the record carbohydrates and sugar, absolutely play a role in causing type II diabetes.

“One serving of processed meat per day increased risk of developing diabetes by 51%”

  • The first source is an article in which they analyzed data from 3 different studies on the consumption of red meat and diabetes occurrence in which an association between consumption the of red meat, especially processed, was found.
  • The second source is another article in which they reviewed existing evidence for effects of unprocessed and processed meat consumption on type II diabetes and heart disease, in which they found strong associations with processed meat and the occurrence of both diseases, and a small association with consumption of unprocessed meats and type II diabetes.

Conclusion: The methods used in these two articles appear to be sound, and about average in terms of conflicting factors when it comes to studies involving nutrition. While they did not prove anything to be fact, because association ≠ cause, it is safe to say that consumption of processed meats, red meat, and even some unprocessed meat does somewhat relate to the likelihood of developing type II diabetes (had to give credit to some truths too).

“Fish have become mercury sponges”

  •  The only source for this is a link to an FDA article about how to make the safest seafood choices, to avoid being exposed to too much mercury.

Conclusion: They decided to use the term “mercury sponge” for shock value, because it gives the viewer a nasty image that fish are literally full of mercury, when in fact there are plenty of low-mercury seafood choices, and even the highest mercury-content seafood is not "full" of it.

*don’t read the next section if you get queasy easily*

“Think of cheese as coagulated cow pus.”

  • The source for this is a study on the BTSCC (bulk-tank somatic cell-count) allowances in American produced dairy, and the amounts allowed in other countries. The term somatic cell includes white blood cells, secretory cells, and squamous cells, AKA yes…pus.

Conclusion: This one is also for shock value, it’s probably the most disgusting thing I have ever heard, or read about food. The bad news is there is pus in all dairy milk, and products made with it, sorry. The good news is it’s not so much that you should consider cheese to be made entirely of it, in fact it's very little. This article talks about the amounts, and even breaks down the math.

So, on that note…let’s wrap this up.

I’m hoping that if you’re reading this, I was able to clear some things up about What The Health for you. The best parts of this documentary are the parts in which they highlighted the amount of corruption that exists in the food industry, those sections were delivered well, and factually. If they had made the whole documentary about that I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this. As I said before, a diet that is at least mostly plant-based is undisputedly healthier for people as a whole. I think the delivery of that message was poorly developed in this documentary. So, I’m here instead to say: don’t give up on your health journey, or feel discouraged, just eat more veggies, and be more selective about your choice of animal products if, and when you do choose to consume them.

Thank you so much for reading, feel free to share with your friends! Leave me any questions you might have, or let me know what you want me to research next in the comments!

Live, Love,

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*uhh…what exactly does that mean Leesh? Stay tuned for another blog about diet labels soon!

**Of course, there are some other vegan-themed documentaries that also use shocking information, and imagery to get their point across and even scare/disgust people, but in the ones I’m thinking of the information/imagery is truthful, and the message is more focused on the morality of the treatment of animals rather than the nutritional aspect, so I don’t have issue with these.

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