What the Health Movie Review
If you watch Netflix or use social media at all, chances are you have come across a new documentary titled What The Health. This film supposedly exposes the dangers of consuming a diet that includes animal products. The film instead strongly advocates for the consumption of a plant-based, vegan diet as a solution for many of the health problems we face today.
While the film was very well presented and featuring several prominent plant-based advocates, the science referenced throughout should lead one to question the claims being made. In this article, I break down the top claims made in What The Health, analyze the proposed literature, and provide my insight as to whether you should ditch all of your animal products for optimal health.
Biased From The Beginning
Before I get into the science of the film, I’d like to point out that all featured experts in What The Health were plant-based advocates, there was little attempt to seek out opinions on the other side of the spectrum. Instead of constructing an environment where ideas can be contemplated from both sides, they make it seem that the decision is cut and dry (which it is if you are already a very strong advocate of one side).
The film does consider some common arguments from both sides of the spectrum, but all from the perspective of the plant-based diet advocates. While I do believe the experts in this film are well intentioned, the combination of subpar research and vastly exaggerated conclusions is deceiving to the common consumer. I will break down their claims and explain why meat is not going to kill you.
On thing that I do agree with is the overall theme of the movie, that the food we consume can either be the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison!
Overview of Health Concerns
The film begins by zoning in on America’s top health crises: diabetes, cancer, obesity, and heart disease. Rightfully so, these kinds of chronic diseases are costing the American healthcare system a fortune as we have no real SUSTAINABLE medical solution to solve them.
I agree that these are the top health issues we should be addressing but I will get into how our ideas for addressing these conditions are very different. Just as the film states, I agree that these conditions are largely, if not entirely, preventable through lifestyle choices. This is an empowering idea that I believe is not stressed enough by our society.
The body has the amazing capacity to heal itself, just as long as it has everything it needs to do so (and less of the things that interfere with this process). Now, let’s get into the health claims made in this film.
Meat Consumption = Increased Cancer Risk
Claim: Processed meat clearly linked to cancer
Referring back to a study that linked processed meat intake with a “20% increase in cancer risk”
- If you consume processed meat every day for your entire life your absolute risk of colon cancer raises from 5%-6%
- Although a minor increase, the relative increase looks more astounding and conveys their message more dramatically. Therefore, it is reported (in the film) as contributing to a 20% increase in cancer risk (6% is a 20% increase from 5%).
In reality, this study only showed a minor increase in cancer risk (1% absolute) for those consuming processed meats on a daily basis and showed no significant increase in those consuming fresh, unprocessed red meats (1)… And again this is only correlational.
So essentially, you have a very small increase in colon cancer risk if you consume processed meats such as bacon and sausage (which I typically do not recommend anyway).
Additionally, this study relied on evidence from cohort studies where individuals were asked to report their dietary choices in questionnaire form over time. These kinds of studies are only capable of identifying correlation, not causation. Despite this, the experts in this film speak as if meat causing cancer is a proven fact.
A classic example of this logical shortcoming is the correlation between ice cream sales and violent crimes. As you can see on the graph below the correlation between ice cream sales and violent crimes is very high. Does that mean that ice cream causes violence?
This is similar to how the AHA recently concluded that coconut oil was unhealthy citing a group of very old epidemiological studies that have since been largely disproven.
Furthermore, a meta-analysis study performed in 2015 that observed data from 27 different cohort studies concluded that there was no statistically significant correlation between red meat consumption and colon cancer risk (2).
The meta-analysis concluded with the following statement, “the state of the epidemiologic science on red meat consumption and CRC is best described in terms of weak associations, heterogeneity, an inability to disentangle effects from other dietary and lifestyle factors, lack of a clear dose-response effect, and weakening evidence over time”.
Meat Worse Than Sugar, Causes Diabetes
After cancer, there is a large focus on diabetes. Rightfully so, diabetes is one of the leading chronic diseases in the US.
Claim: A high-carb diet does not contribute to diabetes, instead is caused by a buildup of fat in the blood, such as with a meat-based diet.
Their proposed solution is to remove animal products and most dietary fats. Instead, consuming the predominant number of calories from carbohydrates.
When you consume carbohydrates, they are eventually converted into glucose which is then transported into your cells with the help of Insulin. The more carbohydrate you consume, the more insulin is needed. Proper insulin signaling is critical for keeping blood sugar stable and maintaining a healthy metabolism.
The overconsumption of carbs has been shown to, over time, desensitize your cells to insulin. This is called insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is when your tissues (muscles, liver, fat) stop responding to insulin and do not readily absorb glucose even when insulin is present.
When this happens, your pancreas needs to produce more insulin to get glucose into your cells. Eventually, this constant burden diminishes your ability to secrete insulin and you end up with chronically elevated blood sugar. This is when someone develops prediabetes or diabetes.
As you can see, more carbs (and more insulin) is not the answer to our diabetes problem. In fact, carbohydrate restriction has been shown to improve diabetic conditions consistently in clinical settings more so than fat restriction (3, 4).
Sugar Not Tied To Inflammation
This conclusion drawn by Dr. Garth Davis in the film seems absolutely unfounded. He suggests that sugar is a distraction from the real cause of inflammation, animal products (of course).
Hyperglycemia, hyperinsulinemia, and reactive hypoglycemia are all associated with an increase in physiological biomarkers of inflammation (5). These terms essentially mean high blood sugar, high insulin, and sharp decrease in blood sugar shortly following a meal, respectively. All three of these states often occur in someone who is constantly feeding on sugar and carbohydrate sources.
Consuming a low-carb diet can help reduce all three of these states. The film could have at least highlighted the possibility of a low-carb vegan option, but instead continues to claim that fats even from plant sources are dangerous.
Meat Consumption & Heart Disease
Claim: All meat consumption contributes to an increased risk of heart disease.
Similar to the how this film addressed cancer risk, the main citation for this claim was based off of food questionnaire studies that at best may provide some correlation, never causation between two variables (6).
A more recent 2017 review was performed on the correlative relationship between red meat consumption and heart disease risk in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine. In this review, the authors reviewed previous evidence (including the study cited in What The Health) and concluded that there is no significant relationship between red meat consumption and heart disease risk (7).
The authors of the 2017 study also briefly suggest that any risk that has been highlighted in previous research may be largely associated with processing that adds preservatives and other additives to the meat. In other words, processed meat shows a very small correlation with heart disease while fresh unprocessed meat does not.
If we were going to continue following the correlational thought process heavily relied upon in the film we might stumble upon an inconvenient truth. Meat consumption is at an all-time high and heart disease rates are drastically declining (and are predicted to continue, along with cancer rates) (8). This is largely thought to be due to a decrease in cigarette smoking.
Arterial Damage From Meat Toxins
Dr. Michael Gregor makes the claim that bacterial toxins in meat cause immediate stiffening of the arteries after consumption, this is called endotoxemia. This claim is backed up by a petri dish style study which can’t quite be said to be an accurate representation of the human body. Additionally, this risk is present for many processed foods and has also been theorized to be potentiated by excessive processed carbohydrate intake.
A degree of inflammation occurs after eating anything and this is why I often recommend regular fasting to decrease the window in which this occurs. I also recommend including plenty of fibrous plant foods and low amounts of carbohydrates, instead consuming the bulk of calories from fats. Being in a fat-adapted state has been repeatedly shown to lower inflammation.
Heterocyclic Amines (HCA’s) & Dioxins
These are two toxins that supposedly make meat poisonous. Here’s a quick breakdown of the claims:
- HCA’s are carcinogens, formed during cooking of meat
- Can be formed during cooking of anything
- To reduce exposure: lower cooking temperature and marinade with antioxidant herbs and spices
- Healthy gut bacteria largely inactivate HCA’s (9)
- Dioxins: Most poisonous substance known to man
- Pasture-raised meat is not exposed to high levels of dioxins
I have always and will continue to recommend consuming pasture-raised animal products over conventionally produced. Additionally, I often recommend the inclusion of antioxidant-rich herbs when cooking which will mitigate most of the risk associated with these two substances. Finally, consuming antioxidant-rich organic veggies along with meals will make these risks negligible.
What About Fish?
The film claims that fish is still unhealthy due to saturated fat, cholesterol, PCB’s, and Mercury.
We’ve covered that saturated fats and cholesterol are not our enemies here. However, PCB’s and mercury are definitely a concern. Eat clean sourced fish and lower food chain fish. Consequently, these are some of the most nutritious foods on the planet.
These include Wild Alaskan Salmon and Sardines. Including these fish in your diet will provide your body with tons of nutrition including a hefty dose of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.
Meat And The Environment
There are several environmental concerns raised in relation to the centralized farming of animals including antibiotic use, development and spread of diseases, and general stressors on the environment. These are reasonable concerns that should definitely be addressed for the longevity of our environment.
The solution to go vegan and halt animal agriculture may not be the best option however. Decentralization of animal farming and returning to pasture-based farming would drastically reduce the burden of industrialized animal agriculture and may actually reverse the burdens placed on our environment by industrialized farming practices.
Furthermore, harvesting and utilizing animal waste as fertilizer would help return vital nutrients to our soils which industrial farming practices have vastly depleted. This would result in not only more sustainable farming practices and healthier animals, but more nutritious foods as well!
- What The Health relies mostly upon weak correlational and exaggerated findings
- Any plausible concerns are from animals raised in poor environments, go pasture-raised and do the environment and your body a favor. This will mitigate risks of antibiotic exposure, artificial hormone exposure, dioxins, and environmental impacts.
- Get tested to see if you have sensitivities to eggs or dairy to mitigate inflammation from these sources. If you choose to eat them, go for pasture-raised and in raw form.
- Consume mostly plant foods, plenty of healthy fats, and moderate amounts of high-quality animal products (the foundation of my Healing Diet)
- Understand how blood sugar works and how to control it to limit your risk of almost every disease discussed in What The Health
- Help save the environment by opting for organic produce and pasture-raised animal products. The increased demand will help create more sustainable farming practices and may help reverse much of the environmental damage done by factory farming animals, corn, soy, wheat, and others.
- Keep yourself informed! The vegan agenda may be well intentioned, but as you can see, is probably not going to solve our problems. These types of documentaries will continue to get grand exposure so it is important to keep yourself updated on the latest information. As of now I will continue to recommend a low-carb, plant heavy, moderate animal product diet as it repeatedly puts my clients on the path to health more effectively than any other approach.