The new documentary What The Health has been making waves in the months since its release earlier this year. The film, which focuses on how our health is closely related to our diet, has already attracted its fair share of both detractors and supporters. While I strongly agree with the basic premise of the film (i.e., food is the best medicine), the documentary falls short by confusing viewers with half-truths and some highly questionable claims. In this What The Health documentary review, I’ve broken down the film’s main talking points. I hope to provide insight for both people who have yet to watch the film as well as those who saw it but remain confused.
First, let’s start with what I’d consider to be the film’s main valid arguments.
‘What The Health’s Main Valid Points
Processed Meats Are Bad For You
As I’ve discussed throughout many of my articles and books, processed meats are something we should be eating less of, if not eliminating from our diet altogether. They are carcinogenic and are often pumped with a ton of added man-made chemicals in addition to sodium.
Furthermore, while the animals are still alive, they’re often injected with antibiotics, hormones and are fed genetically modified plants. Or even more disgustingly, animals that are killed are commonly ground up and fed back to their brothers and sisters that are still living. Gross!
Processed meat is also acidic and causes inflammation while stiffening the arteries. A great number of health ailments plaguing modern society today, such as diabetes and heart disease, can be directly blamed on too much processed meat consumption.
But is all meat bad for you? According to What The Health, yes – consuming any type of meat whatsoever is always bad for your health, the film claims. This fundamentalist attitude is one of the main problems I have with the documentary, but I’ll get into that further down below.
The Food Industry is in Collusion with Major Health Organizations
How often do we hear about some kind of march for breast cancer awareness, or see people wearing ribbons to promote ‘awareness’ of such-and-such a disease? These types of campaigns are often organized by supposedly trustworthy and credible organizations like the American Diabetes Association (ADA), the American Heart Association (AHA) and other similar cancer awareness groups.
The truth is, however, that these organizations often receive funding from major food industry corporations. In many instances, it’s the food from these same corporations that are causing the above-mentioned diseases in the first place!
It’s no wonder then, that groups like the ADA or AHA often refuse to discuss how one’s diet can possibly either cause or prevent serious health ailments. It’s almost as if their main purpose is not really to help the people they’re supposed to, but to simply keep the average citizen in the dark.
We live in a truly corrupt and backwards system in which the organizations meant to help us are actually causing us harm. What The Health does a great job at exposing this.
The film also brings up the issue of how in the United States, the food industry is so powerful that their lobbyists have been able to push laws through Congress which criminalize whistleblowing! It’s very scary stuff, and if anything needs an awareness march, it’s topics like these.
Other Good Points
Dairy: The film also points out some of the negative effects that dairy can have on our health. Too much dairy consumption can lead to autoimmune diseases in addition to rheumatologic problems. Most of the world’s population is actually at least mildly lactose intolerant, so there’s little reason why we should be drinking milk past infancy. Many popular claims that milk is good for our bones are also false.
Organic Meat: Not everything labelled organic is 100% safe. The documentary makes the point that many so-called ‘organic’ meats come from animals that were given GMO food. Therefore, we are often unknowingly consuming GMO products even when we pay more money for organic.
Environmental Impacts of the Meat Industry: Cows and other livestock need an incredible amount of land to live on while they must also be protected from potential predators. As a result, the beef industry is responsible for a large percentage of wildlife devastation and the destruction of the rainforest. By eating less meat, we’re also helping protect endangered animal and plant species. Though I have yet to see it, this is one of the main points of the What The Health producers’ previous film, Cowspiracy.
Plant-Based Protein Sources: The film touches on a lot of the points I brought up in my article How to Get Enough Protein Without Eating Meat. They don’t mention anything about the amino acid balancing act you must go through if you choose to go full vegan, though. This is where many vegans tend to mess up.
Where the Film Falls Short
The main flaw of What The Health is its extremist view that a 100% vegan diet is the only good diet for 100% of all people. Think I’m exaggerating? Near the end of the film one of the talking heads even says that “we haven’t seen that moderation works,” in regards to integrating animal products into one’s diet.
This unbalanced perspective leads to many of the documentary’s other questionable claims. The film goes so far to demonize all animal products of any kind, that it even features one person saying that eating one egg a day is as bad for you as smoking 5 cigarettes! Come on, Really?
Paleo diet blogger Robb Wolf went through the trouble of searching for the citation for this claim and was unable to find it. Honestly, I’m not surprised. It’s outlandish statements like these which greatly hurt the film’s overall credibility.
“All Fats are Bad, all Carbs are Good”
From the very beginning, What The Health makes it clear that it advocates for a high carb lifestyle. I have no problem with this, as I typically eat a diet high in (healthy and unrefined) carbs myself and have found it to be greatly beneficial.
In fact, I wrote a book called Diabetes: The Raw Food Diet for Diabetes Reversal about how a high carb, raw vegan diet is one of the most effective ways to reverse type II diabetes. One of the health professionals whose research I cited most often was Dr. Neal Barnard, who happens to be one of the main talking heads in What The Health.
What, then, is my problem with What The Health? Just because there are plenty of benefits to a high carb, low fat diet, does not mean that all carbs are good for you and that all fats are bad. Watching the film with little knowledge of the subject, a viewer could easily get the impression that processed sugar is safe while something like organic butter is dangerous.
The film completely skips over topics such as the dangers of refined sugars and grains. As I mentioned in a recent article, consuming too much refined sugar can potentially lead to tooth decay, diabetes and obesity, among other things.
It should be pointed out that while sugar may not directly cause diabetes as popularly believed, its role in obesity makes it indirectly responsible for the development of type II diabetes in many people. Dr. Barnard even mentions this on his web site, but this topic is glossed over in the documentary.
According to the film, ‘sugar’ is unfairly demonized in modern society. But hardly any effort is made by the producers to explain any difference between natural and refined sugar consumption.
On the same note, the film gives viewers the impression that all fats are bad for you. What about fats from avocados? From nuts? As I plan to discuss in a future article, we need to make sure we’re getting enough healthy fats. Even fat from certain animal products like all-natural butter can be beneficial.
The Longest-Living Cultures Consume Meat
Which part of the world is home to the longest-living people on the planet? Okinawa – once known as the Ryukyu Kingdom and now a prefecture of Japan. And what is a prominent dish in Okinawan cuisine? Pork, especially fatty pork. They also eat plenty of eggs.
Sure, pork and eggs don’t make up the majority of the Okinawan diet, but that’s not the point. After watching What The Health, one might get the impression that it’s impossible to live a healthy, long life while consuming meat to any degree.
I went to take a look at some other of the world’s longest living cultures and found this article by Dr. Axe.
Here’s a quote:
“Contrary to popular belief, longevity doesn’t belong in the vegetarian domain. These people do eat a large quantity of herbs, fruits and vegetables, but animal products play a large role in their diets. Meats, cheeses, butters, yogurts and lard are staple components in these diets. These animals are grass-fed, free-range and respected.”
I’m partially playing devil’s advocate here, as I am often encouraging people to cut back on meat or try out long-term vegan diets or cleanses for detox purposes. But I also think it’s overly simplistic and ignorant to demonize all diets and lifestyles that involve the consumption of any animal products.
Where I Stand
For the record, I myself try to follow a diet which consists mostly of plant-based foods. But yes, I do sometimes also consume fish, eggs and meat to a degree, though to a much lesser extent than the average Westerner.
I have tried 100% vegetarian and even vegan diets in the past. These have been beneficial for my body and mind, especially at times when I was trying to overcome other unhealthy habits. At least for right now, I find that moderate consumption of animal products works best for me as long as I’m also eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. I am certainly not against 100% vegan diets and would like to try out a more long-term vegan diet sometime in the future.
It’s important to remember, though, that vegan or vegetarian doesn’t necessarily mean healthy. I’ve known plenty of vegans with little to no nutrition knowledge. They eat tons of bread, pasta and other processed stuff. They tend to get sick often and have very little muscle mass. How to eat a balanced diet while vegan is another thing that What The Health skips over.
So while I am a proponent of a vegan diet in principle, it’s certainly not the only healthy way to live as the film suggests. And I’m also not against the idea of high fat, low carb diets as long as one can maintain that lifestyle while also avoiding processed meats and cheese.
At the end of the day, it’s not so much about herbivores vs. omnivores or carbs vs. fat. The overall key to health is eating more foods that are natural and organic and less foods which are processed or genetically modified. What The Health could’ve been a much more powerful and balanced documentary had it simply looked at health from this perspective.
Final Thoughts on What The Health
Though the film brings up a lot of important and valid points, at the end of the day I would not recommend this documentary. If you’re reading this site then it’s possible that you’re already familiar with holistic health topics yourself, but are looking for a film to show a friend or family member in order to “wake them up,” so to speak.
Maybe you have a loved one with diabetes that either continues to eat fast food or believes everything he or she reads on the ADA web site. Should you show this film to your friends? Unfortunately, no. The extremist vegan and high carb viewpoint ruin this documentary, even if the producers had the best of intentions while making it.
On the bright side, What The Health continues to attract a lot of attention, and hopefully some of its viewers who are new to these topics will start doing more independent research for a more balanced perspective on nutrition.