Why I didn’t like ‘What the Health’

I watched ‘What the Health’ on Netflix recently. As someone who is meat-free (I do still eat some fish…) and mostly eats plant-based foods, I was intrigued and excited to watch this documentary. I’d hoped it would be a well-rounded, evidence based argument on why reducing meat/dairy intake may be beneficial to health. However, aside from the few decent points it made about the way meat is produced in the US, I was bitterly disappointed. It’s sensationalised, biased, and scare-mongers viewers into becoming vegan without using sufficient evidence.

I was frustrated by the behaviour of the presenter (Kip Anderson) throughout, particularly with his ‘gotcha’ style of journalism. If you phone the customer service number of any major company, don’t be surprised when a receptionist doesn’t have the answers you’re looking for. Even if they did, they wouldn’t have the authority to discuss it without speaking to their seniors. The incessant eye-rolling and ‘shock, horror’ that the companies weren’t ‘cooperating’ was outrageous. I’m sure most major food production companies and pharmaceuticals are responsible for cover-ups, and I’m sure that they do indeed try to influence health advice as money is inevitably their priority, but Kip hasn’t proven anything here with this immature approach.

Picture credit: Hannah Wood

I was, as usual, outraged by the lack of welfare standards in the US, the amount of pollution they are producing, particularly in North Carolina, and the amount of crap they use to produce meat; antibiotic resistance is happening, and uncontrollably pumping livestock with them is a really bad idea. Furthermore, washing poultry with chlorine to make them consumable just shows how unsanitary their living conditions are. Truly disgusting. Anyway, I found that segment of the documentary useful and thought-provoking, and I’m glad the UK is currently ahead of the US in that respect (we’ll see what happens post-Brexit, although so far it’s looking positive…).

Health is not why I’ve cut out meat, I do it for environmental and sustainability reasons, because there is actually enough evidence surrounding those issues. I am a strong believer that people should be eating less meat and dairy, but I am unconvinced by the major health claims made in this documentary. I know it is likely to be more healthy to eat a plant-based diet, but I think attacking meat and dairy without any counter-argument is unjust without more evidence. There has been so much research, and ‘What the Health’ only used the ones which work for their argument.

Furthermore, most studies on meat consumption and cancer are specifically on colorectal cancer risk, so it is misleading that ‘What the Health’ insinuates that all cancer risk is increased. I gave myself 10 minutes to find as many papers as I could on the claims made by ‘What the Health?’  and found that they have indeed been extremely biased in their research:

  • This recent paper (2017) suggests that dairy products can actually REDUCE the risk of cancer.
  • Another paper said there is inadequate evidence in experimental animals for the
    carcinogenicity of consumption of red meat and of processed meat, however, unprocessed red meat is carcinogenic, whereas unprocessed red meat is ‘probably’ carcinogenic
  • This paper suggests that high amounts of processed red meat does increase cancer risk, but it is specifically discussing the risk of esophageal cancer
  • This meta-analysis found that red meats (particularly processed) does increase risks of all cancer, whereas they found that white meat (ie. poultry) did not. ‘What the Health?’ made it clear that poultry was at least as bad. Perhaps chlorinated chicken from the US is, but they didn’t provide evidence for this.
  • This study suggests that there are both health benefits AND costs to leading a vegetarian diet (reduced BMI, CVD and atherosclerosis, but increased risk of anaemia and  hyperhomocysteinaemia. However, overall, it was concluded that the benefits of being vegetarian far outweigh the potential costs, but it isn’t as simple as ‘What the Health’ suggests.
  • This paper found that consumption of a certain probiotic cheese may be beneficial to improving cardiovascular health
  • This paper found that reducing meat and dairy intake by half, saturated fat intake would reduce to the ideal level, nitrogen emissions would reduce by 40%, and there would be a 25-40% reduction in greenhouse gas emission. This idea of reducing intake across the population, but not completely eliminating it is what I personally believe could make a realistic difference to the environment.

Essentially, most research focuses on one particular cancer (and fair enough, too, as they all have different characteristics), and there are also a lot of studies which contradict each other. This makes the food debate much more complex than ‘What the Health’ suggests – you cannot simply go vegan and automatically live longer. There are so many factors which could lead to cancer, including pollutants and genetics. I’m not an expert at all, but I at least recognise the complexity of the issue. Furthermore, health studies are notoriously difficult. How do you monitor the effects of one specific food group, when every individual will be eating different diets?

I am a strong supporter of  improving health, and I am suspicious that so many pharmaceuticals and unhealthy food companies sponsor disease charities, but I think it is more complex than simply ‘paying them off’. It may be that they know it’s unhealthy so are trying to compensate, or maybe they are genuinely trying to move in a healthier direction as consumers become increasingly health aware.

It is generally agreed that Americans aren’t eating enough fruit and veg – but instead of scare-mongering and saying they have to completely cut out meat, surely a good start would be to suggest eating LESS meat? If everyone ate a balanced diet with reduced meat intake, I think people would be healthier as well as improving the environment and welfare of animals. I agree that everyone needs to eat healthier, but I think going vegan isn’t necessarily the answer, and if the entire population did this, there would be no need for livestock, so their existing welfare would cease to exist.

Most people know that eating junk food is unhealthy for you – but most of us do it anyway. This is because we are prepared to take the risk. It is also kind of unimaginable that by eating a few burgers you could be increasing your cancer risk. It’s hard to invisage. It’s the same reason why we still have smokers despite it being majorly carcinogenic, and why people live next to active volcano’s.

The prevalence of obesity is well known and is frequently reported in the media, however, this recent research paper (July 2017) found that knowledge on ‘overfat’ (ie. you may be of a normal weight but have excess fat internally) is limited. It found that around 90% of males in the US are classed as ‘overfat’. 

However, even if it is healthier to become vegan, I just can’t quite believe the case studies of people becoming ‘miraculously’ cured in ‘What the health’. I’d like to see how they’re doing 6 months later, a year later, and so on. I need substantial evidence, not just a snippet of how they felt two weeks later. These limited examples just aren’t proving anything, this is why long term scientific research exists. I do believe it is absolutely healthier to eat less meat (particularly processed), but I think it is wrong that ‘What the Health’ gives people unrealistic expectations of how they’ll feel if they become vegan.

Overall, I would recommend watching ‘What the Health’ because there are some important themes covered and some of it has value, but maybe take some of it with a pinch of salt and accept that it is extremely biased. Until we receive definitive answers about the risks associated with dairy, I’ll continue to be meat-free and consume everything else in moderation. Hopefully one day a documentary will be produced that will successfully reduce meat/dairy intake of its’ viewers, but for the right reasons, and with enough hard evidence to back it up.

Picture credit: World Health Organisation

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