By Meghan Salamon
What the Health is a highly sensationalized documentary released in 2017 surrounding the vegan diet and how industries may be profiting off of disease. While there are several important points in this documentary, the creators of What the Health Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn insert their biases and engage in fear-mongering about foods like meat, dairy, fish, and eggs. It is important to note that neither of these creators have a background in nutrition or medicine. Their knowledge comes from their own experiences with the vegan diet.
The film begins with one of the creators, Kip Anderson, who researches the link between diet and disease. He specifically investigates diets high in animal products like meat, fish, dairy, and eggs. Backed by biased sources, Anderson makes exaggerated statements, such as that consumption of these foods is comparable to smoking cigarettes.
There are important messages portrayed in the documentary, but also several skewed motives. It is crucial to explore the latest nutrition literature and research with an unbiased, productive view.
When you’re watching media like this, look for themes promoting science, education, justice, and public health. To begin, let’s look at the positive themes in What the Health.
Science: The Link Between Diet and Disease
The World Health Organization (WHO), amongst numerous others, have found that proper diet and nutrition can help to prevent diseases such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, osteoporosis, and dental caries. Unfortunately, many Americans are unaware of how diet affects disease development because conversations commonly get caught up in obesity.
What the Health highlights how what we eat can either promote or prevent disease. The documentary also does not focus on weight as an outcome. Anderson and Kuhn instead emphasize how a healthy diet can be protective against ailment. The doctors featured in the documentary also discuss how many disease treatments target symptoms, rather than causes. One way to treat the cause may be a change in diet.
Education: What is a vegan diet?
Similar to how many people may not know the connection between diet and disease, many are unaware of what a vegan diet entails. Those who follow a vegan diet do not consume any animal products or byproducts, including meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, honey, or gelatin.
There are many benefits to consuming a vegan diet, including promoting a protective gut microbiome, supporting animal rights, and allowing for a higher consumption of fiber and antioxidants from increased plant intake. By the creators explaining this diet in detail, it educates viewers on the diet and increases overall awareness of the vegan diet.
Justice: Addressing Animal Rights
While many people consume a vegan diet for its health benefits, others focus on supporting animal rights. Animal rights activists believe that animals should not suffer and die for our consumption, and promote their ideals through protests and petitions. Specifically, they target factory farming, which is the unsustainable industry that raises animals for food.
While it may be hard to recognize due to the meat industry’s portrayal of an animal’s lifestyle, the meat that we eat was once a living animal. By focusing another facet of the documentary on animal activism, it allows viewers to be exposed to the true state of animal agriculture. This allows viewers to make the choice for themselves of whether or not they want to support this business.
Public Health: Farming and the Spread of Disease
A portion of the documentary is dedicated to interviewing those who live in Duplin County, North Carolina in proximity to a factory farm. These people discuss how those who live closer to farms have higher rates of swine flu or MRSA due to the spraying fields with animal manure. Living close to these facilities is linked to increased risk of both infectious and non-infectious diseases. These fields are also disproportionately located near communities of color and low-income communities. In this way, it is a civil rights issue.
The interviewees discuss zoonotic viruses and how packing animals into a small, dirty area is ripe for a “spillover” event. Unfortunately, we have seen this before and are experiencing one now with the COVID-19 pandemic. With all of these dangers, the documentary shows how the animal agriculture industry prioritizes profit over health.
While What the Health procures these notable points, the documentary also has many faults. When analyzing media such as this, look out for themes of food demonization, cherry-picking, conflict of interest, and miracle cures.
Food Demonization: Exaggerated Health Claims
Narrator Kip Anderson makes statements such as “drinking milk causes cancer” and compares eating certain foods to smoking cigarettes. However, these claims are not backed by high-quality research and are more harmful than helpful. Because Anderson and Kuhn are biased towards the vegan diet, these claims focus on scaring others into stopping their consumption of animal products. Instead of demonizing foods, we should focus the discussion on moderation. What’s more, naming foods as off-limits can be triggering to those with eating disorders. Nutrition research is almost never definitive, but rather hints at correlation.
Cherry-picking: Bias in Science
The research used in What the Health is “cherry-picked” and fails to discuss the true breadth of nutrition research surrounding foods like meat, dairy, fish, and eggs. What this means is that the producers only chose research that bolstered their beliefs and biases.
A particular study done by Neal Barnard examines how a low-fat vegan diet compares to a conventional diabetes diet in the treatment of Type 2 Diabetes. Barnard himself is a plant-based advocate, meaning there may have been bias when conducting the study. Anderson and Kuhn use research such as this as a way to reinforce their demonizing food claims. As mentioned before, nutrition research is rarely absolute. For every study supporting something, there may be ten going against it. The creators fell short of conceding to this, which makes the documentary seem harsh and preachy.
Conflict of Interest: Facts vs. Feelings
The documentary has segments of interviews with numerous medical professionals, including doctors Michael Greger, Milton Mills, Neal Barnard, and Caldwell Esselstyn, among others. The problem with this line-up is that they are all vegan or vegetarian diet advocates, meaning that their biases are also inserted into the film and further push the creator’s points. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, the creators once again fail to acknowledge other viewpoints or provide a varied perspective. This presents heavy confirmation bias, which is not productive in an investigative documentary such as this one.
Miraculous Cures: Nutrition is Not “One-Size-Fixes-All”
Threaded throughout the documentary are the journeys of Michael Abdalla, Amy Resnic, and Jane Chapman. Michael begins the documentary struggling with diabetes, a diagnosis he has had for over ten years. Amy recently found out she had high C-reactive protein levels in her blood, meaning she had a high risk of a cardiac event within the next 30 days. Jane had osteoarthritis, which entails the grinding of bones due to lack of synovial fluid.
By the end of the documentary, all three had gone vegan. Michael lost 29 pounds and cut his medications in half. Amy has stopped taking all of her medications. Jane stopped needing to use a walker. The inclusion of these stories over-simplify disease resolution to the point that it seems miraculous. It portrays the vegan diet as a wonder diet, and quite frankly does not make sense. It is possible to be on a vegan diet and only eat junk food, or become malnourished if not properly balanced. Some people may not have the ability to go vegan, or have several food sensitivities or intolerances. What’s most important is ensuring we keep ourselves nourished, no matter what diet we follow, because this is what will truly help to protect us from disease.
In sum, there is no diet that is going to heal or prevent all diseases. What the Health attempts to push the vegan diet as a cure-all. When viewing documentaries like What the Health, we need to keep a healthy skepticism. What’s more, we must notice underlying biases or motives that may be at play. In this way, we are able to keep a tight grip on the evidence-based nutrition information.