“What the Health” Documentary: A Review

Thoughts About a New Food Documentary

A number of you have asked me to respond to a new documentary called What the Health, which you can find on Netflix or Vimeo. This is the latest in a growing number of documentary films focusing on how what we eat affects our health and environment, and how business, industry, and public policy affect what we eat.

Other films in this general category include Forks over Knives, Cowspiracy, Farmland, Food, Inc., King Corn, and Fast Food Nation. I’ll start with a couple of reactions to this specific film, but I also want to share some thoughts about this type of documentary, in general.

Are Meat and Dairy the Cause of Disease?

What the Health argues that meat and dairy products are the primary cause of cancer, diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. One expert even testifies that consuming sugar plays no role in the development of diabetes. I’m sure that was very much appreciated by the corn and cane growers, not mention the American Beverage Association.

I don’t have enough time in this podcast to go through the movie point by point. Suffice it to say the film includes a lot of facts but also a lot of opinion, anecdotes, unsubstantiated claims, misleading statements, and a few outright falsehoods. Just because someone has MD or PhD after their name does not guarantee that everything that comes out of their mouth is reliable. 

But my main criticism of the film is that obesity, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease simply cannot be pinned on any one food group or nutrient. For one thing, these are complex diseases with multiple factors, of which diet is only one.

How Does Diet Affect Disease Risk?

When it comes to diet and disease, it’s not about any single element, but how you put all the pieces together. Just as there a lot of ways to put build a healthy diet, there are a lot of ways to kill yourself with food. Virtually any food or food group can be eaten in quantities or ways that will cause harm, even if that harm is simply due to the absence of other foods or important nutrients. By the same token, virtually any food that might cause problems if over-consumed can safely be enjoyed in moderation, in the context of a healthy diet.

As I have said so many times before, when considering whether a given food is “healthy” or “unhealthy,” it’s important to take into consideration how much of it you’re eating, what you’re eating it with, and what you might be eating if you weren’t eating that instead.

Does Meat Cause Cancer?

Eating processed meat seven days a week as part of a diet that doesn’t include fresh fruits or vegetables, and also provides 50% more calories than you need, is certainly going to increase your risk of cancer and other diseases.  Eating a hot dog at a ball game on a day that you also had a big salad for lunch and ran with the dog for a mile or two? Very unlikely to impact your cancer risk.

Likewise, drinking a soda in the context of a nutritious and calorie-appropriate diet is unlikely to contribute to your risk of obesity or diabetes. Consuming a high-calorie diet, in which 30% of those calories are coming from sweetened beverages, combined with a sedentary lifestyle? Yup, that’s probably going to cause some problems.

It should also be said that even people who eat excellent diets and are at a healthy body weight sometimes get diabetes, heart disease, and cancer anyway. Because diet is only one of many factors that come into play.

Journalism or Propaganda?

A Balanced Opinion on Food Docs

Here’s the thing you need to understand about films like this: These filmmakers are not seeking to present a balanced view of a complex topic in order to allow you to come to your own conclusions. They know what conclusion they want you to draw, and they are using every tool at their disposal to lead you to it. Filmmakers are also in the entertainment business, so they are going to make their story as sensational, shocking, heart-rending, controversial, and/or hair-raising as they possibly can.

Watching a movie like this may be informative and entertaining, but it’s less like reading an investigative journalism piece and more like attending a campaign rally. If I am running for office, I am not going to spend my campaign events exploring both sides of an issue. (And there are always at least two sides to every issue.) Even if I’m absolutely scrupulous about never saying an untrue thing and having sources to back up my statements, I’m still going to be very selective about the facts, evidence, and arguments I choose to emphasize, and which ones I’m going to leave out of the story.

If my opponent has ever voted to raise taxes, for example, I’m going to be sure to mention that every chance I get. The fact that the tax increase she voted was more than offset by three other tax cuts that she also voted for probably won’t make it into my talking points. As a political candidate, my job at a campaign rally is not to give you all the facts or put them in context. My job is to convince you to vote for me and not my opponent. (And, of course, to fire up my base.)

If you’re a conscientious citizen, you’re not going to choose who to vote for based solely on what a candidate says about themselves and their record. Hopefully, you’ll see what other informed and independent sources might have to say about both the candidate and his rival. Perhaps you’d even attend a campaign rally for the other candidate, just to hear the other side of the story.

What’s the Other Side of the Story?

Similarly, before drawing any hard and fast conclusions about the entire beef industry after watching the documentary Cowspiracy, which was made by vegan proponents, you might choose to watch the documentary Farmland , which was produced by those who work in the cattle industry.

As you might imagine, the two films paint very different pictures of the same industry. I’m not sure I’d take either one of them as a complete and balanced representation, but watching both of them would certainly give you more information than watching just one.

Documentaries can be a great way to learn about things that we might otherwise not have any way of experiencing. They frequently propel us to take action that might make us or the world a healthier place. And I’m not saying that these filmmakers are evil; I think they very much believe that adopting their point of view is in your best interests.

Documentaries can be a great way to learn about things that we might otherwise not have any way of experiencing, but they are usually highly selective about the information they present, and how it is interpreted.

But to that end, they are usually highly selective about the information they present, and how it is interpreted. They can be sensational and emotionally manipulative, and they sometimes misrepresent the facts – whether intentionally or unintentionally. So, before making any life-changing decisions, it’s worth at least investigating whether there are other points of view to consider.

If I’m researching a Nutrition Diva episode on a controversial topic, for example, I always try to interview people on both sides of the issue. I know that each one is going to be spinning the facts and citing evidence to support their point of view, but even if they are picking and choosing which facts to highlight, I know that both of them probably are more knowledgeable about their particular issue than I am. Plus, I often give them an opportunity to rebut or respond to the most incendiary charges raised by the other side. By listening to both sides carefully (and skeptically), I can usually uncover sources and facts that I might have missed otherwise.

And in fact, there are several episodes in the Nutrition Diva archives that take a closer look at some of the specific claims made in this movie, and I’ve included links to several of them below.

Comments on this week’s topic? Post them below.

Photos of heart healthy foods and eating a balanced diet courtesy of Shutterstock.