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Go Vegan or Go Home: Netflix's 'What the Health' Explores Diet and Disease

If any of my foodies out there have tapped into Netflix’s culinary niche through the enjoyment of mouth-watering shows like Chef’s Table or Cooked, then you may have heard of the latest food documentary everyone is talking about: What the Health.

Brought to you by the producers of Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret in 2014, What the Health director Keegan Kuhn and co-director and star Kip Anderson examine the link between diet and disease, offering a narrow-minded conclusion of how we should eat. The documentary maintains one answer: vegan. Say goodbye to all animal products—meat, fish, poultry, and dairy are out.

The documentary opens with a mother serving cigarettes out of a frying pan to her two kids—a striking image to accompany the exaggerated claim that eating an egg equates to smoking five cigarettes, focusing in on the pure fat and cholesterol count in egg yolks. However, a great deal of nutritional research asserts that eating more cholesterol is not necessarily linked to heart disease or high cholesterol. This is also why the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee removed cholesterol as a “nutrient of concern” in the American diet in 2015.

The documentary highlights the link between processed meats and cancer, citing Anderson’s interpretation of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) classification of processed meat as a “Group One carcinogen,” the same category as tobacco smoking and asbestos. Anderson greatly distorts the health effects of eating processed meat, claiming that daily servings increase the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. However, the highest lifetime risk of colorectal cancer is roughly 4.7 percent. Thus, eating processed meat every day could increase the risk of this specific cancer, but not to the extent that Anderson suggests.

Furthermore, WHO’s announcement is misconstrued by the filmmaker when he asks, “If processed meats are labeled the same as cigarettes, how is it even legal for kids to be eating this way?” WHO has established a causal link between cancer and eating processed meat, but this risk is immensely smaller than that of smoking. The organization’s carcinogen classification can state a causal relationship between something and cancer, but cannot establish the extent of that risk. Eating the occasional piece of bacon is certainly not as deadly as smoking.

Cancer is not the only point of concern as the film continues to associate red and processed meat as a primary cause of diabetes rather than common carbohydrates. So, is chicken better? Or fish? Apparently not.

The next set of interviews and research reveal poultry (chicken and turkey) as filled with carcinogens, the “leading source of sodium,” and “the number one source of cholesterol,” voicing it as the flesh food to eliminate from the American diet. The documentary also debases our aquatic, finned friends as “mercury sponges,” the most dangerous of them being tuna. The four main concerns associated with fish are PCBs, mercury, saturated fat, and cholesterol.

While mercury levels are certainly a risk to note in certain types of fish, this does not apply to all fish. In the same respect, the health effects of processed meat cannot merely be translated to all other meats. What’s more, the immense health benefits of omega-3 fats in fish or high protein and mineral content in chicken is entirely disregarded.

The documentary turns sweeping generalizations into a blame game by belittling institutions like the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society for intentionally misleading people with false information. The film is undeniably shocking to viewers, but it is important to distinguish the dramatized, emotional effect of the film from accurate facts. Unfortunately, the nature of nutritional research makes it difficult to do so. A lot of the research is selective and imprecise. Much of it only shows short-term changes in health rather than long-term. Confounding factors that contribute to individuals’ medical status, such as education, income, and insurance policies, are often missed. Perhaps most importantly, much of nutritional research is correlational, but not causational—a major caveat to the conclusions drawn in the documentary.   

How do we know what diet is best? How do we validate nutritional research? Do I need to replace Santa’s glass of milk with water instead? These questions make it confusing for people to understand where food comes from and how it impacts our bodies. Despite the documentary’s mischaracterization about the links between diet and disease, it doesn’t leave viewers empty-handed. It encourages healthier eating patterns—incorporating more plant-based foods, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains into our diets rather than reaching for a processed bag of chips (perhaps a more pertinent concern that needs to be addressed).

While going vegan may not be a desirable choice for everyone, What the Health espouses a sense of awareness about what we are eating and its affect on our bodies. This kind of dialogue encourages discussion and questions, even if that means disagreeing or pointing out inaccuracies.

It’s impossible to dispute that unchecked diets have not contributed to the widespread issues of obesity, heart disease, and cholesterol. However, being scared of every food group that does not qualify as “vegan” is also no solution. We all have a responsibility to ourselves and future generations to think about what we eat and how it impacts our bodies. But I don’t think it’s worth crying over spilled milk—organic, vanilla-soy, or otherwise.

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