'What the Health': What the pro-vegan Netflix film gets right and wrong

Earlier this year, Netflix released its latest health-focused documentary, titled What the Health. The film examines the link between diet and disease, and questions the role that leading health care, pharmaceutical, and food industries are playing in the nation’s health. The film advocates strongly for a vegan diet, and criticizes the consumption of meat and dairy products.

The great thing about this documentary – and the many others that have come before it – is that it opens a conversation about the American health crisis. The downside is that many of these films terrify the general public into thinking that everything about their lifestyle is going to result in cancer, obesity, diabetes, autoimmune disease, and possibly death.

Let’s take a look at the good – and the bad – of What the Health.

The Good

The conversation of being consciously aware of our food system (i.e., where your food comes from, what you are eating, and how you are eating it) is one that everyone can benefit from having more often. However, these conversations can be presented without making the average viewer think their morning egg breakfast will result in cancer. Which leads me to my next point…

The Bad

Though there is some relevant information presented, most of the facts and statistics used are inaccurate or blown out of proportion. The pro-vegan argument presented in What the Health is supported by hand-picked facts from individual studies and then generalized to cover large food categories. For example, the film targets foods such as processed meats, eggs, fish, and milk, and attempts to directly correlate them with causing cancer in Americans. However, for most scientists trying to accurately establish the cause of disease, it is a common practice to analyze overall eating patterns, not just one food.

What the Health also makes the bold statement that all animal products are disease-causing. While some animal products are not the healthiest – take bacon, for example — it is unethical to put the whole collection of carnivorous foods under the umbrella of disease-causing agents. Viewers should know that not all fish are toxic, not all meats are bad for your health, and not all dairy is harmful – all claims made by the film.

The Takeaway

  • Eat more plants. Any dietitian will agree that the healthiest diet is one loaded with fruits, vegetables, herbs, legumes, and nuts.
  • Opt for high quality, nutrient-dense meats and seafood. If you choose to add meats, eggs, and dairy to your diet, that’s OK. Just do it in the healthiest possible way by choosing lean proteins (salmon, chicken, eggs, turkey, etc.) and purchasing hormone-free, grass-fed meat. When you can, choose organic.
  • Veganism is not the end-all, be-all of healthy eating patterns. People can achieve health through many different eating patterns that accommodate their individual body and their digestive system.
  • Eat mindfully. Make an active effort to learn more about where you get your food and what you eat. Consciously choose your diet to reduce the risk of developing diseases down the road.

Elise Deming is a registered retail dietitian nutritionist in New Jersey. For more nutrition tips and recipes, visit her Instagram account @eat.with.elise.

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