Here’s What That Controversial Documentary “What the Health” Gets Wrong

updated May 30, 2019
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If you’ve been perusing your Netflix library, then chances are you’ve seen a new documentary, What the Health. The pro-vegan film co-directed by Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn attempts to show a causal relationship between animal foods and illness. And it’s not shy about it, either, equating eating eggs to smoking cigarettes. Since eggs contribute to artery plaque-building due to their high cholesterol levels, the film argues, an egg a day is just as bad for you as smoking five cigarettes a day.

But it’s not so simple. Because when it comes to the link between food and health, it almost never is.

What the Critics Are Saying About “What the Health”

Critics — both professionals and meat-loving amateurs, alike — have a bone to pick with the documentary. It’s been accused of “exaggerating weak data and misrepresenting science to promote a diet that avoids all animal foods,” according to Time.

Even vegans aren’t 100 percent on board.

“Plant-based food can help decrease the risks for certain cancers,” dietitian Andy Bellatti, who has followed a vegan diet for six years, tells TIME. “The idea that if you’re going to eat an egg you might as well smoke a Marlboro, I don’t find accurate.”

Another far-fetched claim that has critics talking? That milk increases your risk of cancer. According to Marina Rössner, nutrition and cooking specialist at Freeletics, the findings are conflicting.

“While the disadvantages of industrially produced dairy products are clear and countless, the situation is not clear when it comes to organically produced dairy products,” Rössner says. “There are some studies that link a high intake of highly processed dairy to an increased risk of developing cancer. There are also many studies that do not support this finding.”

The documentary also makes some claims that are partial truths, at best. For instance, the film notes that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) declared processed meat to be a carcinogen back in 2015. This is true. But the IARC did not, as the film portrayed, equate it to smoking cigarettes.

“Processed meat has been classified in the same category as causes of cancer such as tobacco smoking and asbestos, but this does not mean that they are all equally dangerous,” the agency writes in an explanation.

So What You Should Take Away from the Film?

Brian St. Pierre, MS, RD, CSCS, director of performance nutrition at Precision Nutrition, tells Kitchn that consumers should be wary of nutritional documentaries, which he says are not science. According to St. Pierre, such films are designed for entertainment and don’t take an objective view on the research. Instead, they selectively interview people and cite research that back up a certain view.

Rössner doesn’t say you shouldn’t watch such documentaries, but he does suggest being informed and questioning findings.

“Inform yourself, read, question, use your mind,” Rössner says. “Watch documentaries, read scientific papers, but always question the findings, question the sources, have a look at the details, see the relations and circumstances statements are made of. Learn the difference between relative and absolute risk to interpret findings. If you search the scientific literature, you will find anything that you look for.”

At the end of the day, Rössner says there’s no one-size-fits-all answer in nutrition: “Our advice seems to be boring and old-aged: A balanced, varied diet with fresh fruits and vegetables should be the basis. Avoid sugar, avoid highly processed foods, always opt for the most natural version possible.”

St. Pierre does advise incorporating more plants into your diet.

“While we can’t say there is one single best diet, it’s pretty clear that a diet emphasizing minimally processed plant foods is a smart move,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean ‘only plants.’ It simply means more plants. More vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and starchy tubers.”

Have you seen the documentary? What are your thoughts?