What The Health?! My Thoughts On The Explosive Anti-Food Industry Documentary

 What The Health takes aim at the food and pharmaceutical industries ( as well as the health organizations they support & influence) in an astonishing and explosive fashion that pulls no punches.

The documentary carries an important message  (to eat more plants and less animals) and delivers it in a ruthless manner that you won’t soon forget.

Although I thoroughly support the message that What The Health delivers, the film was not without its flaws and missteps.

In today’s article, I will be offering an objective assessment of the aspects of the film that I loved, that I found disturbing and that I felt were questionable.

What I Loved 

You may be surprised to hear me say this but, as a nutrition professional,  I did not find anything particularly surprising about the factual components of the film.

When you cut through the hyperbole, What The Health pretty much aimed to deliver  a simple message ->  If you Eat more plants and Eat (Much) Less Animals, you will live a longer, healthier life.

This is pretty much what I preach regularly. ( See here)

What made the documentary so entertaining, however, was the sensational manner in which it delivered the message ( with the help of some questionable  tactics which I will address in the next section).

I personally enjoyed the over the top food industry criticism and what I felt was a perfect blend of ( sometimes questionable) science, statistics , sensational claims, professional input and powerful anecdotes.

Among all of the professionals interviewed for the film , Dr Greger was the MVP for me.

He was concise, well spoken and delivered his messages with a tactful, level-headed ruthlessness. 

And let’s be clear, when you are going up against billion dollar industries, you do need to be ruthless and unrelenting in defense of your beliefs.

That is one thing the film did VERY well.

5  More Things I Liked About What The Health

  • It diverted some negative attention away from sugar. Beyond soft drink consumption, I am not convinced sugar intake is nearly as big of a problem as people are being led to believe ( although yes, it still is an issue it is not the be all and end all!).
  • It quashed the notion that genetics is the overwhelming determinant of your health.  This mentality fosters helplessness and, for many of the people out there, it just isn’t true. What you eat and how you live is so important.
  • It calls out dairy.  I recently said that cows milk is one of the most overrated foods because we have been led to believe it is a necessity for growth and health. This just isn’t true and people need to know that.
  • It brings attention to social inequity in health and how it goes beyond being able to afford food. The example of the low income family living near the heavily fertilized farm  land was a particularly powerful example of this.
  • It reminds us of the massive negative environmental impact of animal agriculture. This is important as the health of the environment is so often overlooked and must be taken seriously in the face of climate change. 

What Disturbed Me The Most

#1 The ADA President  Interview

Like I said, I loved the message of the documentary but there was nothing THAT shocking about what most of what was  said.

I knew how messed up the system, but that did not stop me from being absolutely appalled by the scene with the American Diabetes Association President.

Now we all know these organizations have industry in their ears and in their pockets, but I would expect the president of the ADA to be an individual of great character and integrity ( why else would he have the position?).

When pressed about the role of diet in diabetes prevention he flatly refused to acknowledge that plant based diets would help reduce people’s risk of type 2 diabetes. ( The Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics begs to differ)

I honestly found that truly and utterly disturbing.

In that moment I saw a man, a medical doctor and president of a massive health organization, who appeared heavily censored and coach as to what he was allowed to say or imply about the role of nutrition in preventing chronic disease.

If they’d blanked out his name and I had to guess what his role was, I’d honestly guess he was the CEO of McDonalds.

#2  Medical Students Denied Nutrition Training + The Size Of The Statin Industry 

 I think we can all appreciate the irony of the food and drug industry and how they profit and thrive off of each other.

In all honesty, that’s nothing new.  

One thing I do want to point out, however , is that the target effect of the most profitable medication (statins – cholesterol lowering) can be replicated with the same efficacy by dietary intervention.

It was actually a Canadian scientist, Dr Jenkins, who developed the “Dietary Portfolio” for reducing cholesterol. You can learn more about it here.

The only problem?!  The doctors prescribing these medications aren’t taught about nutrition or the portfolio diet.

It seems absurd that the medical organizations identified in the documentary denied medical students 7 hours of nutrition training over a four year period.

Critiques And Things That Could Be Done Better

It is important to understand that documentaries, by their very nature, tend to be one-sided accounts that are created with the purpose of delivering a strong message and encouraging action in a specific direction.

What The Health certainly fits this description.

I am not going to get into analyzing and fact checking every single thing that was said, but it is safe to say that the film certainly took some liberties and utilized intimidating scientific explanations at times to support their arguments.

 I will cite a few cases that stood out.

Telephone Scenes

The first scene that comes to mind are the telephone cut scenes,  where health organization phone staff were blind-sided by aggressive questioning about the recipes on offer on their sites.

This was hit and miss for me. While yes I agree that bacon does not have a place on any public health website, I’m not sure the Diabetes Association needed to be lambasted for having beef recipes on their website ( even the super healthy Mediterranean diet pattern allows for a serving of beef a month!).

It makes for telling film when the phone staff are left dumbfounded, but it subtracts a little from from the legitimacy of the argument.

Research Citations

One of the other issues I did not like was citing ecological research. Ecological research essentially shows a correlation between an activity and outcome. So you could show a graph that makes it look like countries who eat more meat have more cases of cancer.

This does NOT prove that eating meat causes cancer though and is often used to mislead people who are less scientifically savvy.

There are many things about meat eating countries ( such as industrialization, smoking etc) that also contribute to the increased incidence of cancer.

Just as an example, you could probably also create a graph that shows eating more fish is linked with a higher IQ, but does that mean eating fish increases your IQ? Nope!

There were also certainly other instances in the documentary where the filmmaker took advantage of the average persons general lack of scientific savvy to make meat & dairy seem much worse for you than they probably are.

No Middle Ground

What The Health is certainly guilty of  making some claims and showing marquee highlights of studies that supported their message without  necessarily telling the whole story.

The Mediterranean diet, for example, includes modest amounts of meat and dairy and is still associated with a reduced risk of chronic disease.

The other BIG issue with the film is that it doesn’t really offer a middle ground because it’s approach is so polarizing and honestly quite stigmatizing.

I loved the anecdotes, but the example of the two-week plant based diet miracle cure woman seemed questionable to me.

Eating meat and drinking milk doesn’t make you a bad person, nor is it a death sentence, but it is important to know that eating less and replacing animal products with plant products is important for your health. 

I think the documentary missed an opportunity to hammer that more moderate message home.

A savvy devils advocate could easily argue the creator of this documentary was more concerned with telling a radical story and propelling his own fame and notoriety than truly helping people be healthier ( which is ironically what the same thing he accuses  government, industry and health organizations of doing).

Final thoughts 

What The Health delivers a powerful and incredibly important message and one that I truly believe in.

The film was full of salient points, informative interviews and some very touching anecdotes but also suffered a bit by trying too hard to be polarizing and sensational.

Simply stated, going completely plant based isn’t a realistic solution for most people ( even if I kind of wish it was) and if the filmmakers  did a better job of understanding this, they may have been able to engage more viewers.

With that being said, the weight and importance of the documentary’s message are such that I find plenty of room to forgive some of the tactics that were used and the liberties that were taken..

It really boils down to a Robin Hood type scenario.

Stealing is stealing but when you take from the rich and give to the poor, your acts will inevitably seem much more heroic.

That pretty much sums up the approach they took with What The Health.

And , quite honestly, I don’t mind it one bit.

Andy De Santis RD MPH