If you are a big Netflix junky like me, or have been on social media lately, you may have heard of the new Food Documentary entitled, “What the Health”. I was skeptical but decided to watch it because I knew I would get asked about it. The first time I attempted I got 15 minutes in and had to turn it off! I did eventually go back and watch it once I had cooled down a bit. I had a very visceral reaction the first time I watched. I have a hard time listening to someone who takes one bit of truth and spins it to get their point of interest across. The truth behind “What the Health” is that everyone could use to eat less meat and more plant-based foods. Instead the journalists in the documentary used misinformation and fear mongering to make viewers believe that following a vegan or plant based diet is the only way to true “health”.
During the documentary the journalist cherry picks bits of science to lead viewers to believe consumption of meat and dairy are the cause of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. First of all, food is just one of the many factors that effect disease and health outcomes. As a dietitian and with experience interpreting research, I was driven to look more deeply into their claims.
Early in the documentary they note a World Health Organization (WHO) report that was released about two years ago stating that processed meats are a Group 1 carcinogen and that they are “definitively linked to cancer”. What they fail to highlight is that this link is only between processed meats and colorectal cancer. Processed meats are those which have been processed with salting, curing, fermenting or smoking and include foods like hot dogs, sausages, ham, and beef jerky. This does not include red meat, chicken, seafood, eggs or dairy products. They also fail to note that the dose response or change in effect was seen at intakes of 50 grams of processed meats per day. This is the equivalent of eating 2 slices of thick bacon or 2 ounces of ham every single day. If you eat processed meats occasionally, then by no means is that slice of bacon or hot dog going to give you colorectal cancer. There are many other cherry picked science claims, but I’ll save you the headache.
Nutrition research is difficult to do because first of all, it’s hard to isolate a single nutrient, like meat. The outcomes we see in observational studies, like the ones sited in the WHO report, are often just correlations and by no means are they actual causation. There are multiple other factors that effect disease outcomes including genetics, lifestyle habits, stress, sleep patterns, and self-care. The science they are using to support their claims is not as concrete as they make it seem.
The truth is there is nothing wrong with following a plant-based diet or a diet that includes animal products. Following a plant-based diet is a great option if done for the right reasons and in an educated way. Including more plant-based foods into your diet provides a variety of health and environmental benefits. In the same token incorporating meat and dairy into your diet can be enjoyable and provide nutrients not found in plant-based foods like B12 and omega3s.
In my opinion, eating should be enjoyable and make your body feel good. I fully enjoy eating a slice or two of bacon on my egg sandwich on occasion. On the other hand I also enjoy cooking and eating a meatless dish a couple times a week. So my advise to you after watching this documentary (or not) is to not let fear be the reason to make a drastic change to your diet but first consider what foods you enjoy and how they make you feel.
Lauren Sharifi received her Bachelor’s Degree in Dietetics from the University of Connecticut and is currently working towards her Master’s in Public Health at Boston University. Lauren is a registered and licensed dietitian in Massachusetts with over six years of experience as a clinical dietitian. Lauren is passionate about improving others relationship with food to ultimately improve health and enjoyment of eating. She believes in the “everything in moderation approach” and works with clients to find balance by focusing on whole foods and mindful eating. Lauren also enjoys cooking and developing nutritious and delicious recipes, which she shares on her food and nutrition blog biteofhealthnutrition.com.