Reflections on ‘What The Health’

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To preface this post, I want to warn you that while it is not a review of the documentary, ‘What the Health’, there will be spoilers about the movie in this post. 

There have been numerous reviews about ‘What the Health’ published since the movie made it’s debut on Netflix in mid-June (2017). For that reason, I don’t think it’s necessary for me to publish yet another review. But I do have some reflections on not just the movie, but the movie’s reviews, my initial reactions, that I want to share.

Prior to watching ‘What the Health’, I was fully aware that it would be a pro-vegan health documentary. I had previously watched ‘Cowspiracy’, which is an environmental documentary by the same duo, Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn. As a vegan and dietitian, I was excited to watch ‘What the Health’ and for there to be yet another pro-vegan movie, dispelling some of the common vegan nutrition myths, available.

Now before anyone exclaims that my bias of being a vegan dietitian prevents me from making any decent reflections, I want to propose an idea… Nearly everyone that watches this movie (and does anything at all really) does so with a bias. Maybe not the same bias I started the movie with, but their own. Maybe you are a dairy farmer, maybe you work for one of the organizations listed in the movie, maybe you’re a Paleo blogger. I don’t know where you’re coming from but each of our preconceived ideas on health formed our individual biases.

That being said, I wanted to enjoy the movie. I started the movie with the idea that I would like it. And by the time the credits rolled at the end, I had an overall positive experience. Like all documentaries, it wasn’t perfect. But I wasn’t overwhelmed in one sense or another.

3 things I enjoyed about ‘What the Health’

  • I liked that the filmmakers called out health organizations for being sponsored by food industries

This is a topic I discuss occasionally with my patients because I think it’s important. For organizations and researchers to be able to do what they do, they have to procure funding. Unfortunately that means they sometimes take money from companies in return for recommending or favoring their product. This ultimately hurts the consumers who choose products based off of what they believe to be true. Marion Nestle of Food Politics has made it her mission to examine and expose these types of issues.

This also makes my job, and all other healthcare practitioners jobs, vastly more difficult. Nutrition research is always purporting something different often in direct opposition to what was reported before. As a nutrition expert, I want to provide the best information possible for my clients, but I simply don’t have the time or energy to sit down and sift through the nitty gritty details of every new nutrition study to determine if it’s high quality or not. 

  • I’m glad that the film chose to show how factory farms disadvantage low-income minorities

I don’t think this topic is given near the attention it deserves in the movie or in any form of media. Often people of color in low-income communities have much higher rates of respiratory issues because of factory farm “allergens, organic dusts, endotoxins, peptidoglycans and gases.” (1)

Not only are these communities at increased risk for negative health effects simply from being in the near vicinity of these farms, but the actual employees fare even worse. The agricultural workers, who are also largely made up of minority racial groups, are worked tirelessly (in a grueling field nonetheless) for bare minimum wages. This 2005 report from Human Rights Watch details some very stark truths that these workers face.

  • I enjoyed the variety and diversity of the experts they chose to interview

I have read some pushback in other reviews regarding the experts chosen to speak about plant-based nutrition and I’ll touch on that further down.

But what I especially liked is that there were physicians, dietitians, and athletes interviewed in this movie that weren’t the standard two or three that I’ve seen so often. There were a few familiar faces, but I was introduced to many new people through the movie.

I think the athletes they chose to showcase were by far the most interesting to me. Mu Jin Han and Timothy Shieff were both inspiring!

3 things that were lackluster about ‘What the Health’

  • Can all documentaries stop cold calling organizations?

Seriously, this is one of my biggest annoyances about the movie and any documentary that does the same. Ginny Messina, RD said it best in her review of the movie, “They are administrative assistants, not health professionals.” (2)

I remember stating during one of these scenes how uncomfortable I’d feel if I were the person receiving that call. The expectation that someone answering the phone for a huge organization will be able to provide even a remotely thoughtful answer to a random question like “Why does your website have a recipe for bacon wrapped shrimp when processed meats cause cancer?” is absurd. This didn’t prove anything about the organizations in my book.

  • Many of the “nutrition experts” interviewed, weren’t nutrition experts

Raise your hand if you went to school to educate people about nutrition  (<- that’s me raising my hands in case you can’t tell)! I have an utmost respect for physicians, I think the work they do is vastly more complex than the work I do (but that’s probably because I didn’t study medicine for 8 years). At the end of the day, my work complements that of a skilled physician. I help to ensure patients are being properly nourished so they can focus on other things like medications, medical tests, procedures, etc.

There were a few things that some of the physicians stated that I didn’t agree with. Unfortunately, as a dietitian I’m used to hearing physicians make incorrect judgements about various nutrition topics. I wasn’t shocked or appalled by anything stated.

However, after some thought, I realized that the majority of people watching this movie likely didn’t think this way. Many people hold physicians to a very high regard no matter what topic they’re discussing. Therefore some of the things said are misleading for the large majority of people who watched the movie.

For example, one of the physician’s states that carbohydrates cannot be turned into fat. In fact, excess calories from any macronutrient can be turned to fat. In the case of excess calories from carbohydrates, it’s a highly regulated process but possible. The process of de novo lipogenesis (carbs turning to fat) “is not the pathway of first resort for added dietary CHO, in humans.” You can read more about it, if interested, here.

  • The “miraculous healings” were VERY misleading

The movie highlights a couple of cases of individuals who are laden with medical problems, on handfuls of prescription medications, and seem to miraculously heal after following a plant-based diet. The movie shows them ditching their medications, walking without previously needed assistance, and practically glowing. Unfortunately, the movie does not dive deeply into the treatment that these individuals received (and likely for a reason).

I recall at least two of the individuals being treated at TrueNorth Health Center (listed under their names on screen). If I hadn’t know what TrueNorth Health Center was beforehand, I might have also questioned how a plant-based diet could work such wonders in only 2 weeks.

TrueNorth Health Center specializes in medically supervised water fasting. The health center does offer other services, so I suppose these individuals didn’t necessarily go through water fasting. But I find it pretty unbelievable that a 2 week plant-based diet can remove the need for dozens of prescription medications. 

I have realized over the past couple of years that what caused me to go vegan and stay vegan is not the same thing that will help others make the same transition. For some, this movie may be what helps them choose to make more compassionate choices. While at first I wanted to tell everyone to give this movie a try, I think I’ll let those who choose to watch find it on their own. And as a nutrition expert and vegan, I’ll make myself available to questions that may arise from the movie. 

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