I never like a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to nutrition. We all have unique biologies — what fuels one person could leave another feeling lousy. That’s one of my main issues with the What the Health documentary streaming on Netflix. In this What the Health review, I’ll offer my own take and outline the major hits and misses of the film.
While it’s not completely evident in the first few minutes, What the Health is actually a pro-vegan film that tends to skew studies and figures to make a point. (The filmmakers even seem pro-sugar at some parts… no kidding.) I’m not debating the fact that there are benefits of a vegan diet, but there are drawbacks, too, including some vegan foods I’d never eat. (More on that later.)
What the Health Review: The Misses
Investigative journalist Nina Teicholz, author of “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet,” performed an analysis of the 37 health claims made in the film. In her What the Health review, she found that about 96 percent of the data fail to support the film’s claims.
She says: (1)
The film does not cite a single rigorous randomized controlled trial on humans supporting its arguments. Instead, WTH presents a great deal of weak epidemiological data, case studies on one or two people or other inconclusive evidence. Some of the studies cited actually conclude the opposite of what is claimed.
What the Health Claim: Sugar doesn’t cause diabetes; meat does.
The experts and doctors in What the Health are pro-vegan, although they aren’t actually introduced that way in the film. I found that to be a bit deceptive. And in the opening minutes of the film, many of them, including Neal Barnard, M.D., founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsibility, a vegan-promoting nonprofit, suggests meat and animal products cause type 2 diabetes, not carbs and sugar:
“Diabetes is not and was never caused by eating a high-carbohydrate diet and it’s not caused by eating sugar. The cause of diabetes is a diet that builds up the amount of fat in the blood. I’m talking about a typical meat-based, animal-based diet. You can look into the muscle cells of the human body and you find they’re building up tiny particles of fat that’s building insulin resistance. What that means is the sugar that is naturally from the foods that you’re eating can’t get into the cells where it belongs. It builds up in the blood.” — Dr. Barnard in What the Health
The truth: Inflammation is the root of most diseases. And there are boatloads of studies linking excess sugar and refined carbohydrates to inflammation and type 2 diabetes. On the flip side, we know that certain animal foods are loaded with healthy, anti-inflammatory compounds. (Take wild-caught salmon nutrition, for example.)
Here’s some of what we do know when it comes to sugar and diabetes:
- The prevalence of type 2 diabetes is 20 percent higher in countries with greater availability of high-fructose corn syrup, a manmade type of sugar. (2)
- The Swedish government actually backs a high-fat, low-carb diet for type 2 diabetes thanks to its low requirement for insulin. The country also notes this high-fat, low-carb (including sugar) diet is beneficial for weight loss. (3)
- A high-fat, low-carb ketogenic diet can help people with type 2 diabetes lose weight and lower or cut out the amount of diabetes meds they need. (4) In my opinion, using the carb cycling diet provides weight-loss and muscle-building benefits while stimulating important metabolic and digestive functions. A Mediterranean diet is also beneficial to reduce cardiovascular impacts of type 2 diabetes. (5)
Is sugar bad for you? That may not seem obvious after watching the documentary. But if there’s one thing you take from this What the Health review, it’s this: Not all sugars are created equally, and added sugars can harm your health in a myriad of ways, including:
- Your type 2 diabetes risk increases 1.1 percent for every 150 calories of sugar consumed in a day. (6)
- Added sugar may increase the risk of these cancers: esophageal, colon, breast and small intestine. (7, 8)
- Dietary sugar can increase the risk of breast cancer tumors and metastasis to the lungs. (9)
- In 2016, a sugar industry scandal broke, highlighting how Big Sugar paid off Harvard researchers to publish studies suggesting saturated fat, not sugar, caused heart disease. That ignited a decades-long dietary disaster full of high-sugar, low-fat foods. (And a sharp rise in type 2 diabetes rates.)
Aside from that, there’s another important point to make in this What the Health review. The film lumps all sugars together. But let’s be clear: There is a huge health difference between eating the sugars naturally present in a nutrient-dense blueberry compared to a soda full of high-fructose corn syrup dangers.
That’s another main issue with the documentary: It doesn’t compare apples to apples.
What it all comes down to is eating conventional meat causes inflammation. Grass-fed beef doesn’t have the same nutritional profile as beef crammed onto a feedlot and raised on an unnatural diet of pesticide-laden grain, drugs and hormones. Vegan films beat this to death: They put all types of meat in the same category. It’s like putting all sugar in the same category and saying high-fructose corn syrup is the same as blueberries or raw, local honey.
The filmmakers are very biased in what they’re saying. Blueberries reduce inflammation, and so does wild-caught salmon. On the other end, corn syrup and conventional meat cause inflammation.
The film fails to take the personalized nutrition approach. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, a person with certain “elements” reacts differently to certain foods. A female with a blood deficiency like anemia, for instance, may not fare well on a plant-based diet. Organic chicken liver is really nourishing to the blood. On the other hand, a man who is consuming too much meat and dealing with anger, liver issues, liver congestion and/or cirrhosis may flourish on a diet heavy in greens and light on meat.
Whether you’re eating meat or vegetables, make sure it’s balanced in anti-inflammatory foods.
And certain people and ethnicities may be wired to eat specific foods, whether due to genetics or environment. If someone lives in Russia or in the far north of Canada, he or she may do better on diet of warming herbs and meat. In the Caribbean, coconut water, rice and peppermint herbs may be more beneficial. A lot depends on the current environmental, emotions, epigenetics and genetic makeup.
What the Health claim: Eating a daily egg is as bad as smoking five cigarettes.
The documentary equates eating eggs as unhealthy as smoking cigarettes.
The truth: Vox points out that two in three long-term smokers will die due to the smoking habit. The same isn’t true for people who eat eggs daily. (10) In fact, cholesterol isn’t even still a “nutrient of concern,” according to government’s Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. (11)
Measuring cholesterol may not be the ideal way to track heart disease risk. In fact, low cholesterol in humans is actually linked to a higher risk of dying early. (12) What we really need to focus on is inflammation, the real cause of heart disease. The health benefits of eggs include lower risk of heart disease and better eye health. The choline in eggs actually assists liver function and brain development, too. And get this: Low choline levels actually correlate with fatty liver disease.
What the Health claim: The flesh food to eliminate from the American diet is poultry.
The film contends that chicken is loaded with HCAs, clear-cut carcinogens formed when any type of meat is cooked.
The truth: Heterocyclic amine formation generally occurs with higher cooking temperatures like 428 degrees Fahrenheit and above. So sure, frying and grilling on high flames can do that. But your cooking technique and marinades can cut HCAs to nearly nonexistent levels. (13)
When the film talked about chicken, it did everyone a great disservice by failing to differentiate organic, free-range chicken from conventional chicken. That’s because a 2017 animal study found conventional chicken increases growth, cholesterols levels and hormone imbalance. In fact, scientists concluded commercial chicken meat could lead to the development of polycystic ovarian syndrome, thanks to the steroid hormone imbalance.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of organic, pasture-raised chicken is bone broth. This traditional food has been providing health benefits for centuries. Some of these include arthritis relief, sealing healthy gut, reducing cellulite and boosting the immune system.
What the Health Review: What It Got Right
Many junk food corporations and organizations supporting factory-farmed meat and eggs do influence studies and dietary recommendations. And many leading, mainstream organizations associated with specific diseases focus more on treatment than prevention of disease.
These institutions continue to make dietary blunders. In fact, in 2017, the American Heart Association (AHA) had us all wondering if coconut oil is healthy or not. The AHA advised people to avoid coconut oil, despite the emerging body of research showing it can provide incredible benefits for weight loss and the brain.
And for years, we’ve been advised to eat loads of inflammatory grains and factory-farmed meat and dairy. These are foods I always try to avoid.
Unethical Meat and Environmental Injustice
Many Americans do eat too much meat, particularly too much conventional, inflammatory meat. I want to be clear about this in this What the Health review: the way we raise most meat in this country is atrocious, not just for the animals and our health, but for people living around these concentrated animal feeding operations.
The film exposed North Carolina pork production, highlighting how factory farming impacts communities. (These communities are often low-income and neighborhoods of color.)
Here are some sobering stats from just one type of meat product in one state:
- 10 million pigs in North Carolina create the same amount of feces as 100 million humans.
- Pig feces are sprayed raw on fields and increase MRSA risk to people living nearby.
- Cancer and asthma are rampant in these neighborhoods.
- Living near field sprayed with hog fertilizer triples MRSA risk.
- Fish deaths are also reported due to serious water pollution.
Final Thoughts on What the Health Review
- What the Health is a pro-vegan documentary featuring vegan advocates and experts. However, most aren’t disclosed as being pro-vegan during the film.
- While most Americans can certainly benefit from eating a diet rich in vegetables, going completely vegan does have some health drawbacks.
- One of the main things I want you to take away from this What the Health review is that some experts recommend cutting animal products and eating unlimited carbs. That is a dangerous recommendation given the fact that added sugars are carbs that are linked to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, certain cancers and other major health problems.
- I’m not a fan of blanket nutrition recommendations. Everyone reacts differently to certain foods. Some may flourish on a vegan diet with proper supplementation. Others may achieve better health on the Mediterranean diet or ketogenic diet.
- I never recommend eating animal products from factory farms (also known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs). Not only are the animals exploited, but the final food product is often subpar in terms of nutrition and often harms the environment.
- Eating factory-farmed meats and fish is inflammatory.
- Some vegan foods I would never eat include tofu, canola oil, vegetable oil, and white, unsprouted breads and pastas. Many are inflammatory in nature, and non-organic versions often test high for pesticide residues.
- Most people can stand to eat more vegetables and less meat. But if you do still want to enjoy animal products, look for organic, pasture-raised products. I like to know my farmer so I can ask questions and even see how animals are raised.
Read Next: The Most Nutrient-Dense Foods on the Planet
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