What. The. Hell…..th.
I watched the documentary “What the Health” a few weeks ago, and it’s taken me approximately 14 days to figure out how to share my thoughts in a calm, collected, and fully researched manner (unlike the film). I mean, what?
If you haven’t heard, but I’m SURE you have… What the Health is a documentary found on Netflix that has received some major attention in the media. This film, produced and directed by Kip Andersen, is a documentary that examines the link between diet and disease, and questions the money trail behind studies and government recommendations. In summary, it is a film with a very blunt intention: fear-mongering you towards Veganism; which is, in my opinion, not the way we do things around here. There is no reason to scare people into a diet.
First things first, picture this: I conduct a study on the effect of fried food on blood pressure. I ask 20 men to tell me what they ate yesterday. I also measure their blood pressure. I find: the men who ate more fried food yesterday have lower blood pressure. I conclude: fried food lowers blood pressure. I tell the nation via Netflix to eat more fried food. Makes sense right? Heck no!
Lack of evidence-based research. At the foundation of medicine is evidence. We find a result, test the crap out of it until it’s been proven to be true and at that point, we are able to say “x” causes “y”. This calculation does not work unless it’s repeated and repeated well. If my study had a flaw, guess what? It isn’t considered accurate. If my study wasn’t reviewed by others, guess what? Not accurate. If my study was conducted over 10 years ago, guess what? Poor source. Science is always changing with advances in technology. If my study only has 10 women in it, guess what? You can’t make conclusions. Research is precise for a reason. We’re saving lives here people. We aren’t allowed to be wrong.
To research this blog post I went digging. On What the Health’s website, there is a “facts” link where the publishers list all of their sources and statistics. Basically, a works cited page for you researcher minds. The film consists of bold statements. Thus, their fact sheet breaks down each bold statement with its etiology, which answers the question: where the heck did they come up with that? This was pure gold. I went hunting for mistakes and oh did I find them.
Eating 1 egg per day is just as bad as smoking 5 cigarettes per day for life expectancy. This one was my favorite. The main study they utilized was a study published by J. David Spence, David J.A. Jenkins and Jean Davignon entitled, Egg yolk consumption and carotid plaque. In this study, researchers analyzed the total plaque area in patients attending Canadian vascular prevention clinics to determine if atherosclerosis burden (plaque in your arteries) was related to egg intake. They also analyzed smoking in pack/year for comparison. To gain patient information, they asked patients to fill out questionnaires regarding lifestyle and medications, including pack-years of smoking and number of egg yolks consumed per week times the number of years consumed. In earlier years of data collection, data was recorded by patients on a comprehensive questionnaire during their regularly scheduled clinic visit. After a certain year, a limited set of questions were asked when patients were scheduled for their urgent visit after having a TIA or stroke. Now, let me ask you. If you just had a stroke, would it be difficult or easy to assess how many egg yolks you consume per week times the number of years you’ve been consuming eggs? Eh? I can’t even answer that.
After data analysis, researchers in this study found a strong association between egg consumption and carotid plaque burden. They also found that the increase in atheroma development seen with egg consumption follows a similar pattern to that of cigarette smoking. Key words here: association, pattern. Because they didn’t feed people eggs, then test their plaque development over years we cannot make direct correlations. This means eating 1 egg per day is not as bad as smoking 5 cigarettes per day. This study also fails to include data on exercise, waist circumference, BMI, dietary intake of saturated fat/cholesterol from other sources and dietary quality. Maybe some of the people interviewed eat ONLY plants and eggs. Maybe some of the people interviewed eat eggs and sausage only, but also run marathons. How can you come to conclusions without all of the information? You can’t. And you certainly cannot compare cigarettes to eggs because of 1 study, nor can you believe most of the facts in this film. But I’m sure you guys know that by now.
What the film lacks is an action plan. So, I don’t have to be a vegan? I’ve always firmly believed in the theory of moderation. Yes, following a plant-based diet has been proven to decrease your risk of chronic disease. Vegetarian eating patterns have been associated with a decreased risk of obesity, heart disease and blood pressure. Also, vegetarians tend to consume a lower amount of saturated fat, calories and more fiber, potassium and vitamin C. Yes, this way of eating is healthy but we have to be smart here. Are you living a happy AND healthy life by eliminating all animal products and dairy from your diet? Veganism is dependent on the individual. If you can attend a birthday party at a steak restaurant and proudly refrain from eating animal products, more power to you. But I see things very differently. I think it’s important to increase your intake of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and lean proteins. I think it’s also important to reduce your intake of saturated fat and cholesterol, processed and sugar-sweetened foods but don’t restrict yourself. Don’t set limitations on what you can and cannot consume, and your body should gravitate towards what is best for it. Enjoy meatless Mondays, order the vegetarian dish, but if you are craving pasta with meatballs, eat the pasta, choose a leaner type of meatball and eat a side salad. Nutrition is a balancing act, perfectionism does not exist.
Just like you cannot be perfect, I think it’s important to note that large health organizations, including the FDA and government cannot be perfect. The FDA/USDA and the American Diabetes/Heart/Cancer etc. cannot be held accountable for needing funding. The producer of the film tries to make them at fault for this, however, I do not agree with using this against them. Just like startups need investors, health organizations need funding. It’s a balancing act. Isn’t it better to work together than fight against each other? You make the decision of what goes into your body at the end of the day, not the dairy counsel. And if you are one of the folks questioning why the American Diabetes Association has animal-based recipes on it, listen to this. When a patient is consuming mostly fried food, take-out, etc. you better believe a pork pita pocket is considered a healthy meal. Please consider all perspectives, don’t shame or point fingers. The pita pocket actually looks delicious.
I believe in the concept of teaching, not telling. Nutrition recommendations must be attainable and in order to be attainable, we must be able to understand them. In my opinion, creating a documentary that is not only confusing to the general public, but to medical professionals as well, doesn’t solve a thing. There will always be a new documentary, article or book that claims to be the GOLDEN ticket to health. Take it with a grain of salt, dig into the research or ask your dietitian about it. Confusion, fear and restriction don’t sound very fun, do they?