Film Review: What the Health



If your social media timeline is anything like mine, you’ve likely seen buzz about the latest documentary released on Netflix called What the Health. What the Health is directed and produced by filmmaker, Kip Andersen (co-producer of the documentary Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret). The film follows Andersen in his search for the causality of chronic diseases, whether or not they can be reversed, and what the several health organizations have to say about it all.

Before I share my thoughts on the film, I want to address animal meat. It is a touchy subject for many folks, which I understand. Animal meat is practically synonymous with American culture, and we all know how powerful culture is. For many, meat is at the core of family celebrations, holidays, and sports events. A fancy steak or lobster is a symbol of status. I think baseball is a very boring sport, but growing up I didn’t miss an excuse to go to a Padres game and it was mostly for the hot dogs. The bond between animal meat and positive memories is unquestionable. This bond is cemented with the taste and flavor profiles that many have grown to associate with meat. The consumption of meat in the United States has truly transformed the culinary experience.

Nostalgia, culture, and flavor. These are the reasons why almost anyone eats animal meat in this country. Outside of these three things, most folks couldn’t actually tell you why they eat meat, nor do many have specific health reasons for doing so. But when faced with someone who chooses not to eat meat (and has clear reasons for doing so) skepticism and mockery often ensues.  

It is important that I begin here because everything you will read below is through this lens: animal meat is absolutely not essential to living an abundant, healthy life.

Now, for the review. Overall, I would give the film 3.5/4 out of 5 stars. There are aspects that I am really glad they underscored and other parts where I think some of the language was pretty lazy and confusing.

Let’s start with what I liked:

It highlighted medical doctors in support of a balanced, whole-food, plant-based diet.

While parts of the explanation of how plant protein is formed were confusing (e.g. in creating protein, plants get nitrogen from the soil and bacteria, not from nitrogen gas in the air), I was really pleased with how in depth they discuss plant-based protein. One of the biggest trepidations for many folks in terms of making the leap to transitioning to a plant-based lifestyle is getting enough nutrients, especially protein. Despite that fact that the average American isn’t protein deficient, there is a deep obsession with getting enough of it. I liked how the film highlighted it and gave the example of brown rice and broccoli and good sources of plant based protein. When given thought one can easily get 50g a protein (which is the average amount of protein we really need per day) from affordable sources like beans and legumes, seeds, nuts, nut butter, and leafy greens.

Note: what wasn’t highlighted is the notion of “complete protein.” Years ago, many throughout the nutrition world believed that in order for a plant-based meal to be protein sufficient was if the all 9 of the essential amino acids were present (i.e. a complete protein). A classic example of this is beans and rice. Now, we know that if you eat a variety of protein sources throughout the day, you will be getting an adequate source of the essential amino acids.

It importantly discussed the connections between health organizations (and the USDA) and the meat and dairy industry.

For me, this is one of the most important tenets of the film. I am not going to go into too much depth because it is a lot of information, but I hope it inspires more folks to do some real digging on their own. I found this to be especially true when working with a nutrition education program SNAP (food stamp) eligible adults. I’ll never forget when I attended my first PANEN (Pennsylvania Nutrition Education Network) conference and witnessing beef companies tabling right next to nutritional educational resources for pre-schoolers. I was stunned, but then I remembered that SNAP is partially funded by the USDA Farm Bill (the same bill that also provides government subsidies to mostly farmers that grow the food (mainly corn and soybeans) that are fed to the animals that are eventually killed for meat).

It debunked the notion that your genetic predispositions have to determine your fate.  

Epigenetics! This is what made be excited about studying nutrition. The ability to turn on and off certain genes based off of lifestyle choices. Diet-related diseases can be reversed! This means that just because people in my family may have had type 2 diabetes or heart disease, I don’t necessarily have to have it if I engage preventative behaviors, including being mindful as to what substances I put in my body and being physically active.

It shed light on the environmental implications of factory farming and it uniquely effects poor communities of color.   

The scene when Andersen interview Ms. Rene Miller from Duluth, North Carolina was difficult to watch. She is quoted below:

“My sister, she has asthma. Her brother (she points to a baby she’s holding), he has asthma. He’s three, and we don’t know yet what she has. I have asthma ... I have sarcoidosis from bacteria. And I have a pacemaker, which is sick sinus syndrome. Mostly everybody in this neighborhood got asthma or even cancer. My neighbor there died from cancer probably just last year. My nephew down the street, he’s got cancer. He’s in terminal cancer stage four. Not a smoker, not a drinker. And it’s not in his lungs. It’s in his lymph nodes.” She continues, “If you live here and saw what they do, you will eat no pork. We don’t eat bacon because I know what it comes from. When they die, they go into a box, and they decompose because they swell from, especially from the heat. A truck comes and picks them up, takes them to the processing plant in Roseville, grounds them up into feed, and feeds them back to the hogs.”

This is what greed in the food industry produces, and it is all because there is a such a high demand for low-cost pork. It's a public health issue and a reproductive justice issue. This is State and racialized violence. The slow killing of Black people as a result of eating foods that will eventually kill us OR being poisoned by the farmers who are making the deathly food is just as urgent and important as the fast killing that we witness with police brutality. And this is not only happening in Duluth. We need more energy galvanized around exposing stories like this AND divesting our money and resources from a food system that is killing us.

These are the parts of the film that frustrated me and are misleading:

No mention of refined sugar.

This is by far one of the most frustrating aspects about What the Health. Viewers may be led to believe that fat alone is what causes diabetes, which interestingly highlights a much larger debate within the scientific community: is fat or sugar to blame for chronic disease? The doctors in the film blamed diabetes on fat (and more specifically trans fat found in processed meats).

But having worked with adults as a nutrition educator, many of whom were diabetic, it is irresponsible to say that fat alone is what causes diabetes, not sugar. It does a huge disservice to viewers to even use the word “sugar” as a catch all phrase for all types of carbohydrates and not explain what refined sugar is.

Refined sugar is not the natural sugar found in food like fruit, but (like its name) is the sugar that has gone through a chemical process in a factory. They are the classic table sugars and the sugars that are added to our favorite sweets, candy, and processed food for flavor and preservation. Americans get almost half of their refined or added sugar not from food, however, but from beverages. Unlike other carbohydrates like whole grains, beans and legumes, fruit, and vegetables, or natural sweeteners such as honey or maple syrup, refined sugar has zero nutritional value.

Not only that, but sugar does cause intense cravings. Some recent studies have explored the effects that blood sugar spikes from consuming refined sugar have on the brain. Some studies indicate that sugar can induce a craving/reward phenomenon similar to drugs like cocaine or caffeine.

Many scientists are trying to figure out whether or not refined sugar makes us more compulsive or if it’s straight up addictive (I believe the latter), but regardless of whether or not it is addictive or is a stand alone cause for diabetes, a person eating predominantly highly sugary processed foods is more likely to consume other foods, beverages, and substances that are taxing on one’s health and can lead to chronic illness. In my personal experience with disorderly eating, sugar was a tool that I used to deal (or not deal) with anxiety, depression, and low self-worth. For many, especially in poor communities of color, sugary foods and beverages are consumed at very high levels because it is a very convenient way to deal with the complex stressors that accompany poverty and white supremacy.

Veganism is not just about the individual.

While it is true that some may choose to eat vegan (no animal meat or animal products) purely for health reasons, there are plenty of us that eat a plant-based diet for reasons that are influenced by our ethics, politics, spiritual and religious beliefs (In my SOTY newsletters, I am going through the deeper reasoning behind why I eat the way I eat -- make sure to subscribe on the home page). Why I applaud shedding light on athletes who are vegan and healthy, I was disappointed that a more holistic portrayal of the power of interconnectedness wasn't shown.

No two vegan journeys are identical.

I believe in the power of food to support one’s body is healing and becoming more resilient. I believe that some people may have a positive, life altering change in their body within 2 weeks, but that is not everyone’s story. I would never offer to someone that a whole foods, plant-based diet is guaranteed to heal them from all dis-ease. The way that the film ended, I am nervous that some folks may make this conclusion. Again, there are tremendous physical and mental health advantages to eating this way, but the outcome will be different for each person. Do I believe that the individuals highlighted in the documentary really felt much more alive after 2 weeks. Yes, I do; they were consistently eating real food which allowed their internal systems space a time to heal rather than over function! But, we also don't have personal insights to those people's lives and what exact medications they were on.

Lastly, I am sick of health being defined as only what we eat. I can eat spinach and almonds all day long, and still have toxic thoughts and relationships. I believe that that toxicity is often (not always) held in our body and presents as disease. Not to mention that not everyone who is vegan is skinny, vibrant, and athletic. It is possible to be whole-food, plant-based and still get sick. There is a lot about food and the body that is a mystery. So often, this is what people want when they make the transition, and when those things don't happen they are disappointed. 

A note about scientific research ... 

Finally, I debated whether or not it would be productive to address all the scientific studies referenced in the film. In the end, I felt it important to address my thoughts on scientific research in general. Scientific research/studies are always biased. With virtually everyone calling themselves a “nutritionist” nowadays, it is very easy for folks to believe everything they read on various blogs or websites. Just because someone provides a link to a peer-reviewed scientific study on their website does not mean that that study was conducted without any error or inconsistency in methodology, funded or peer reviewed by some entity without a huge conflict of interest, or the results of the study were statistically significant enough to “prove” anything (this is common with studies that only collected self-reported data from their participants). To that end, it is wise to hold scientific studies (those both in favor of and opposed to plant-based diets) with a grain of salt. Bias will always exist because most of the time researchers are really passionate about the subject and want to prove (or disprove) something.

Also, it is important to be very clear that science isn’t the end all. I very much value the role of science and devoted several years of life (including the present) to studying it. I am grateful that science can give us a deeper understanding of how certain vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients can assist the human body in healing itself and becoming for resilient. But I am clear on its inherent limitations. As Black people in this country, we have historically had an abusive relationship with scientific research (see Tuskgee Syphillis experiment and Mrs. Henrietta Lacks and a gruesome history of violent scientific research on enslaved Africans) which has created a long lasting level of mistrust between our community and scientific and health care establishments.

As a Black woman(ist), I unapologetically believe that one’s experience (with food, medications, health care systems, etc.) can be just as valuable as scientific research. I believe in God and of ways of knowing that cannot be explained with the limited confines of Western Medicine. For examples, I know the effectiveness of certain herbs because of my and my ancestor’s experience with them, not because of a scientific study (it is actually pretty difficult to ethically prove the safety of many herbs by conducting a scientific study, but that is another conversation for another time).

Another issue is the question of who is conducting the research and is in the best interest of those who are most affected by diet related disease and illness. Oftentimes, this is a big no. It is rare to find nutrition research that specifically includes participants of African descent. This is another reason why it needs to be held with a grain of salt. As we know with the inherent limitations of BMI (Body Mass Index), there are certain scientific tools widely used within health research communities that do not have Black people’s bodies (and really anyone who isn’t white) in mind.

There is so much more to say about scientific research, but this is where I will end for the purpose of this review. If you are like me and want to nerd out on nutrition research, here is a great article published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition about the limits of viewing diets/eating styles in their individual parts (i.e. specific foods) instead of as a whole.

Have you seen What the Health yet? If so, what were your thoughts, reactions, or questions? Let me know in the comment section!