‘What the Health’ — Where This Vegan PR Film Went Wrong

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August 12, 2017 | 256,825 views

Story at-a-glance

  • The documentary, “What the Health,” ignores accumulated evidence against sugar in a misguided effort to promote vegan ideology
  • According to the film, the focus on sugar as a contributor to obesity, diabetes and ill health has steered people away from the real culprits, which they claim are meat and animal fat
  • While a high-vegetable diet is certainly beneficial, the low-fat, unrestricted-carb recommendations are not. Low-carb, high-fat diets have proven superior for controlling insulin resistance, which is the hallmark of obesity and metabolic dysfunction

By Dr. Mercola

According to the sugar industry, sugar is harmless and may even be an important part of a healthy diet. Industry recommendations suggest getting 25 percent of your daily calories from sugar. This, despite research1 showing people who get 25 percent or more of their calories from sugar triple their risk of death from heart disease compared to those who get 7 percent or less of their calories from the sweet stuff.

The sugar industry promotes the myth that saturated fat is to blame for weight gain and ill health, not sugar, along with the thoroughly debunked energy balance theory. Fortunately, some great books have now been written exposing the history and extent of the cover-ups. Two examples are science journalist Gary Taubes' book, "The Case Against Sugar," and Marion Nestle's "Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning)."

Which brings us to the topic of today's article: The documentary "What the Health,"2 which is currently one of the most viewed documentaries on Netflix. Sadly, this film nonchalantly ignores the accumulated evidence against sugar in a misguided effort to promote vegan ideology.

What the Health?

Funded through an Indiegogo campaign,3 this film is supposed to "expose collusion and corruption in government and big business" that is keeping us sick. In reality, it's a call to veganism, but some of the arguments are so flawed, it might as well be considered a freebie to the sugar industry.

While I agree in principle with recommendations to avoid all processed foods and meats raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), there are nuances with regard to meat consumption that I believe are vitally important if you're interested in optimal health.

According to the film, the focus on sugar as a contributor to obesity, diabetes and ill health has steered people away from the real culprits, which they claim are meat and animal fat. Again, while I often warn against excessive consumption of animal protein, important details are overlooked in this film. Worse, the suggestion that sugar isn't a problem is counterproductive to the point of rendering the film useless and laughable in terms of helping people take control of their health and well-being.

As far as I can tell, most if not all of the medical experts4,5,6,7,8,9 featured in the film are vegans and promote veganism to their patients, although they're not introduced as such. The directors, Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn, and the executive producer Joaquin Phoenix are also vegan. As a result, the film presents a profoundly unbalanced view of what makes for an optimal diet. Some of the views presented are so demonstrably wrong, I found it difficult to watch.

Sugar Versus Fat — The Devil's in the Details

For example, Dr. Neal Barnard, adjunct associate professor of medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, claims that diabetes is not caused by a high-carb, high-sugar diet. In his view, diabetes is caused by fat buildup caused by a meat-based diet. To treat diabetes, Barnard recommends a low-fat vegetarian diet, free of any and all animal products, without any restrictions on carbohydrates.10

While a high-vegetable diet is certainly beneficial, the low-fat, unrestricted-carb recommendation is upside-down and backward. Time and again, low-carb, high-fat diets have proven superior for controlling insulin resistance, which is the hallmark of obesity and metabolic dysfunction. Yet the film completely ignores the low-carb approach.

According to Barnard, the sugar in the cookie is what lures you in, but it's the butter in the cookie that makes you fat. I believe it must be pointed out that unless you're baking homemade cookies, cookies are not made with butter. Most cookies sold in grocery stores are made with processed vegetable oils, harmful fats that indeed damage your health and contribute to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and chronic ill health. But to vilify ALL fats is a fatal error.

Animal fats from organic, grass fed animals fall into the category of healthy fats, while processed vegetable oils are in the harmful category. Since most cookies are made with vegetable oil, as opposed to real butter, the fat in cookies is indeed part of the problem. But this harmful fat cannot be compared to saturated animal fat such as real butter from organic, grass fed animals, which has many important health benefits.

You also cannot overlook the influence of the sugar in the cookie. When it comes to processed foods in general, the combination of sugar and harmful vegetable oils is a lethal combination.

Why Does Sugar Get a Free Pass?

Dr. Garth Davis, a weight loss surgeon and author of "Proteinaholic,"11 is another vegan doctor who ignores the overwhelming evidence against sugar. "Sugar is not great," he says, but it "does not cause inflammation … The focus on sugar has taken the focus off meat, dairy [and] eggs …" He goes so far as to say, "carbs cannot make you fat, in and of themselves."

Sugar doesn't cause inflammation? Carbs are incapable of making you fat? I'm at a loss to explain how any rational unbiased health professional  could still hold, let alone promote these views unless they have some hidden agenda or ulterior motive. The medical literature is filled with evidence showing processed sugar is one of the most inflammatory foods there is.12 It's not the only one, but to give it a free pass is profoundly ignorant considering the evidence.

Excessive sugar clearly promotes insulin resistance, and insulin resistance is the fire that feeds chronic inflammation. Insulin resistance also promotes obesity, and fiber-free carbohydrates clearly are the primary culprit when it comes to packing on pounds, with processed fructose being readily converted to body fat.

Is Eating Meat a Healthy Choice?

An estimated 16 million Americans are vegans, which is typically considered a healthy and environmentally sound choice. However, there are drawbacks of strict veganism that need careful consideration. Mara Kahn's book, "Vegan Betrayal: Love, Lies, and Hunger in a Plants-Only World," reveals many oft-ignored facts about this strictly plant-based diet. Part of the confusion is that many vegans appear quite healthy in the earlier stages.

This isn't so surprising when you consider the fact that many switch from processed foods to a mostly raw plant-based diet. The influx of live foods will undoubtedly improve your health. In the long term, however, the absence of all animal-based foods can take a toll, as certain nutrients cannot be obtained from the plant kingdom.

Carnosine, carnitine, taurine, vitamin B12 and long-chained omega-3 fats are just a few examples. As noted by Dr. Steven Gundry, author of "The Plant Paradox," in which he explains the detrimental health impacts of plant-based lectins, his vegan patients tend to be some of the unhealthiest of all. The reason for this is because most vegans are not vegetable eaters but rather grain- and bean-eaters, and grains and beans are very high in inflammatory lectins — plant proteins that cause harm through molecular mimicry.

Surprisingly, lectins such as wheat germ agglutinin (WGA), found in wheat and galactans, found in beans, even promote fat storage — despite their source being the plant kingdom. Even more surprising, considering the heart health claims allowed for whole wheat, WGA is one of the most efficient ways to induce heart disease in experimental animals.13

As chairman of cardiothoracic surgery at Loma Linda University School of Medicine — a Seventh Day Adventist institution — Gundry also ate a vegetarian diet for about 15 years, and had "never been sicker" in his life. Despite running 30 miles a week and spending an hour in the gym each day, he was severely overweight, had high blood pressure and prediabetes.

Does this mean it's impossible to be healthy on a vegan diet? Absolutely not. But it does mean vegans need to be more mindful of how to avoid the complications associated with an all-plant diet, especially if it's weighted toward grains and legumes loaded with autoimmune-stimulating lectins.

Ethical Protein

There's evidence showing animal proteins contribute to aging, and vegan Seventh Day Adventists are among the longest living humans on the planet. However, if you're going to live on plants alone, you need to figure out how you're going to obtain animal-based nutrients. In my view, there's strong support for including small amounts of healthy animal protein in your diet.

Most Americans eat far more protein than required for optimal health, and this excess can trigger ill health by activating the mTOR pathway, which plays an important role in cancer and aging. Replacing carbs with protein is an unwise choice, as high-protein diets tend to have poor health outcomes in the long term. Net carbs need to be replaced with healthy fat, and protein needs to be restricted to what your body needs for growth and repair, which is actually far less than you might think.

Estimates suggest you only need about one-half gram of protein per pound of lean body mass. Quality is also a determining factor when it comes to the benefits and drawbacks of animal protein. Meat, dairy and eggs from CAFOs are best avoided altogether. Organically-raised, pastured or grass fed animals, on the other hand, offer superior nutrition — and as just mentioned, you don't need very much.

Moreover, surveys show people convert to veganism primarily for ethical reasons, but veganism is not the only ethical diet out there. In fact, organic grass fed animals serve a very important role in regenerative agriculture.

Such animals not only contribute to environmental regeneration and ecological balance, but they're also a very ethical choice in terms of eating, as they're not abused or maltreated. They live their life as nature intended, roaming freely, eating a species-appropriate diet that supports their health and well-being. And then, at the species-appropriate time, they are humanely slaughtered for food.

What's Wrong With CAFO Beef?

There are many troubling practices in mainstream beef production, where animals are raised in CAFOs. For starters, feed additives have a number of problematic aspects, and can contaminate both the food and the environment. Antibiotics are routinely given to factory farmed animals to prevent disease and promote rapid growth, and this is a major driving factor behind antibiotic-resistant disease. Very rarely are antibiotics administered to organic grass fed animals.

Moreover, there's a great deal of research taking place all over the world to determine the best ways to regenerate the environment, and cattle are a key ingredient. According to Richard Teague, Ph.D., who's been researching the impacts of cattle grazing for decades, careful management of the animals' movements is essential. Densely congregated animals that are moved frequently is optimal.

The goal is to mimic the environmental impact that would be had by herds of wild animals. When you do that, it has dramatically positive impacts for the soil health, the water, the production of the water, and even for climate change. Most people believe that grazing is a negative, but that's not true. Grazing is actually essential to balanced ecosystem functioning.

It stimulates plant growth, and helps press the seeds into the ground. The cattle also deposit urine and dung onto the land, which act as fertilizer. In this way, grazing herds accelerate the building of fertile topsoil. They also affect the water cycle because for every one percentage of organic matter in topsoil, 27,000 additional gallons of water is maintained in that water per acre.

Researchers have even found that when you have an intact ecosystem, which includes grazing animals, the soil microbes process large amounts of methane. According to Nicolette Hahn Niman, an environmental lawyer, sustainable rancher and author, Australian researchers found the total methane emitted from cattle in a well-managed system was fully offset by the soil microbes.

Is Eating Fish, Dairy and Eggs Safe and Healthy?

While the film starts out with a valid premise — the idea that processed meats are bad for your health, as the film progresses, more and more foods are tossed into the proverbial dustbin, until the entire animal food spectrum is covered.

According to this film, anything that comes from the animal kingdom promotes obesity, diabetes and chronic ill health. Not a single animal food gets a qualitative or quantitative pass. Personally, I believe most food groups have their problems these days. The key is to understand how quality and quantity influences your health.

Clearly, most fish are  contaminated with toxins these days, but if you choose wisely, the benefits of fish can still outweigh the hazards. To avoid environmental toxins, select wild-caught fish that are low on the food chain (farmed fish actually contain higher levels of toxins than most wild-caught fish). To get the most nutritional benefits, choose cold water, fatty fish such as sardines, anchovies and herring. These are high in long-chained omega-3 fats, which are actually structural elements that make up your cells.

The same thing goes for dairy and eggs. Quality and quantity are key considerations. CAFO milk and eggs have few redeeming qualities and are best avoided. Organic, pastured and grass fed milk and eggs, on the other hand, have a number of benefits. Cholesterol, for example, far from being a villain, plays a key role in regulating protein pathways involved in cell signaling and is needed within your cell membranes.

Your body is composed of trillions of cells that need to communicate with each other. Cholesterol is one of the molecules that allow these communications to take place. For example, cholesterol is the precursor to bile acids, so without sufficient amounts of cholesterol, your digestive system can be adversely affected.

It also plays an essential role in your brain, which contains about 25 percent of the cholesterol in your body. It is critical for synapse formation, i.e., the connections between your neurons, which allow you to think, learn new things and form memories.

'What the Health' Falls Short by Regurgitating Old Health Fallacies

"What the Health" is a success in terms of promoting veganism. Sadly, it relies on outworn myths to deliver its hidden message and ulterior motivations. While the filmmakers and featured experts are all vegan, this is not expressed, leaving the average viewer to conclude that simply by following the trail of evidence, the filmmaker eventually reached the conclusion that a strict plant-based diet is the sanest, safest, healthiest alternative.

In reality, the film was undoubtedly created with the intention to promote the vegan lifestyle right from the start. That's fine, as this is the U.S. and there are still First Amendment freedom of speech privileges.

What disturbs me is that they chose to promote the dangerous position that sugar and net carbs have no bearing on health, and that it's all about animal foods — meats, saturated fats and cholesterol. In summary, the film presents a flat out wrong picture of what's causing obesity, diabetes and related diseases. This is an absolute travesty, as it's taken decades to turn the tide against these fallacies.

Your body is designed to have the metabolic flexibility to use both fat and glucose for fuel — not just one or the other. The reason conventional dietary advice has failed so miserably is because eating a high-carb diet for a long period of time results in the loss of this metabolic flexibility, making you unable to effectively burn fat for fuel.

None of this is addressed in this film, which instead reverts back to demonizing all dietary fats while giving sugar, of all things, a free pass. Additionally, the dangers of lectins from many "healthy" plants is completely ignored.

Eat Your Veggies, but Beware of False Sugar Claims

I'm not opposed to vegetarianism. I eat very small amounts of animal protein; mostly fish. Occasionally, I'll have some organic American grass fed certified meat. But meats are not a cornerstone staple in my diet, and I believe most people could benefit from lowering their meat consumption. I don't believe it should be entirely excluded, however, because animal foods do contain very valuable nutrients your body needs for optimal health. Organic pastured eggs and raw butter are another source of incredibly healthy nutrients.

If ethics and animal welfare are your concerns, I would encourage you to investigate and educate yourself on humanely-raised animal foods. Yes, the animal will die in the end, but there's a tremendous difference between the life of an animal raised in a CAFO and one raised on pasture that is allowed to live a full, healthy and stress-free life. There's also a big difference in the way they're slaughtered.

At the end of the day, it is ultimately your responsibility to choose for yourself and your children between the life of an animal somewhere — even if only a few rodents caught in a harvester — or your own health. A balance must be struck between optimizing your health and causing the least amount of unnecessary suffering.

Opportunities to Learn More

If you're interested in learning more about how to use a ketogenic (high-fat, low-carb, moderate-protein) diet to optimize health and prevent disease, be sure to attend the ACIM conference in Orlando, Florida, November 2 through 4 at the wonderful Florida Conference and Hotel Center.

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1 JAMA Internal Medicine February 3, 2014 [Epub ahead of print]
  • 2 What the Health
  • 3 Indiegogo.com, What the Health
  • 4 Milton Mills MD
  • 5 Michelle McMacken MD
  • 6 Michael Klaper MD
  • 7 Neal Barnard MD
  • 8 Garth Davis MD
  • 9 Caldwell Esselstyn MD
  • 10 Dr. Barnard’s Blog
  • 11 Proteinaholic.com
  • 12 Sugarscience.org
  • 13 Plant Paradox by Steven Gundry