- Meat, dairy, and eggs don’t ravage your body and increase your risk of heart disease, cancer, and other nasty diseases and dysfunctions.
- If you want to be as healthy as possible for as long as possible, you want to eat more plant foods, not less.
- Veganism isn’t necessary to get and stay healthy, and what you eat isn’t the only thing that determines your long-term health.
The new documentary What the Health is causing quite the stir these days.
According to some people, it’s the nail in the coffin for omnivorous eating, conclusively proving that animal products have disastrous effects on your health and the environment.
Others scoff at such claims, dismissing the movie as vegan propaganda meant to shock and scare people into changing their ways.
Every day I hear from at least a few people who are surprised, concerned, or skeptical about what’s presented in the film and want my take, and so this is an article I’ve owed you for a little while now.
Well, here’s the long story short:
What the Health makes some very good points, and all-in-all, will probably help many people make healthier eating choices. Unfortunately, it’s also riddled with factual errors, misrepresentations and oversimplifications, and outright fabrications.
I’m going to break it all down in this article and directly address a number of questions that you probably have after watching the film, including…
- Does eating animal products really increase your risk of heart disease and cancer?
- Is a 100% plant-based diet the best (or only) way to maximize long-term health and vitality?
- Are the people that disagree simply justifying their own poor eating habits?
- Do rent-seeking food conglomerates reign over public health institutions?
- And more…
By the end of this article, you’re going to know what What the Health got right, what it got wrong, and what science actually says about eating animal products.
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The 7 Things That What the Health Got Wrong
Long-term, these diseases account for seven out of ten deaths in the United States, and obesity and weight-related diseases are responsible for 5 to 10% of all healthcare spending (around $114 billion per year).
These numbers paint a rather horrifying picture, and while diet isn’t the only contributing factor, research indicates it’s the main one. Specifically, we eat too many sugary, fatty, and processed foods, and too few fruits, vegetables, and home-cooked meals, and we’re paying the price for it.
Given that, if What the Health does nothing more than encourage people to “clean up” their diets a bit, it’s doing a public service.
The problem, though, is in the methods used to accomplish this, which mostly consist of scare tactics and sensationalism, e.g. the claims that eating meat and dairy is akin to smoking, that the meat industry is an environmental catastrophe on par with the Deepwater Horizon spill, and that the only way to save yourself and the environment is swearing off animal products forever.
You could argue that the end justifies the means, but we don’t have to debate the ethics because the lying and misdirection simply aren’t necessary. As you’ll see, a powerful case can be made for eating a plant-centric diet without it.
Let’s start making that case by unpacking the 7 biggest things the documentary got wrong.
“There’s No Such Thing as a Protein Deficiency.”
Low-protein dieting and veganism usually go hand-in-hand because while it’s certainly possible to eat plenty of protein on a vegan diet, it requires a fair amount of attention to detail in your meal planning.
According to What the Health, such worries are unfounded because “protein deficiency” isn’t even a real thing. And that’s just plain wrong.
First, a multitude of studies have shown that the minimum protein intake for basic health needs is around 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day.
If you eat less than that for too long, you’ll likely experience various negative side effects such as dermatitis, hair loss, and tooth decay. Eventually, a protein deficiency can lead to the development of one of a number of debilitating diseases, including kwashiorkor and marasmus.
Now, the good news is that it’s quite hard to develop a serious protein deficiency unless you’re severely malnourished in general. If you eat enough calories every day and are at least halfway sensible in your food choices, it’s almost impossible to eat less than 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
Second, if we move beyond basic health needs and consider how protein intake affects muscle gain and fat loss, daily requirements rise dramatically.
Specifically, extensive research has demonstrated that for the purposes of gaining muscle and losing fat as quickly as possible, you want to eat around 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day (or 2.2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day).
This can be done on a plant-based diet, but as I mentioned earlier, it requires careful meal planning, which most people don’t want to do. (This is why protein intake tends to be quite low among vegan and vegetarians.)
The Bottom Line
Medically speaking, protein deficiency is very real, and most vegans and vegetarians eat enough protein to avoid it, but not to maximize muscle gain and fat loss.
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“All Meat Is Bad for You.”
A primary motif of the film is that meat is toxic to the body and should be eliminated from your diet, regardless of how it’s sourced or prepared.
The evidence offered in support of this radical position consists of a few studies that found that people who eat the most meat also have the highest risk of cancer, heart disease, and death from all causes.
Research like that makes for splashy headlines but doesn’t prove that meat is a menace because it’s observational research, which can suggest correlation but not establish causation.
In other words, such studies can highlight a potential relationship between meat consumption and poor health outcomes, but until further experimental research is done to confirm or deny the hypothesis, it remains just that–a theory.
Furthermore, the research in question has serious deficiencies, not the least of which being the many confounding factors that scientists can’t fully control for, including smoking, BMI, drinking, and inactivity.
For example, here’s an excerpt from one of the studies:
“Men and women with higher intake of red meat were less likely to be physically active, and more likely to be current smokers, drink alcohol and have higher BMI. In addition, a higher red meat intake was associated with a higher intake of total energy, but lower intakes of whole grain, fruit and vegetables.”
The people who ate the most red meat also tended to neglect their health on the whole, so you’d expect them to experience more disease and live shorter lives. Was meat to blame for this, though? At least partially? How can you say without further illumination?
Now, a more legitimate bone to pick is eating highly processed meat products like hot dogs, hams, bacon, pre-packaged deli cuts, and other meats that are pink, cured, and preserved with sodium nitrate.
Another caveat worth noting is research shows that in some people, eating meat that’s cooked at very high temperatures, like frying or grilling, or very thoroughly (to the point of being well done), may increase the risk of cancer.
This is due to a genetic polymorphism that undermines the body’s ability to process several compounds produced by these cooking conditions. I myself have this polymorphism, so while cause and effect hasn’t been conclusively established just yet, I’m playing it safe by generally avoiding grilled and overcooked meat.
Now, speaking of “playing it safe,” you may be aware of everything I’ve discussed thus far and figure that while the correlation between meat consumption and disease is weak at best, it might be prudent to cut it out “just in case.”
To that I say “to each their own.”
That said, you should know that meat can benefit your health in several ways because it’s high in protein, iron, zinc, B-vitamins (including B12), and other beneficial compounds such as carnosine and creatine.
The Bottom Line
Meat doesn’t ravage your body and increase your risk of heart disease, cancer, and other nasty diseases and dysfunctions. That said, eating lots of processed meat or meat cooked at very high temperatures may increase your risk of cancer, but more research is needed.
“Dairy Can Kill You.”
What the Health repeatedly insists that dairy is much to blame for cancer’s meteoric rise here in the West.
The main culprit, they say, is the hormone insulin-like growth factor one, or IGF-1, which is naturally present in milk (in very small amounts), and which your body naturally produces more of when you drink milk.
IGF-1 encourages cell growth and regeneration, and IGF-1 levels are often elevated in people with cancer, so this seems to make sense on the surface.
What “they” didn’t tell you, though, is scientists haven’t yet to establish whether high IGF-1 levels increase the risk of cancer or is simply a byproduct of it.
In other words, are we looking at correlation or causation? The literature hasn’t provided a definitive answer yet.
Moreover, while research has shown that people who eat more dairy may have a slightly higher risk of certain cancers, studies have also found that people who drink more milk have the same or a lower risk of cancer than people who eat less dairy.
IGF-1 levels are also generally correlated with your total protein intake, including plant protein, so the more protein of any kind that you eat, the higher your IGF-1 levels are going to be. Soy protein, for example, elevates IGF-1 more than milk does.
The Bottom Line
There’s absolutely no credible evidence that dairy increases the risk of or causes cancer.
“Eating Eggs Is as Bad for You as Smoking Cigarettes.”
The film claims that eating a single egg is as harmful to the body as smoking five cigarettes.
This has blazed through social media like chain lightning, but it’s fake news.
The turmoil originally kicked off years ago when observational research suggested that there may be a relationship between egg yolk consumption and atherosclerosis (plaque buildup in the arteries), similar to what’s seen among regular smokers.
As you now know, such research can never prove causation, so any suggestions to this effect are simply false.
Additionally, more recent, larger studies have refuted these earlier findings, demonstrating that egg eating isn’t associated with heart disease and, to the contrary, may be associated with a lower risk of stroke.
We also know that two out of every three long-term smokers will eventually be killed by it, but nothing of the sort has been observed among regular egg eaters.
The Bottom Line
Eating eggs isn’t as bad as smoking cigarettes, and people who eat more eggs appear to have a lower risk of some diseases.
“All Animal Farming Is Cruel and Bad for the Environment.”
What the Health depicts your typical livestock farmer as a mustache-twirling malefactor who gets his rocks off by abusing animals and the environment.
Well, it’s very true that gruesome abuses occur in concentrated animal feeding operations–a quick search turns up pages of videos that will turn your stomach.
What you’re not told, though, is this isn’t the norm in the meat and dairy industries.
Most of the whistleblower accounts of horrid abuses at factory farms come down to the actions of a small number of errant employees, not company-wide policies and practices.
Scientists have also spent many years and many millions of dollars researching and developing more humane methods of raising and slaughtering livestock. Why go through that much trouble if you’re just going to neglect and torture the animals?
Now, if you still have scruples over purchasing meat produced by commercial farms, you should know that they aren’t the only game in town.
There is a growing movement of farmers who pride themselves on caring for their animals, raising them on a natural diet of fresh grass, giving them plenty of exercise, and allowing them to enjoy each other’s company.
You can support these businesses instead and not only feel better about your purchases, but help create the change that you want to see.
The Bottom Line
Painting all farmers with the same black brush is unfair. The majority would never engage in the cruel and malicious mistreatment of animals, and some even go out of their way to be humane.
“Dietary Fat Causes Diabetes.”
There’s a kernel of truth here, but not in the way that you’re being told.
Type-1 diabetes is a genetic condition wherein your immune system destroys the cells that produce insulin, but type-2 diabetes is the more common condition, and it’s a “lifestyle disease” caused by sedentary living, chronic overeating, and high levels of body fat.
This is where dietary fat enters the picture, because it’s high in calories (about 9 calories per gram), easily converted into body fat, and makes foods more palatable, so the more fat you have in your diet, the easier it is to overeat and gain weight.
This is why studies show that obesity is more prevalent among high-fat dieters, and why high-fat dieting can contribute to the onset of diabetes by promoting fat gain.
To suggest that dietary fat causes diabetes, though, is simply false.
That said, not all types of dietary fat are alike. There’s one in particular that we should avoid, and that’s trans fat.
Trans fat occurs naturally in some meat and dairy foods, but is also manufactured industrially by infusing vegetable oil with hydrogen, creating the “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” that you find in many processed foods.
These chemically altered oils are added primarily to increase shelf life, and while I’m not one for dietary absolutism, there’s little argument at this point that artificial trans fats should be eliminated entirely from our diets.
Studies show that relatively small amounts of these fats can increase the risk of a whole host of health problems, including heart disease, Alzheimer’s, breast cancer, depression, and more, and there’s also evidence that trans fats may increase the risk of diabetes as well.
To quote a review conducted by scientists from Harvard:
“TFA [trans-fatty acid] consumption causes metabolic dysfunction: it adversely affects circulating lipid levels, triggers systemic inflammation, induces endothelial dysfunction, and, according to some studies, increases visceral adiposity, body weight, and insulin resistance.
“Consistent with these adverse physiological effects, consumption of even small amounts of TFAs (2% of total energy intake) is consistently associated with a markedly increased incidence of coronary heart disease.”
The Bottom Line
Dietary fat doesn’t cause diabetes. Eating too much, moving too little, and being too overweight does. Trans fats, however, are shockingly harmful to your health and should be avoided.
“Veganism Is the One True Diet for Long-Term Health & Vitality.”
Perhaps the most fundamental flaw of What the Health is the notion that eating a vegan diet is the only way to avoid poor health and disease.
While there are many benefits to eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes, this doesn’t mean you need to eliminate all animal products from your diet.
Furthermore, while diet plays a pivotal role in determining our long-term health, it’s not everything. There are many other factors to consider, including exercise, body composition, alcohol consumption, smoking, sleep hygiene, and stress levels, and if these are mismanaged, they can override even the most scrupulous diet.
The Bottom Line
Veganism isn’t necessary to get and stay healthy, and what you eat isn’t the only thing that determines your long-term health.
The 3 Things That What the Health Got Right
As you now know, many of the alarming assertions in What the Health are highly misleading or flat out false.
That said, the film did make several points that we should take to heart.
Most of Us Should Eat More Plant Foods
Most Americans eat a lot of fat, sugar, and processed foods, and very little fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains.
Simply put: this is asking for an early, painful death.
So, if you want to be as healthy as possible for as long as possible, then you want to eat more plant foods, not less.
Yes, you should also include treats in your meal plans and apply the principles of flexible dieting, but on the whole, you should be getting the vast majority of your calories from relatively unprocessed, nutritious plant foods.
The Bottom Line
If you want to optimize your health and performance and drastically reduce your risk for disease and dysfunction, then you want to eat at least two to three servings of fruits and vegetables per day and include generous amounts of whole grains, nuts and seeds, and legumes in your diet.
Food Companies May Influence Public Health Guidelines & Policies
What the Health does a good job showing how corporations use their considerable financial resources to attach themselves to public health institutions.
- The American Diabetes Association is sponsored by Dannon Yogurt.
- Partners of the American Cancer Society include Tyson Chicken, Campbell’s Soup, and Subway.
- Cheerios and Hass Avocados sponsor the American Heart Association.
- Sponsors of the National Breast Cancer Foundation include Hungry Howie’s Pizza, Jamba Juice, Ritter Sport, Panera Bread, and others.
What the Health implies these instutions know which side their bread is buttered on and act accordingly, but offer little in the way of proof.
Well, while conspiracies absolutely do exist, and especially when money and power are involved, it’s not fair to automatically assume the worst when presented with facts like these.
The reality is it’s impossible to say whether these relationships are harmful because there’s no clear evidence of wrongdoing.
That said, human nature being what it is, it’s fair to assume that not everyone involved has all of our best interests in mind. Ignorance and economics are more likely motives than outright maliciousness, but that doesn’t make anyone less guilty.
Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about what may or may not go on behind closed doors. Instead, we can simply take it upon ourselves to learn the simple science of healthy eating as opposed to blindly following our guts (literally) or national guidelines.
The Bottom Line
Public diet and health guidelines are probably influenced by food companies to some degree, and some of this influence may be to our detriment. This is why it’s incumbent on us to educate ourselves as opposed to blindly following the masses.
Your Diet Will Largely Determine Your Long-Term Health
If there’s one thing that What the Health and other similar documentaries do best, it’s highlighting the fact that how we eat directly correlates to our overall health and longevity.
Unfortunately, too many people whistle past this graveyard, ignoring the facts:
- Their eating habits are objectively awful.
- They probably won’t change their ways anytime soon.
- Medical advances probably won’t be able to save them once the wheels fall off.
In other words, they’re stacking the odds against themselves and significantly increasing their chances of experiencing pain, misery, and an untimely death, whether they want to acknowledge it or not.
This even applies to many people who take fitness seriously. Many want to believe that so long as you’re lean and muscular, you’re healthy, but that’s far the truth. A favorable body composition contributes to your overall health, but most definitely isn’t a foolproof barometer of it.
Remember: you can have a killer six pack and a whole host of nutritional deficiencies that, if allowed to fester, may literally one day kill you.
So, What the Health is right in that what you eat matters, and a lot more than many people would like to believe.
The Bottom Line
Your diet plays a crucial role in your health, vitality, and longevity. Neglect it at your peril.
How to Build Muscle and Lose Fat on a Vegan Diet
If you’re considering overhauling diet after watching What the Health and also care about your body composition, this section is for you.
Many people say that you simply can’t build a great body without eating animal products. They’re wrong. You absolutely can, but you have to know what you’re doing.
The bottom line is if you don’t understand the downsides and limitations of a vegan diet in the context of bodybuilding, you’ll get disappointing results.
It all comes down to following three simple steps:
- Eating the right number of calories.
- Balancing your macronutrient intake.
- Eating the right foods and/or supplements to avoid common nutrient deficiencies.
I break it all down in this article:
(And if you’d prefer a 9-minute video overview, just click the play button below).
The Bottom Line on What the Health
At bottom, What the Health is more fiction than fact.
It’s not a groundbreaking expose of collusion between the government and food industry to keep us fat, sick, and dying, so much as a carefully stage-managed presentation meant to sell you on vegan ideology.
That said, it does contain some truth and good advice.
Most people’s diets are horrible and at least partially responsible for the epidemic-level health problems that plague us here in the West, and most of us could benefit greatly from eating a lot fewer animal and a lot more plant foods.
That doesn’t mean that a 100% vegan diet is the absolute best way to eat for everyone under all circumstances, though. You can enjoy all the benefits that plant foods have to offer while also eating animal foods, including meat and dairy.