What You Need To Know About The Documentary 'What The Health'

Sensationalist? You betcha.

Sensationalist? You betcha.

“Eating meat will give me cancer?” This is one hundreds of messages and questions dietitian Alexandra Reed received after clients and friends watched the new documentary What the Health.

After reluctantly watching What The Health, I wasn't surprised to find that it was filled with typical characteristics of a health documentary. First, while many health documentaries are well-intended, at the core, they're often marketing tools.

The filmmakers, in this case Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn (the same guys who made Cowspiracy), obviously feel passionately about veganism and believe it can improve lives. However, a documentary is an excessively long ad. Have you ever been up at 3am and sucked into an infomercial? There are commonalities.

Both have something for you to buy into and use, interviews with the industry’s leading “experts,” and "dramatic results" to convince you to buy what they are selling. If you’re doubting this comparison, there is now a What the Health cookbook you can order that will solve all of your health woes.

Even more frustrating is the deep fear this movie elicits. Several friends and clients who have lost loved ones to cancer are now wondering "if they didn’t eat meat, would I have lost them?" Guilting innocent people isn’t the way to encourage them to adopt a plant-based lifestyle.

This fear is elicited by the research blurbs handpicked to prove the filmmakers point. First, if you haven’t read a research study before, you may not be aware of the discussion section. There is a discussion section in published research because science always has some ‘splainin’ to do. In What the Health and similar health docs, they shout ONE LINE from a research study without context. Research studies are done to GIVE context.

Just one example of the gross misuse of research: Comparing eggs to smoking cigarettes. Recent studies have debunked eggs' bad rep as cholesterol culprits. That’s right—eggs do not raise cholesterol and will not give you lung cancer.

If you're using fear tactics, nothing is off limits when it comes to increasing your risk of cancer. Cancer risk is increased by not only diet, but also genetics, stress, lifestyle, alcohol consumption, and so on. If you want to really hear something scary, nutrients have been found to play a role in cancer too. 

Take the SELECT study, for example. That's where nutrients—in this case Vitamin E and Selenium supplements—were shown to increase men’s risk for prostate cancer. Now isn’t that scary? Let me explain. The men who took 400 IU (International Units) of Vitamin E had a 17 percent increased risk of prostate cancer. First, 400 IU of Vitamin E is a lot—the National Institute of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements (NIH ODS) recommended intake is between 6-28.4 IU.

And in a previous study, the same nutrients were shown to reduce the risk of this particular cancer. Yes, just start banging your head against the wall. And that's why you won't see an in-depth explanation of research statistics in documentaries.

And this brings me to sponsorships and funding. Bottomline: It’s unethical. Fake cheese and Ho-Ho makers shouldn’t be the ones paying for our efforts to cure diabetes. However, research is expensive. I’m not paying for it. Nonprofits can’t pay for it. Rich people need yachts. So where can our researchers turn?

Taking money from the food industry’s largest corporations and associations isn’t right. It’s not, but what are you going to do? Research is the only way we find answers to our burning questions. It's a pickle.

Despite my disdain for What The Health, ethically speaking, there's no denying the epidemic of diet-related diseases like diabetes and heart disease. Most of us could definitely benefit from eating more plants, less meat, and less processed foods. But how you eat is a small (itty bitty) piece of the health picture.

And harassing staff at the information desk or over the phone isn’t going to help anyone, Kip. So, whenever you happen to notice a new health documentary popping up, I’d advise using your time wisely and watching something like He Named Me Malala instead.

Alexandra Reed is a registered dietician and nutrition coach.

Words: Alexandra Reed
Photo: Daria Kobayashi Ritch