If you were looking for some extra motivation to eat better, you could do far worse than watching the new documentary What the Health. It may gross you out and and make you frustrated enough with the food and pharma industries to re-think at least some of your food choices.
The film follows Kip Anderson, a producer and writer from California, as he investigates the impact of nutrition on major illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer – diseases that run in his own family. His journey helps you understand that just because you have a predisposition to a disease or condition, it doesn’t mean that it’s inevitable.
You can reverse and prevent many of these conditions through healthy lifestyle and nutritional choices. (Indeed, a recent study in JAMA found that nearly half of all cardiometabolic diseases, for instance, are diet-driven.)
What the Health takes aim at quite a few important issues, including
Food industry sponsorship of medical associations and health-related nonprofits.
Lack of regulation over the impacts of animal farming, specifically pig farms in North Carolina with water contamination and an alarming rate of disease near the fields (not to mention an alarming amount of pig pus that is allowed in our food – and, yes, they show many images of this in the film).
The dominance of the “sick care” model, where we invest in learning how to live with diseases instead of healing from them, let alone preventing them.
Pharma’s relationship to Big Ag. According to Paige Tomaselli, Senior Attorney for the Center of Food Safety, “The pharmaceutical industry sells 80% of the antibiotics that it makes in the United States to animal agriculture.”
GMOs, metal toxicity, steroids, and other dangerous chemicals that are fed to our livestock only to be passed on to us when we eat animal products.
But there is one aspect of the film that we question, and question hard. Within the first 10 minutes, we’re told that sugar and other carbs don’t really have a negative impact on health. When asked what role sugar plays in causing diabetes, for instance, Dr. Neal Barnard responds that the notion is “driving me crazy. Diabetes is not and never was caused by eating a high carbohydrate diet and it’s not caused by eating sugar.” Instead, despite evidence to the contrary, fat is blamed as the primary cause (mainly from meat).
Barnard is president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit education and advocacy group that promotes a vegan diet and alternatives to animal research.
The conversation goes on to reference “a study” – no more specific citation is given – which fewer cases of diabetes were found among patients who ate more carbohydrates and sugar. Meat, on the other hand, was strongly correlated with diabetes. This is counter to a great deal of research on diet and diabetes risk.
Later in the film, research from the 1940s is mentioned, in which Dr. Walter Kempner of Duke University claimed to be reversing major illness with diet alone. His recipe for success? A strictly plant-based diet made up of white rice, fruit, and table sugar. A doctor narrating a portion of Kempner’s story admits that it’s a “horrible diet” but still praises his work’s impact.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, we don’t have to tell you about the problem with sugar. Research has shown that it plays a role in dozens of health conditions, oral and systemic alike. Dr. Robert Lustig has gone so far as to bluntly call it “toxic“.
Certainly, there’s much to be said for bringing more plant-based foods into the diet. These are the carbs that are generally fine, and the less processed the better. (The carbs to say “no” to on a regular basis? At a minimum, hyper-processed food products, but many also benefit from steering clear of refined grains and starches.) In fact, most Americans would benefit from including far more veg and fruit in their daily diet than they currently do.
There’s also much to be said for dialing back our meat consumption for the sake of our environment.
And the film does a good job of promoting the benefits of a plant-based diet. We see success stories. The results were immediate. All medications were stopped. One woman was able to begin walking without the pain that had caused her to use a walker. All experienced impressive weight loss and increased energy.
Pretty motivating stuff.
And there’s actually no reason sugar needs to be a part of it. The latest research suggests that for good health, added sugars should comprise no more than 10% of your daily caloric intake, or about 50g for a 2000 calorie diet. For good dental health, the recommendation is less than one-third of that.