Plant-Based Diets

A Dietitian’s Take on the Film ‘What the Health’

You probably know that I support plant-based diets and eat a vegan diet myself as my own personal take on how I can make a positive impact on my health and the health of animals and the planet. My philosophy is that we can all experience benefits by eating a more plant-based diet. So, when I heard about the new proplant film What the Health by filmmaker Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn, I really wanted to like it. Despite the fact that some of my respected colleagues and friends were interviewed in the film, the documentary didn’t quite measure up in its presentation of nutrition facts. And in that respect, the film may have done more harm than good for the plant-based movement. I’m not alone in my assessment of the film, as several dietitians have published reviews, including Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, CD, and well known vegan expert Virginia Messina, MPH, RD.

Along the way, the film makes numerous unproven nutrition claims. Try these on for size:

  • Meat intake causes diabetes.
  • Carbohydrates can’t make body fat.
  • Dietary fat makes you fat and leads to diabetes.
  • Sugar isn’t really bad for you.
  • Eating animal foods is as bad as smoking cigarettes.
  • Cheese is the single most harmful food.
  • There’s a strong link between dairy and cancer, autoimmune disease, and type 1 diabetes.
  • Mad cow disease is the underlying cause of many Alzheimer’s disease cases.
  • You only need 30 to 40 g protein per day.

Previously, the filmmakers made the film Cowspiracy, which documents the impact of animal agriculture on the environment as well as the refusal of environmental organizations to address this important consideration in their strategic environmental recommendations. I enjoyed this movie’s illumination of the impact animal agriculture makes on the environment, though I felt it inaccurately downplayed the commitment to reducing animal food consumption that many environmental organizations have made.

In What the Health, Andersen continues on his journey to explore the “secret agenda” behind the refusal of health organizations to recommend vegan diets, which he believes boils down to sponsorship from the animal food industry. These organizations include the American Heart Association (AHA), American Cancer Society (ACS), American Diabetes Association ADA), and even the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. When Andersen tries to schedule meetings with some of these organizations to ask them why they still recommend animal foods, he gets nowhere; when he does score an interview, the expert walks out of the room as Andersen pushes his support of a vegan diet.

What many people don’t understand is that health organizations have to base their recommendations on years of hard science. They don’t have the luxury of swaying from one study to the next, confusing the public along the way. It takes years to develop a nutrition consensus based on a body of evidence. Sure, individual studies have found benefits of a vegan diet, such as in diabetes and heart disease prevention and treatment. But studies also have found similar benefits for other healthful plant-based eating plans, such as the Mediterranean diet. In short, the science isn’t there yet to say for sure that animal foods cause particular diseases and that a vegan diet is the one and only diet for treating and preventing disease.

What the science does say at this point is that vegetarian, including vegan diets, are linked with lower rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer, and obesity. Some studies that compared different diet patterns (nonvegetarian, semivegetarian, pescatarian, vegetarian, and vegan) found that the vegan diet did the best for several health outcomes.

Indeed, I have no doubt that well-planned vegan diets can be beneficial for the health of people, animals, and the planet. But there’s no need to exaggerate the science, because I see positive signs along the way to a more plant-based, healthful future. There’s increasing recognition that a diet focused on plants is the way to go. For the first time ever, the Dietary Guidelines (which the film calls out for being influenced by animal agriculture) included a vegetarian diet as one of three plant-based eating patterns linked with optimal health. And the ACS, AHA, and ADA make various recommendations to increase plant foods in place of animal foods, in particular red and processed meat.

I have to note that the film doesn’t get everything wrong. At the end of the day, it shines light on the health and environmental impacts of diets high in animal foods (in particular red meats and especially processed meats), which have been linked with increased risks of heart disease, colorectal cancer, and type 2 diabetes, as well as a higher carbon footprint. Bringing awareness to the benefits of a plant-based lifestyle, such as a vegan diet, is a worthwhile goal. However, it’s important to get the facts right so the vegan movement doesn’t get mired down in dogma but rather becomes a beacon of light towards the positive, vibrant, healthful, low-carbon, compassionate lifestyle it truly can be. And that doesn’t require embellishing the facts.

— Sharon Palmer, RDN, known as the Plant-Powered Dietitian, is an award-winning author, blogger, and plant-based food expert. She serves as the nutrition editor of Today’s Dietitian and is currently studying Sustainable Food Systems at Green Mountain College. Visit her at www.sharonpalmer.com.

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