Some thoughts on the latest of a growing number of food- and health-related documentaries, along with some thoughts about this documentary genre, in general.
A number of you have asked me to respond to a new documentary called What the Health, which you can find on Netflix or Vimeo. This is the latest in a growing number of documentary films focusing on how what we eat affects our health and environment, and how business, industry, and public policy affect what we eat.
Other films in this general category include Forks over Knives, Cowspiracy, Farmland, Food, Inc., King Corn, and Fast Food Nation. I’ll start with a couple of reactions to this specific film, but I also want to share some thoughts about this type of documentary, in general.
Are Meat and Dairy the Cause of Disease?
What the Health argues that meat and dairy products are the primary cause of cancer, diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. One expert even testifies that consuming sugar plays no role in the development of diabetes. I’m sure that was very much appreciated by the corn and cane growers, not mention the American Beverage Association.
I don’t have enough time in this podcast to go through the movie point by point. Suffice it to say the film includes a lot of facts but also a lot of opinion, anecdotes, unsubstantiated claims, misleading statements, and a few outright falsehoods. Just because someone has MD or PhD after their name does not guarantee that everything that comes out of their mouth is reliable.
But my main criticism of the film is that obesity, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease simply cannot be pinned on any one food group or nutrient. For one thing, these are complex diseases with multiple factors, of which diet is only one.
See also: Can the Right Diet Prevent Cancer?
How Does Diet Affect Disease Risk?
When it comes to diet and disease, it’s not about any single element, but how you put all the pieces together. Just as there a lot of ways to put build a healthy diet, there are a lot of ways to kill yourself with food. Virtually any food or food group can be eaten in quantities or ways that will cause harm, even if that harm is simply due to the absence of other foods or important nutrients. By the same token, virtually any food that might cause problems if over-consumed can safely be enjoyed in moderation, in the context of a healthy diet.
As I have said so many times before, when considering whether a given food is “healthy” or “unhealthy,” it’s important to take into consideration how much of it you’re eating, what you’re eating it with, and what you might be eating if you weren’t eating that instead.
Does Meat Cause Cancer?
Eating processed meat seven days a week as part of a diet that doesn’t include fresh fruits or vegetables, and also provides 50% more calories than you need, is certainly going to increase your risk of cancer and other diseases. Eating a hot dog at a ball game on a day that you also had a big salad for lunch and ran with the dog for a mile or two? Very unlikely to impact your cancer risk.
Likewise, drinking a soda in the context of a nutritious and calorie-appropriate diet is unlikely to contribute to your risk of obesity or diabetes. Consuming a high-calorie diet, in which 30% of those calories are coming from sweetened beverages, combined with a sedentary lifestyle? Yup, that’s probably going to cause some problems.
It should also be said that even people who eat excellent diets and are at a healthy body weight sometimes get diabetes, heart disease, and cancer anyway. Because diet is only one of many factors that come into play.
See also: The Disease Proofing Myth
Journalism or Propaganda?
Here’s the thing you need to understand about films like this: These filmmakers are not seeking to present a balanced view of a complex topic in order to allow you to come to your own conclusions. They know what conclusion they want you to draw, and they are using every tool at their disposal to lead you to it. Filmmakers are also in the entertainment business, so they are going to make their story as sensational, shocking, heart-rending, controversial, and/or hair-raising as they possibly can.