By Maryam Henein
Back in March, I attended the premiere of the documentary film What The Health at the Downtown Independent theater in Los Angeles. I found myself in a room full of staunchly righteous vegans, including a guy who was wearing a T-shirt that read Vegan Feminist. The musician Moby, whom I formerly conducted a panel with to honor our prime pollinators and my film Vanishing of the Bees was also there.
My aim was to write a positive review and interview Kip Andersen, one of the directors who brought us Cowspiracy. But by the end of the screening, I was utterly appalled by the irresponsibility of this film, not only as a health consultant and public health expert but also as a filmmaker and journalist who spent five years crafting her own documentary. It was sloppy, lacked distinction, was full of disconnects, and was rife with shoddy cherry-picked science. What The Health is not a documentary, rather an ad to promote veganism.
While the film’s basic premise of eating less meat and consuming more plants is a valuable message, considering most people follow the Standard American Diet, I do not support proselytizing veganism by fearmongering and spreading lies
After the film, I couldn’t even discuss my objections with my vegan friend; she literally shushed me because, well, she’s a vegan with an arguable crush on Andersen. Frustrated, I went home, whipped out my iron skillet and slowly cooked me some organic, pastured bacon and eggs, which according to What The Health is equivalent to smoking not one but five ciggies. Absurd! Organic eggs are a great source of vitamin B, choline, fat and protein.
After my many, many years of research and experimentation, I’ve come to realize that diet is highly personalized and individual. I’ve chosen a ketogenic lifestyle based on molecular blood tests. But people who rave about one diet miss a basic understanding: we all metabolize foods and burn energy differently.
Furthermore, after looking into Blue Zones, it is evident that some people can live up to 90 years plus in health subsisting on various diets, including diets that consist of mostly meat. Our bodies are highly adaptable.
“When looking at health, it’s not enough to look at the foods we eat and think that that is what feeds longevity,” adds Jason Prall, the producer of the upcoming eight-part series, The Human Longevity Project. “The quality of the food and what we are doing with it is the real factor.”
I agree. Given that we live in a highly divisive system that enjoys pitting people against one another, I believe that we should focus on the real problem at hand, which is modern agriculture with its monocultures, pesticides, and unsustainable practices.
Be a Chooseatarian — respect another person’s food choices and do not shame or demonize others. We can agree that what is important is to eat clean, organic, non-GMO, unprocessed food, which is ideally local. And if you eat animals, steer clear from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO).
Now let’s dive into the myriad issues with What The Health.
1.A Spoonful Of Sugar Doesn’t Help The Medicine Go Down
The Joaquin Phoenix-exec produced film rampages against meat, even going as far as to say — and this segment is the most disturbing to me — that sugar and high carbs “aren’t that bad,” and that a “meat-based diet” is the culprit behind diabetes.
“Diabetes is not and never was caused by eating a high-carbohydrate diet,” maintains Neal Barnard, MD., founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, who is featured in the film and is basically an animal welfare activist and leading advocate for veganism.
Barnard goes on to say that animal fats go directly to your fat stores and block the cells’ insulin receptors. He adds that insulin is like a key, opening a lock to get glucose into cells and that fats are like chewing gum that gunk up the keyhole so insulin can’t work.
Utter nonsense. My question is: how is this person even a doctor? Diabetes is NOT caused by a “buildup of fat in the blood.” It’s sugar and NOT fat that causes insulin resistance.
Need proof? Consider, for instance, that India is one of the epicenters of the global diabetes mellitus, with an estimated 70 million diabetics by the year 2020. And drum roll please … they do not all eat meat.
Vilifying fats is so 1965. That’s by the way around the time the sugar industry paid scientists to play down the link between sugar and heart disease and promote saturated fat as the culprit. I myself was indoctrinated, and it took me a while to become “fat-adapted” both mentally and physically.
“The “fat makes you fat” rhetoric is ingrained in so many peoples’ minds that they fear fat, even though study after study shows how fat crushes cravings, helps you lose weight, balances your hormones and turns on your brain,” explain health expert and biohacker Davids Asprey. “Fat, especially saturated fat, and cholesterol are the building blocks for nearly every cell in your body and mind. High-carb or sugar-filled diets — even well-meaning plant-based vegan diets — lead to the exact opposite.”
Ignoring or lessening the negative effects of sugar, low-fat, and high carbs is crazy! Sugar is highly addictive and messes with our hormones. And the ironic thing is that saturated fats from happy grass-fed animals is much better for you than processed vegetable oils full of inflammatory omega 6s.
“Sugar is a major cause of inflammation and oxidation damage,” adds Kearney. “It’s a major problem in the Standard American Diet, and it was irresponsible to suggest otherwise.”
While you can call certain foods “complex carbohydrates” to make yourself feel better, at the end of the day, says Lierre Keith, author of the The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability, every last molecule of both simple and complex carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars in your intestines and have to be dealt with.
“Diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular, and autoimmune conditions are a product of the modern age,” says Keith. “Please note, there are no corresponding ‘diseases of Hunter-Gatherers.’”
Respected health experts confirm undoubtedly that excessive sugar clearly promotes insulin resistance, with processed fructose being readily converted to body fat. Low-carb, high-fat diets have proven superior for controlling insulin resistance, which is the hallmark of obesity and metabolic dysfunction.
Fat is, in fact, the preferred fuel of the human body — not sugar. Dr. Richard Veech, a metabolic expert, says bluntly that fat burning is “the normal state” of humans.
And while it is possible to be a healthy vegan, consider that many eat grains and beans that are high in inflammatory lectins. Lectins, which are autoimmune-stimulating, are the plant’s natural compounds to ward off pests, fungal and bacterial attack. That is the plant’s natural immune system. When plants are under attack they raise their lectin numbers to fend off the attacking pests. Incidentally, soaking and sprouting grains and legumes can help reduce lectins.
2. Meatheads & Shrinking Noggins
“Choose your poison,” says one of the film’s experts, referring to the various ways that animal foods kill. “It’s a question of whether you want to be shot or hung.”
The movie doesn’t mention “organic,” “pasture-raised” or “grass-fed,” making no distinction between eating let’s say goat meat that has been sourced locally, biodynamically, and ethically versus chowing down on industrially-raised Tyson’s chicken pumped full of antibiotics and hormones where the animal has been subjected to horrid conditions.
The film is also full of false equivalences, meaning it spews logical fallacies in which two opposing arguments appear to be logically equivalent when in fact they are not. For instance, if you are going to trash fast food, understand that it’s not just made up of cheap meat. It’s also full of sugar, carbs, and fillers. And while yes — too much protein can tax your body, says Bulletproof’s Asprey, grass finished ethically sourced meat is not just “pure garbage” of “dead, decaying animal flesh.”
“Protein is a building block for your body. When you eat too much of it (from plants or animals, it doesn’t matter), your body tries to use the protein for energy. That raises ammonia levels in the body, which is bad for your kidneys,” explains Asprey. “But ever worse, some types of protein components called amino acids can directly trigger inflammation in the body when you have too many of them. A final reason is that high protein diets raise levels of a compound called mTOR linked to cancer. You need brief spikes of mTOR to build muscle, but eating high protein all the time raises your cancer risk.”
In figuring out how much protein to eat, Asprey says a good starting point is about 0.4-0.5 grams for every pound you weigh.
In my opinion, this is the kind of solid distinct information the film lacked. And for those of you on Team Vegan who need evidence beyond common sense that our ancestors ate meat, note that the first tools ever made were for hunting and butchering.
These tools are found next to the carcasses of megafauna and are still coated in animal fat, says Keith. Chemical analysis of teeth prove that our ancestors were eating ruminants that lived on grasses.
“Back up 400,000 years — that’s when homo erectus started to become homo sapiens. Brain size increased by 75 percent over a short 180,000 years while our digestive tracts shrank. The only way that’s possible is if our progenitors were eating nutrient-dense foods, which is to say animal fats and proteins,” adds Keith, a former vegetarian herself.
A recently updated and rigorous analysis of changes in human brain size found that our ancestors’ brain size reached its peak with the first anatomically modern humans of approximately 90,000 years ago. That then remained fairly constant for a further 60,000 years, according to the book Primal Fat Burner: Live Longer, Slow Aging, Super-Power Your Brain, and Save Your Life with a High-Fat, Low-Carb Paleo Diet. This factoid should fill us with horror: the human brain has shrunk by 10 percent under the pernicious diet of agriculture.
Incidentally, our brains are made of more than 60 percent fat and don’t require glucose; they actually function better burning alternative fuels such as ketones.
“The archaeological record could not be clearer: Wherever people took up agriculture, they lost six inches in height, their teeth fell out, their bones were riddled with diseases, and their brains shrank,” adds Keith.
Using tests and brain scans on community-dwelling volunteers, aged 61 to 87, who exhibited no cognitive impairment at enrollment, they measured the size of the participants’ brains. When the volunteers were retested five years later, the scientists found those with the lowest levels of vitamin B-12 intake were the most likely to have brain shrinkage. Not surprisingly, vegans who eschew all foods of animal origin, suffered the most brain shrinkage. This confirms earlier research showing a link between brain atrophy and low levels of B-12.
Some of us have unwittingly run that experiment on ourselves. I was an unhealthy vegetarian for seven years. A study from Oxford University followed omnivores, vegetarians, and vegans for five years. The people refraining from meat lost brain volume, with vegans losing a full five percent. In fact, the smallest brain of the omnivore was bigger than the largest vegan brain.
“This is tragic beyond measure,” adds Keith. “People are doing what they are told, eating a plant-based diet because it’s supposed to be healthy, and they are literally destroying their brains.”
The vegan diet is nutritionally insufficient, lacking not only vitamin B-12 but also iron, certain amino acids, and folate (meaning that we should refer to it always as a “vegan diet plus supplements”).
3. Shoddy Science
Move past the mafia informant-type interviews and ominous music in What The Health and you’ll come across nearly 40 health claims, all which are sensational and flimsy.
For instance: one serving of processed meat a day increases risk of developing diabetes by 51 percent. Wrong! According to multiple studies, if you eat highly processed red meat every day there is a 19 percent increased risk of developing diabetes. (Also keep in mind that we do not know what other factors or foods are being thrown into the mix!)
“Most of the claims in the film come from epidemiological studies. These are fundamentally limited in that they can only show associations and cannot establish causation,” explains Nina Teicholz in an excellent blog on the film. She is also the author of The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat, and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet. “Therefore, this data is really meant only to generate hypotheses and can only rarely ‘prove’ them.”
Among the many problems with epidemiological studies writes Teicholz: “The extreme unreliability of “food frequency questionnaires (FFQ),” which depend upon people accurately remembering what they ate over the last six or 12 months.” These methods also don’t objectively measure nutrient intake or measure food and beverage consumption.
Consider also that human beings do not eat one food but a range, so what foods are responsible for what? For instance, in Greece (where I live part of the year) people feast on nightshades vegetables (full of lectins) and actually exhibit incidences of arthritis. However, they also consume copious amounts of anti-inflammatory olive oil that may offset the effects. Point is things are complicated when it comes to nutrition. Especially when you consider that more and more of our food supply is adulterated, and that there are so many varying opinions/diets.
Teicholz makes another excellent point: in the past 30 years, as rates of obesity and diabetes have risen sharply in the U.S., the consumption of animal foods has declined steeply: Whole milk is down 79 percent; red meat by 28 percent and beef by 35 percent; eggs are down by 13 percent and animal fats are down by two percent. Consumption of fruits is up by 35 percent and vegetables by 20 percent.
“All trends therefore point toward Americans shifting from an animal-based diet to a plant-based one, and this data contradicts the idea that a continued shift toward plant-based foods will promote health.”
In summary, 96 percent of the data in the film does not support the assertions made in this film. What The Health fails to cite “any rigorous randomized controlled trial on humans supporting its arguments,” concludes Teicholz.
4. A Bone To Pick: Modern Agriculture
Want to vilify meat? Keep in mind that one season of planting your basic row crops — corn, wheat, soy — can destroy 2,000 years of topsoil. Keith explains that there were farms in South Dakota that lost all their topsoil — all of it — on the first day of the Dust Bowl, a period of severe dust storms that greatly damaged the ecology and agriculture of the American and Canadian prairies.
“That’s what happens when the perennial plants with their matrix of roots is removed — there’s literally nothing to hold the soil in place,” she says. “But the number I really want people to understand is this: civilizations last between 800 and 2000 years, which is how long it takes for the soil to run out. There are no exceptions,” says Keith.
And by 1950, the world was essentially out of soil. Instead of the population loss that should have followed, what we had instead was the so-called “Green Revolution,” in which scientists bred highly productive grains that needed massive inputs of fossil-fuel based fertilizer. If you’re eating grain, you’re eating oil on a stalk.
As environmental journalist Richard Manning and author of The Oil We Eat writes,
“With the possible exception of the domestication of wheat, the Green Revolution is the worst fate to befall the planet. We have got to face what we have done by taking up agriculture if we are to have any chance of saving life on this planet.”
We’re increasingly encouraged to eat less meat to tackle climate change, but how sustainable is it to eat avocados shipped in from Mexico or green beans flown in from Kenya?
For instance, it’s pretty nonsensical but because of EU subsidies, 15,000 tons of tomatoes are imported into Greece each year, at a cost of $11.6 million. Given their love of tomatoes and their ability to grow them, they should be a net exporter.
“Considering that vegetables are over 90 percent water, it’s insane that anyone ships them anywhere,” adds Keith.
And newsflash: we kill dramatically more animals by eating grain than by eating a grass-fed cow. “In very brute terms, agriculture is biotic cleansing. You take a piece of land, you clear every living thing off it, and then you plant it to human use. That’s a long way of saying “mass extinction,” attests Keith.
Modern agriculture has skinned the planet alive. Think about all the casualties involved — rodents, birds and reptiles — that try to live inside fields of annual monocrops.
“The production of wheat requires the deaths of at least 25 times more animals per kilogram of usable protein than protein produced on intact rangeland,” explains Keith.
5. The Meat of The Matter
I do applaud What the Health for bringing more attention to the fact that the conventional meat industry and Big Pharma are behemoths that care about profit over people. However, all of conventional farming is to blame for ill health.
We douse tons of veggies and grains with Monsanto’s glyphosate. In fact, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that gluten intolerance is due in part to this herbicide. Worldwide, we’ve sprayed 9.4 million tons of the chemical onto fields since 1974. For comparison, that’s equivalent to the weight of water in more than 2,300 Olympic-size swimming pools. Today, the world is awash in glyphosate; RoundUp is in our blood, breast milk and brains.
And before we demonize meat, understand, adds Keith, that no human population in the history of civilization has ever been recorded surviving on a vegan diet. Our jaws were not designed for plant matter. Ruminants have a jaw for rotational chewing. The human jaw, like that of other carnivores, is made for vertical chewing.
We tear and crush with our jaws, while ruminants grind their food, explains Keith. Mastication is basically unimportant to humans and other carnivores, whereas for ruminants it is vital. Humans and other carnivores have incisors on both jaws; ruminants have them on the bottom only. We have ridged molars where ruminants have flat molars.
“If vegetarians — and vegans in particular — berate you for ‘murdering’ and eating animals, please be kind to them,” says Keith. “They are almost certainly suffering from self-inflicted brain atrophy, and have little recognition of both the damage they are doing to themselves and the harm that are doing to others who follow their advice.”
In keeping with what I said earlier about not shaming others for their food choices, if you are a vegan or vegetarian, monitor your sugar levels and keep inflammation down. Keep in mind, as Asprey points out, that people generally do well on a lower carb vegan diet.
“It takes careful planning to make sure you cover your essential amino acids, so work with a nutritionist if you don’t trust yourself to consistently plan week to week.”
As a tagline, the filmmakers describe What the Health as “the film that health organizations don’t want you to see.” But I’d go as far as to say that many health experts wouldn’t advise you to see it either.
Maryam Henein is an investigative journalist, and cofounder and editor-in-chief of HoneyColony. She is also the director of the award-winning documentary film Vanishing of the Bees, narrated by Ellen Page. Follow her on Twitter: @maryamhenein. Email her: firstname.lastname@example.org.