You’ve probably heard about the new documentary from Kip Andersen, the guy who made Cowspiracy a while back. ‘What The Health’ (WTH) is currently streaming on Netflix.
While I agreed with the central message of the film, I have a few reservations about the way the film tries to persuade viewers of it’s case. I fear that some of the over-simplification and reliance on some fairly weak persuasive techniques may prove counterproductive in the end.
Let me explain.
Going vegan is a great idea (well obviously)
As I said, overall I agree with message of the film - a plant-based diet is healthier than a standard Western diet. The film covers a lot of territory you’d already be familiar with if you’ve seen ‘Forks Over Knives’ or if you've read books like ‘The China Study’ or ‘Engine 2 Diet’. So although I already knew about a lot of the health issues raised in WTH, it’s always good to get a little reminder, especially if it’s been a few years since you last read about them.
One thing I don't remember hearing about before was the strength of the correlation between diabetes and meat consumption. The film quotes a Harvard study that found that eating 1 serving of processed meats a day increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 51% - that’s an interesting finding and is certainly another good reason to consider going vegan.
The film also takes an angle I haven't really seen before - it talks about the direct impact on the health of people who live near animal feed lots: unsurprisingly it’s not good for your health or for the health of the environment. Nearby residents had high rates of asthma and cancer and complained of a range of other conditions that may have been linked to the feed lots. This is another persuasive argument against eating animal products—and knowing that their food choices affect people that live near feed lots could influence people to change their diets.
But don’t get tricksy
WTH includes good information and it’s presented clearly and entertainingly. However, there were a few things about the documentary that irked me a little.
Kip relied heavily what I’d describe as ambush tactics. He’d ring some guy on a help line for a health organisation (diabetes, heart disease, cancer) and then fire questions at him about why the organisation’s website includes meals containing meat or dairy. Predictably, the guy on the helpline had no idea.
Why does this bother me?
The guy on the help line probably took the job because he needed work and was minimally trained to answer simple questions from regular punters. It might be dramatic to catch some frontline worker off-guard, but it’s not constructive or particularly informative.
That worker probably has nothing to do with what goes on the website, and may not have even visited it himself. I understand Kip probably resorted to this tactic because he couldn't get interviews with people in positions of power in these organisations, but it seemed kinda lazy and tacky. I would've preferred to see interviews with more people who can truly represent these organisations to get a sense of what their reasons for providing this dubious information really are.
And don’t set people up for disappointment
Another thing which surprised me a little was the over-simplified presentation of plant-based diets. I’ve been vegan for around 5 years, and while it’s not hard to go vegan it does require some thought and planning to ensure you get everything you need - things like iron, vitamin B12, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids and iodine can all be problematic if you don't give them some thought.
At one point a doctor says that there is nothing animals provide that you can’t get from plants, that is clearly not accurate (another doctor then talks about B12 in the next scene, but overall you get the impression that switching to a plant-based diet requires no thought at all). I believe veganism is an opportunity to expand people’s understanding of, and attention to, nutrition and food choices—many people on standard diets aren’t necessarily giving their body everything it needs and they should understand what's involved in improving their nutrition on a plant-based diet.
The immediate and stunning health improvements of the chronically ill people from the film seemed a little OTT too. These people started off on all kinds of medications - over 10 meds each I believe - 2 of the 3 chronically ill people were off all medications in 2 weeks.
This is great for these people, but I don’t think it’s typical of the experience most people will have switching to a plant-based diet and I think it might set up some well-intentioned people for disappointment. If they don’t feel cured in 2 weeks they may well go back to their old, unhealthy, animal-based ways.
If you’ve read the Boss Vegan origin story, you know that health was a key driver in my own switch to veganism—but it has not been a cure-all and I would probably not have remained vegan if that were my only motivation.
I think ‘What The Health’ sets out the health argument for going vegan fairly well. However I fear the tactics it uses might backfire on people who aren’t already convinced.
Calling help line staff and presenting their responses as evidence of the failings of the organisations overall seems like a straw-man argument. It doesn’t give the audience true insight into the intentions of these organisations.
Failing to be more thorough about the potential pitfalls of a plant-based diet leaves the film open to the criticism of being uninformed. It also means individuals that are motivated by health improvement or weight loss could be disappointed if they switch to a plant-based diet because they don't understand it does require some planning to ensure a balanced diet.
Overall though, the message of WTH is strong—based on the available evidence plant-based diets are more healthy than a standard Western diet. Of course, there are many other huge benefits to a vegan diet, but it’s worth being reminded of the benefits to human health every once in a while.
Have you seen WTH? What did you think of it?