I Watched The Documentary What the Health and Now I Don’t Even Know Anymore

You know, I thought I had a decent lay of the land when it comes to health–some working assumptions that have guided my eating habits for the past few years. I didn’t think those would change any time soon: sugar is bad, simple carbs are kinda bad, vegetables are great, meat is probably bad, dairy is meh. It kind of ended there.

Of course I’m always learning more, but I didn’t expect to encounter half of what I did in the documentary What the Health, which is currently streaming on Netflix. And I suppose now that I think about it, it was pure naivety that caused my jaw to stay dropped for 90 minutes straight while watching this film.

I’ve seen enough health and food documentaries to know how the food industry works in this country. Still, I was optimistic. I just expect people to be good! I don’t expect egg industry executives to send joking emails about murdering the CEO of an egg alternative company because it posed a threat to their bottom line! I don’t expect hog farmers to deposit farming waste in low-income rural areas of North Carolina, causing asthma and even cancer in its residents! I don’t expect the American Heart Association, a nonprofit, to accept millions in donations from companies like Oscar Mayer, which make heart disease- and cancer-causing foods!

Simply put, after watching this documentary, I CAN’T. 

But I don’t necessarily believe all of the claims made in the movie. The central one is that owing to the farming practices and latest health research on dairy, meat and eggs, we shouldn’t be eating any of these foods. Doesn’t matter if they’re organic. The filmmakers (who also made the film Cowspiracy) claim that organic isn’t going to save us from the high amounts of hormones, cholesterol, saturated fat, casein, etc, etc, in these products. Moreover, these three powerful industries are proven to have a financial stake in the health claims and advice that even well-meaning nonprofits are providing us. To wit, when the filmmaker explored the websites of the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association, all three seemed to be promoting meat, eggs and dairy more heavily than most food groups. Wha? OK, I’m listening.

But the film also makes the claim, with the help of several researchers and doctors, that sugar isn’t causing diabetes and that the carbs in things like muffins alone aren’t bad for us–it’s the saturated fat and cholesterol in the butter and eggs in those muffins. I just don’t buy this. We know what sugar does to our bodies, and I still believe it’s the combination of carbs and fat that is deleterious, not the fat on its own.

The evidence of environmental racism the film uncovered in North Carolina is hard to look away from (Mother Jones has more on that situation). Even if the jury was still out on what eating pigs does to us (and it isn’t), the toll that pig farming is wreaking on this one community is reason enough to quit eating meat. Tracking where all your food is sourced from is not impossible, but is difficult and, to my mind, more stressful than just abstaining in the first place.

What the Health definitely wants to make the case that veganism is the future, and the research it features pushes that case hard. Still, there is eye-opening information in this film that is worth hearing, and parsing for yourself. I’ve been a mostly-vegetarian for a few years, but after seeing this film, I’m now seriously committed to it.

Have you seen this film or do you plan to? Thoughts?

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