“What The Health!”

Two days ago, my uncle told me that he watched “What the Health“. He said that after watching the film, he felt for the first time like he needed to change his diet. I was immediately curious and decided to watch it on Netflix last night.

The purpose of the film is to present a plant-based (vegan) diet as the secret to preventing and even reversing chronic diseases – and to expose the corruption in government and business that keeps the public from adopting such a diet. I want to take a closer look at some of the facts used in support of the filmmaker’s arguments.

1. Approximately half of deaths are caused by cancer and heart disease(U.S.)

2. The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen – the same group as cigarettes and asbestos – and classifies red meat as a Group 2 carcinogen.

From the Frequently Asked Questions on the WHO website, the Group 1 category is used when “there is convincing evidence that the agent causes cancer”. The classification only describes the strength of scientific evidence, not the associated level of risk. In other words, consumption of processed meat has been classified in the same category as tobacco smoking and asbestos, but this does NOT mean that they are all equally dangerous. Furthermore, the Group 2 category is used when an agent is “probably carcinogenic to humans” but convincing evidence has yet to be found.

3. Cooked meats – including pork, fish and poultry – release chemicals that are carcinogenic.

When meats are cooked at high temperatures, especially over an open flame, heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which have been proven to cause cancer in animals, are formed. A definitive link between these chemicals and cancer causation in humans has not been found.

4. Meat consumption is a higher risk factor for diabetes and heart disease than consumption of alcohol, carbohydrates, or sugar.

5. Eating 1 egg per day is just as bad as smoking 5 cigarettes per day for life expectancy

Tl;dr: The amount of cholesterol in an egg yolk is unhealthy (100-200mg, 40-75% of the suggested daily limit) but not nearly as unhealthy as smoking 5 cigarettes per day.

In 2010, a Nurse’s Health Study was published outlining mortality risk factors – how lifestyle and dietary choices impact mortality. The study began in 1986 when researchers surveyed 50,112 female registered nurses in the United States aged 30-55. Follow-up questionnaires were sent to participants every two years until their year of death or 2004, whichever came first. A theoretical model, a Cox proportional hazards model, was used to compute hazard ratios for associations between each risk factor and mortality. Through this analysis, the researchers reported that smoking the equivalent of 1 pack/day for 46 years increased one’s risk of death by 108% (relative to never smoking) while consuming 105mg of cholesterol/day increased one’s risk of death by 17%. How Dr. Greger inferred from those results that the daily consumption of the amount of cholesterol in a single egg yolk cuts a woman’s life short by the same amount as smoking 5 cigarettes per day is beyond my understanding.

In the video linked above (see 5), Dr. Greger goes on to describe another study on the relationship between egg yolk consumption and carotid plaque. He correctly interprets that eating more than 3 eggs/week was found to significantly increase carotid plaque area, and that carotid plaque area increases exponentially with both pack-years of smoking and egg-yolk years, but I think he misinterpreted the definitions of pack-years and egg-yolk years. In the study pack-years are defined as the number of packs/day of cigarettes times the number of years smoking while egg-yolk years are defined as the number of egg yolks/week times the number of years consumed. Given these definitions, I struggle to see how even the most aggressive egg yolk consumers are exposing themselves to a risk equivalent to those that smoke a pack/day for 40 years or more.

6. The American Cancer Society, American Diabetes Association, and American Heart Association are sponsored by animal product and pharmaceutical companies.

At this point I could continue to investigate each argument that the film makes but I am starting to feel like I am beating my head against a wall – and I’m sure that you are too. The purpose of the last 6 points was twofold: to demonstrate that a plant-based (vegan) diet is generally healthier than a diet heavy in animal products, but that the filmmaker’s have significantly dramatized the facts.

All of the health risks associated with animal-based diets make sense when you understand that our bodies were designed by evolution for a plant-based diet. Given that there doesn’t seem to be a nutritional advantage to consuming animal products, why are we wasting resources raising animals as a food source? If all of the nutritional value in animal products originally comes from their food – plants – then why don’t we just eat the plant?  Both of these points make complete sense to me now that I have seen “What the Health” but I am somewhat confused as to why I didn’t come to these realizations on my own. I suppose that I never really stopped to think about my diet and I certainly wasn’t exposed to these ideas in my daily life – proof that the money animal product and pharmaceutical companies are spending is serving its purpose.

To be fair, I don’t think that there is anything inherently wrong about consuming animal products. It is the quantity in which we consume them, and subsequently the way in which they are produced, that are the issues. If we were to move back to diets that are 80-90% plant-based we and our environment would be much healthier – saving an extraordinary amount on healthcare and resource costs. Maybe incentivizing plant-based diets should be at the forefront of the Republican’s new Better Care Reconciliation Act.