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Nutrition Documentaries: The Good, Bad and The Ugly

by Casey Douglass

Photograph courtesy of "What the Health" film

This year on March 7, filmmaker Kip Anderson released a jaw-dropping new nutrition and wellness documentary called “What the Health.” Since then, social media platforms (and the entirety of the interweb itself) have been clogged with arguments, some refuting and some supporting, the claims of the documentary.

“What the Health” (WTH) makes some alarmist accusations against animal products, and in the most basic sense, it argues for absolute veganism. The documentary claims to be “the health film that health organizations don't want you to see.” It cites a slew of scientific studies that paint an ugly picture for food items such as chicken, beef, cold cuts, fish, dairy, etc… Essentially, anything non-plant-based was given a big red BAD stamp. Some of Anderson’s more memorable claims are that,“eating an egg a day is as bad as smoking five cigarettes” and “eating processed meats is as bad a habit as smoking.”

Hearing statements such as those mentioned above can be jarring and frightening. However, as many a wise man has said: don’t trust everything you read on the Internet. I’d like to propose the following amendment: Don’t trust everything you read on the Internet or watch on Netflix.

According to an article written by investigative journalist Nina Teicholz, author of the International and NYT bestseller The Big Fat Surprise, Anderson made a total of 37 health claims in WTH. Though he used a whopping 85 documents to support these claims, only one percent of the studies cited provide a final data set that, in totality, definitively supports Anderson’s claims. An additional two percent of studies propose a final data set that might support the filmmakers claims. This evidence leaves over 90 percent of Anderson’s claims unsupported.

Ms. Teicholz does admit that she is biased toward a balanced diet that includes meat consumption. However, she directly links “What the Health’s” claims back to the source in an explanatory and fully transparent way that the documentary itself does not. A quick background scan of WTH’s referenced studies shows that most were small, inconclusive case studies, were developed by biased vegan researchers, or were picked apart and twisted to support “What the Health’s” argument, even though their final conclusions were extrapolated.

This is not to say that “What the Health” entirely misses the mark. Almost everyone can agree that whole grains, nutrient-dense starches, fruits, vegetables and legumes are beneficial to your wellness. Its overarching desire to encourage people to consume more vegetables is not unjust and not, in and of itself, a negative standpoint. Broccoli is good. Apples are good. Hearty grains are good. Micronutrients are wonderful. However, when an argument is peppered with fear-mongering assertions, evident bias, and inconclusive evidence, one must ask the question: Is the information I’m receiving factual, and is it going to inspire a positive change in my life?

While WTH focuses on criminalizing animal products, another prominent documentary, called “Fed Up,” takes on an adverse standpoint. Its position is adverse specifically in that, while WTH claims that sugar consumption does not cause diabetes/carbohydrates cannot make someone overweight, Fed Up argues just the opposite. As stated in its personal Netflix description, “Fed Up” is an, “eye-opening documentary [that] examines the underlying causes of childhood obesity.” Namely, added and processed sugars. It makes broad, sweeping claims about American’s consumption of sugar and the consequential negative effect said consumption has on our health. Most of the populace already understands that an abundance of processed, refined sugar in one’s diet is detrimental to the human body as a whole—this is inarguable. But the documentary falls short of fact on several other levels.

As with “What the Health”, “Fed Up” is punny, buzzy, and easy to digest. Similarly to What the Health, Fed Up does not look at the big picture and instead views aspects of nutrition as several microorganisms rather than one whole ecosystem.

“Fed Up’s” argument fails to account for the overall increase of calories consumed by Americans, calories which are composed of nutrients other than sugar. The “Fed Up” producers interviewed mostly media influencers such as journalists and politicians rather than true nutrition experts, such as registered nutritionist dietitians.

“What the Health”, “Fed Up” and similar documentaries have become fodder for casual nutritionists, aggressive carnivores or arrogant vegans, and those quick-fix health product distributors that claim their shake/wrap/bar will revolutionize your life. They cite it in the media posts, their verbal arguments, and overall hail it as the truth. The danger therefore lies in the perpetuation of false information in frightening and (often condescending) ways, none of which is beneficial to the human populace as a whole. In an age of virality, unsupported nutrition claims can wreak havoc on anyone looking to jumpstart a healthier tomorrow- mentally, physically, and emotionally.

Therefore, regardless of whether you are a vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, meat-fancying omnivore, low carb lover, organic obsessor, and/or anything in between, I implore that you take nothing stated in nutrition documentaries (or general claims) at face value. Do not simply ingest and accept the information that fits your personal model of what is truth and what is not. The grandiose, horrifying claims made by many biased activists will have you believing that you’re one lollipop/hamburger/day away from an early grave.

Watch out for opinion statements. Watch out for word choice: correlation versus causation. Remember, correlation and causation are not one in the same. Look out for credible experts and a wealth of supporting longitudinal/generalizable information. Lastly, watch out for scare tactics, because more often than not, in the absence of facts and solid science, fear is used to fill the space.

More than anything, nutrition is a balancing act. Be a mass consumer of information, but a mass digester as well. Understand and evaluate what you learn through multiple channels and establish healthy, maintainable habits from there. Eat wholesomely, eat colorfully, eat diversely. Eat to fuel your lifestyle. And sometimes, eat the bacon, the donut or the bacon-covered-donut, because it’s just plain tasty.

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