What the Health: A nutrition student breaks it down for us
Before viewing What the Health, I had some idea of what to expect from a film that some critics have called a distortion of the truth. As someone who studied nutrition in college I expected to watch with a skeptical, even detached, eye. So I was unprepared for how disheartening it was to watch the sheer volume of footage about seldom spoken about practices on factory farms. I know a number of people who have given up eating meat as a result of watching this film, which was released last year. Now I know why.
The documentary challenges conventional thinking about the place of animal protein in our diets. I can relate to this. In my college nutrition classes there was never much emphasis on the negative impacts of a diet high in animal products. The most important meat-related message was to limit saturated fats in our diet, which are mainly found dairy and meat, because they are not a necessary nutrient.
“The most compelling part of the movie is how it reveals evidence of a plant-based diet’s power to prevent and reverse many diet and lifestyle related diseases.”
The amount of protein we need, and the importance of getting it from meat and dairy, is the most misleading notion Americans have been fed, according to the movie. Not only don’t we need animal protein to be healthy, but sufficient amounts can be found in almost all other non-animal foods (vegetables, grains, legumes). When you sit down to eat an eight-ounce piece of chicken, not only are you exceeding your daily protein needs by nearly half in one sitting, you’re also missing out on a bunch of essential nutrients from non-animal foods you could have eaten instead.
I understand where this misunderstanding comes from. Nutrition education in American public universities is based on science from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Its affiliate, the USDA, uses that science to create MyPlate, which shapes the American diet. MyPlate guidelines never exactly says “eat meat for protein.” But it isn’t exactly saying, “please cut back on meat” either. When the USDA says, “eat protein,” people turn to meat.
The USDA has also done a good job of convincing us that cow’s milk is the key to growing healthy and strong bones. According to the many studies cited in the movie, that just isn’t true. In fact, there’s good evidence to suggest those who consume cow’s milk are actually more prone to broken and fractured bones. That’s because milk consumption is associated with oxidative stress and inflammation, thus weakening our bones. Of course, we need calcium and vitamin D to build strong bones. We just don’t need to get these nutrients from milk.
“I wish something like this had been introduced into my college classrooms to force a deeper, more comprehensive conversation among dietetic and nutrition majors.”
For me, the most compelling part of the movie is how it reveals evidence of a plant-based diet’s power to prevent and reverse many diet and lifestyle related diseases. In fact, consumption of animal products has been linked in many studies to various cancers, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases. It also presents a number of cases of people who’ve managed to reverse these diseases with a plant-based diet.
One major argument against giving up or cutting back on meat is vitamin B-12, which is found in animals. However, it is needed in very small amounts for proper bodily functioning, plus it’s actually better to get it from fortified foods, such as cereal or vitamins, since those aren’t packaged with unhealthy amounts of saturated fats, or any of the other adverse effects of eating meat. This is essentially what the documentary is getting at—that the science suggests we limit animal products, yet our health organizations and practitioners aren’t enforcing that idea.
Director Kip Anderson does exaggerate, or at least misinterpret, at least a few of the scientific findings behind the effects of eating animals. For example, a review by Vox highlights Anderson’s claim that eating an egg a day is equivalent to smoking five cigarettes. In fact, the effect eggs have on our cholesterol isn’t as detrimental as once presumed. But despite the occasional exaggerated findings, the movie does an effective job drawing a parallel between the average American diet and the suffering and serious health problems experienced by the average American, especially later in life.
The movie affirmed for me many things I already know about health and nutrition. In the last few years I’ve weaned myself off a high-meat, high-protein diet, and it has been very good for me. I feel better, sleep better, think more clearly and, in general, have a much better relationship with food. So the documentary didn’t change my thinking about the importance of a plant-based diet.
The movie did make me think more broadly about the devastating environmental and social impacts of the meat industry in America. And it made me wish something like this had been introduced into my college classrooms to force a deeper, more comprehensive conversation among dietetic and nutrition majors. I know it would have made many of us see food as not just a personal choice, but a social one. One that has the power to impact the world around us in more ways than many of us sitting in those classrooms could have guessed.