“What the Health” Documentary Critique

Animal products are a staple in the diet of many Americans. Most Americans eat things like cheese, eggs, and meat on a daily basis, but how does it affect their health? This was the main question that the documentary What the Health was trying to answer. While it is a well-structured and informative documentary, most of the focus is on the impact that eating animal products takes on our health, while it scarcely mentions the environmental impact of eating and supporting these products in comparison.

Despite no thorough investigation of the environmental effects, the audience still has an important takeaway message to listen to. If the viewers take the filmmakers seriously, they should be concerned about the number of animal products they consume and change their diet to something mostly plant based if they care about their health.

The documentary opens with a focus on diabetes; a very well-known illness, stating early on that there are over 300 million people that have diabetes around the globe.

While it can be noted that this statistic does not break the disease up into its two different types, it is important to know that type 2 diabetes is the most common with 1.4 million people being diagnosed with it in America alone each year (ADA, 2018). We have associated this prevalent disease with not meat, but sugar consumption for many years. According to Dr. Neal Barnard, sugar is not what we should be worried about “Diabetes is not and never was caused by eating a high-carbohydrate diet and it’s not caused by eating sugar.

The cause of diabetes is a diet that build up the amount of fat into the blood. I’m talking about a typical meat based, animal-based diet” (Anderson, Kuhn, & Phoenix, 2017).

My biggest critique is that even though the film’s focus is on animal products, the experts in the film seem to gloss over the effects of sugar, which can also be harmful to the body. Sugar is addictive in the same way cocaine is addictive and can even be more rewarding to the human brain than cocaine (Ahmed, Guillem, & Vandaele, 2013). Similarly, it is mentioned in the film that casomorphine proteins; derived from dairy, attach to the same receptors in the brain that heroin attaches to. Although right after this is mentioned one of the experts states that while dairy is addictive, it isn’t as addictive as heroin is to the brain (Anderson, Kuhn, & Phoenix, 2017). They focus on the addicting properties milk and other dairy is while skimming over sugar, even though it is more addictive to the human brain than dairy. Many processed foods have added sugar for flavor and texture among other things. Having a lot of sugar is an issue because as mentioned in the film, it has no nutritional value. However, it also adds empty calories which can lead to weight gain, which then can lead to heart disease and other issues (Mayo Clinic, 2019). Therefore, it frustrates me that the film barely mentions sugar and simply shrugs it off as something that has no nutritional value, while it is a health epidemic in itself. Sugar is terrible for us; it is an addiction that many people unknowingly have, and it can take tolls on our health whether the experts in the film want to talk about it or not.

While I didn’t like the film’s casual stance on sugar, I thought they did a good job of exposing the dangers and shortcomings of the animal-product industry with what little time they dedicated to the topic. Starting with the sanitary issues and then smoothly transitioning into some environmental issues such as an increase in greenhouse gases, ocean dead zones, runoff polluting water ways, and mass fish kills as a result of the pollution. I would have liked to see the filmmakers spend more time talking about the environmental impacts of supporting the animal-product industry, as well as the ethical issues with the treatment of livestock. It would have been nice to have the opinion of a few environmental scientists, and to hear them go into detail about the significant damage that the livestock industry has on the planet and the ozone layer. I also think more emphasis on how a plant-based diet is more sustainable for our planet might have been more convincing for some than focusing on the health benefits.

What I found to be very interesting were the testimonials from the people who were struggling with chronic illness. Most of these people, once introduced to an all plant-based diet were able to go off medication and overall felt better. I can personally attest to the fact that switching to an all plant-based diet can prevent heart disease as they claimed in the film. When it was discovered that I had high cholesterol my doctor told me that I needed to eat less meat, less fat and less carbohydrates and increase my intake of fruits and vegetables greatly. After doing this for a few weeks, I started to feel better and have more energy and my cholesterol levels dropped.

The film makes a convincing argument of why everyone should switch to a plant-based diet. They dispel the rumors that it is not protein packed enough and that it is not affordable by showing examples of elite vegan athletes and the cost of eating vegan. However, they do not account for those who live in food deserts. A food desert is an area of the country that is void of things like fresh produce and other whole foods due to a scarce number of grocery stores and farmers markets. They are usually found in poorer regions of the country (American Nutrition Association, n.a). So, while it seems like a vegan lifestyle is a sustainable choice for everyone, there are still people who will not have access to vegan foods due to factors out of their control.

What the Health is a persuading documentary that does a good job of exposing the health effects of eating animal products. While it provides strong scientific evidence of the disastrous effects eating animal products has on health, it does not go into enough details about the other issues with animal-based products such as the environmental and agricultural issues that are associated with it. What we can take from this film, is that changing to a plant-based diet will not only be good for our bodies, but our planet as well.

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