Should I Go Vegan? A Response to “What The Health”
My “What The Health” Experience
“What The Health” was released on my birthday this year (March 7, 2017), but as much as I love health and nutrition, I don’t love movies, so I didn’t think twice about skipping it. Over the past few weeks, though, so many of my family, friends, and clients have asked me about the movie, told me they were going vegan because of the movie, told me they had no idea what to eat, and expressed their concern. When they started telling me claims made by the movie that went firmly against all of my nutrition knowledge, I knew I had to watch it. I went in with an open mind – I am always willing to learn and hear new viewpoints, even if they challenge my previously held beliefs.
Frankly, I’ve never been so frustrated by a movie. The blatantly false interpretations of actual science were made worse only by the scare tactics used to advance an obviously pre-existing agenda. I paused the movie every minute or so, furiously scanning PubMed for the actual studies behind the claims made in the movie (and then actually purchasing many studies that I couldn’t find available for public consumption), and so many times, I found that the movie twisted or simply misstated the actual conclusions of the studies. “How is the average American supposed to make sense of this movie?,” I kept thinking. “Surely we can’t expect everyone to spend five hours and hundreds of dollars poring over dense studies and coming to their own conclusions?” So here it is, my attempt to save you the time, money, and frustration of doing so by distilling what I believe to be the key lessons from this movie. Enjoy my response to “What the Health!”
My Top 8 Takeaways from “What The Health”
- We DO have a health problem on our hands. It is true that obesity, cancer, and diabetes in some way impact 70% of deaths in the US, and that many of these are lifestyle-related and in some way preventable. Nutrition is a huge component of this. Eating fast food and processed food is not helping our health in any way.
- Vegetables have always been, and will always be, your friends. The fact that the movie didn’t spend much time on what is healthy doesn’t change this. Simply put, vegetables are the healthiest and most nutrient-dense food group, and are a component of all healthy diets.
- Quality really matters when it comes to meat. When people cite studies saying that red meat causes cancer, the data often points to the fact that processed red meat increases your risk of cancer (and other chronic diseases). When quality is separated, high-quality, grass-fed, organic red meat in moderation does not come with the same health risks.
- Eggs are still healthy – yolk and all. When eaten in moderation, the cholesterol in egg yolks does not cause unhealthy blood cholesterol levels, and the yolk is rich in several nutrients that the white lacks.
- Sugar is still dangerous, addictive, and should be moderated. Claiming that sugar does not cause health problems is irresponsible and false.
- People vary widely in their ability to tolerate dairy. Approximately 75% of the world’s population has at least a mild intolerance to dairy. You have to experiment to see if you’re in this majority. If you tolerate dairy, choosing organic is very important, as it avoids the hormones and antibiotics that are rampant in commercial dairy.
- There are definitely problems with meat and dairy when it comes to funding public health organizations and impact on the environment. The movie appropriately lamented that organizations like the American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association get funding from the beef and dairy industries, as well as companies producing sugar-heavy food products. This is unacceptable and unfair, because it biases their public messages and health advice. Also, commercial farming (especially of cattle) is quite harmful to the environment, and sustainable, organic farming is significantly better for the planet and your body.
- You know your body best. Although I feel best on a plant-heavy diet that includes several weekly servings of eggs, fish, and poultry, as well as a serving or two per month of high-quality red meat, I don’t know your body better than you do. Our intuitions are powerful things here, and listening to what truly makes YOU feel best will take you far.
- But, be honest with yourself. Don’t tell me you’re healthy just because you’re vegan if your diet is composed of pasta with vegan “cheese” and gluten-free cupcakes (here’s a recent podcast that touches on the health risks of gluten-free substitutes!). And don’t tell me you’re healthy just because you’re getting enough protein when it’s coming from fast food burgers and chemical-filled protein shakes.
- We can be healthy (or unhealthy) vegans, vegetarians, or omnivores, and moderation is the key to nearly everything in regards to your health. Sure, being a healthy, thriving vegan is arguably harder (because you have to carefully balance food options to ensure you’re not overloading on processed carbohydrates and to ensure you’re getting enough protein from beans, nuts, and vegetables). But it is possible!
- No one thing causes cancer, so it’s irresponsible and untrue to say that you will get cancer if you eat some meat, or you will get cancer if you have 3 servings of vegetables per day instead of 8. Cancer is the result of a complex interaction of factors, not the result of one food decision. I’m highly confident that eating McDonald’s cheeseburgers twice a day every day will increase your risk of chronic disease, but I also feel strongly that a small, grass-fed steak once a month (in the context of a plant-filled, low-processed, nutrient-dense diet) will not alter your risk. YOU decide where the line is drawn for you.
A Few More Details, and My Recommended Consumption
- The claim that “eating an egg is just as bad as eating a sausage and cheese McMuffin” was the most infuriating to me. I purchased many studies to find exactly what the movie was citing, and I hope what I found convinces you of the scientific carelessness that the movie is based upon.
- The actual study (link here, but you won’t be able to see the full study unless you purchase it as I did) compares three groups, one eating oatmeal, one eating eggs, and one eating a sausage and cheese McMuffin. It showed that egg consumption had no effect on the important health markers studied (total cholesterol and LDL, commonly referred to as “bad cholesterol”) and that it was not statistically different from oatmeal in many other ways. Of course, as you would expect, eating the McMuffin proved to be unhealthy. This was a very small study (49 people for 6 weeks is hardly enough to base scientific conclusions upon), but the conclusions made by the movie are blantantly wrong. There is a difference between consuming eggs and consuming eggs in a McMuffin. I promise.
- See my 2014 post on this topic here.
- My recommendation: Stick to 2 yolks per day (14 per week), and supplement with egg whites as needed. If you have existing heart disease or significant existing cholesterol problems, stick to 1 yolk per day.
- See my 2014 post on this topic here. It pretty much sums up my thoughts and gives some additional research.
- My recommendation: Consume high-quality, organic chicken and turkey in moderation (1-2, 4-ounce servings per day). Consume high-quality fish as often as you’d like (see this video for a trick on how to select fish).
- My book, Start Here, has a whole chapter dedicated to the health risks of sugar, my top 15 sources of hidden added sugar, and how to reduce your sugar consumption.
- Sugar consumption is tied to weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, kidney disease, cardiovascular disease, and more. There are too many studies to list here (but see my book for many of them). I have no idea where Dr. Neal Barnard came up with the idea that sugar does not cause problems.
- A study of 175 countries showed that each 150 calorie increase in available added sugar caused a 1.1% increase in incidence of type 2 diabetes. The average American gets 16% of his calories (or about 363 calories per day) from added sugar. Enough said?
- See my 2016 post on this topic here.
- My recommendation: Limit as much added sugar as possible, staying well below
- Commercial dairy is laden with antibiotics and hormones. I highly recommend choosing organic if you are going to consume dairy.
- Dairy is quite inflammatory to many people, but most of us don’t realize it because we’re so used to consuming dairy. Most of my clients who eliminate dairy for a 7-14 day period and then reintroduce it become aware of the negative impact it has on their bodies (most often, they experience bloating, skin breakouts, poor digestion, and nausea upon reintroduction). I encourage you to try this elimination for yourself (another 10-Day Reset is coming up in September if you need support! Email me at Megan@TheLyonsShare.org to get notified when sign-ups open!).
- My recommendation: Most people feel best on a reduced-dairy or dairy-free diet (I know, I know, you love your cheese, and this one hurts!). You judge what makes YOU feel best, but choose organic when you can.
- Across the hundreds of studies and textbooks I’ve read, there are many varying conclusions on the “perfect diet” to prevent chronic disease, promote optimal health, manage weight, etc., but the one common thread in all successful diets is an abundance of leafy greens and nutrient-dense vegetables.
- The Mediterranean diet (high in vegetables, fruits, fish, and olive oil, with some meat, dairy, and grains) has one of the best success rates at lowering total mortality, cardiovascular disease, blood pressure, insulin resistance, inflammation, and more (see more here).
- A diet higher in vegetables has been shown to lower risk of heart attack, asthma, liver cirrhosis, kidney stones, arthritis, and so much more (one of many studies here).
- Antioxidants (which are prominent in vegetables) literally fight off oxidation and inflammation in your body that can build up to create or exacerbate conditions like atherosclerosis and cancer.
- My recommendation: Eat more vegetables! I aim for 8-12 servings per day. Start with a veggie pack today.
Is this still confusing?
If you want to talk through this and its implications on your diet, of course I will recommend my Health Coaching services. If you want to read more, here are several sources I’ve enjoyed:
- Bulletproof’s review of the science in “What The Health”
- A vegan dietitian’s review of “What The Health”
- Vox’s attempt at debunking the health claims in “What The Health”
- “To Eat Meat or Not To Eat Meat” video by Dr. Mark Hyman
A quick note: Food is emotional – it’s why I love my job. At least half my clients end up crying in my office … not because I’m mean, but because changing habits is hard, emotional eating is pervasive, we have so much self-worth wrapped up in what we can and cannot accomplish with our diets and our bodies. So please know that, no matter what your food preferences, this article is not meant as a personal attack on you, but rather my best attempt at presenting the most solid facts I can find. If YOU feel great, I’m not trying to change that … keep doing what you’re doing.
Now it’s your turn… Have you seen “What The Health”? If so, what did you think? If not, what do you think based on my review?