Straight, No Chaser: Reviewing (the Claims Made within) the Netflix Documentary "What The Health"

Per your request, I’ve looked at the movie “What the Health,” which apparently is all the rage and significantly promoting conversion to a vegan diet. Now I really have little interest in reviewing movies, but in this instance, I am very interested in reviewing a few of the claims that were presented in it. In general, I found it an even more interesting exercise in filmmaking than a commentary about health, but the attempts are interesting enough to warrant a serious commentary in this space. Simply put, regarding the movie, it was all too obvious that it was agenda-based, and the movie is a horribly constructed attempt to draw linear relationships between considerations that are much more complex than presented. The movie’s bias and subsequent problems were clearly revealed within the first few moments of it…

You lost me at “I’m a recovering hypochondriac.”

However, in the spirit of “a blind squirrel occasionally finds a nut,” there are some principles that are very important to consider and try to understand.

  • We all would do well to follow a plant-based diet. However, following a plant-based diet is not the same as becoming a vegan or vegetarian. It should involve an understanding that the most fundamental way to health is through generous portions of fruits, vegetables and water, not through any meats and fluids that have been chemically manipulated in the way these things occur today.
  • The next time you’re looking for a “fad” or preferably healthy eating, think more about fiber and less about protein. Remember: most any actual diet will work if you stick with it.
  • Being comfortable about your appearance at a certain weight should not translate to your deceiving yourself into being oblivious about the health consequences of being overweight or obese.

To its credit, this movie illustrates many problems with the conversations that surround healthcare:

  • Physicians and others in academic medicine often are unable to clearly communicate with the patients and the lay population.
  • The lay population often completely misinterprets medical information and lacks the ability to critically analyze the body of medical research.
  • There is an extremely uncomfortable involvement of the pharmaceutical and food industries with the entities tasked with protecting our health interests.

Perhaps the greatest faux pas of the movie is the way it “mocks” moderation. Again, this clearly demonstrates an all-too-common problem medical professionals have in appreciating the role health has in people’s lives. I have long described health as a currency, not an absolute. Each of us chooses to “spend” our health on the items that are of value in our lives. Thus we occasional engage in habits that would be deemed “unhealthy” by an absolutist (e.g. eating desert, having an occasional drink or cigar). However, these types of actions are needed by many to maintain “quality of life,” regardless of the health consequences. The medical community would do well to respect the feelings of the general population along those lines and work with patients to customize care to promote both health and quality of life.
Another major mistake is the overstatement on the condition of our population’s general health. Although it is very accurate to suggest targeted efforts are needed in eradicating the health consequences for specific individuals and communities affected by the business practices of the food and pharmaceutical industries, and obesity and heart disease are ravaging the health of individuals, it demonstrates a lack of honesty to not also report that the life expectancy of the general population has dramatically improved over the last few generations and continues to improve. What this means for you as an individual is you do in fact have an opportunity to improve your individual condition and life expectancy by adhering to a plant-based diet that is high in fiber, but to present our collective circumstances as gloom and doom unless we all immediately eschew all meats is a bridge too far and ignores public health data.

There are two final points that bear discussion, and I will do so in tandem and in summary. One scene that was meant to be especially damning in the movie was centered on the refusal of the Chief Medical Officer of the American Diabetes Association (ADA) to discuss the role of diet and diabetes, as if diabetes can be eliminated in two weeks by adhering to a plant-based diet (please don’t be that gullible). The point the filmmaker couldn’t seem to understand was actually rather clear: there is infinitely more data proving the treatment of disease (relative to diabetes and heart disease) than there is definitive data proving the specifics of a diet that will specifically and universally prevent diabetes and heart disease. The filmmaker’s effort to push a narrative of collusion between the food industries and groups like the ADA and the American Heart Association was quite transparent. To whatever extend that narrative may be true, the effectiveness of the point was minimized by the tactics of the filmmaker.
In fact, the key to life, health and the pursuit of happiness is recognizing in many examples, it is about moderation. With the exception of specific, immediate life-threatening toxins, most of the items in your diet aren’t all bad. For example, a certain amount of fat is needed within the body as a conduit to help absorb required vitamins. Similarly, carbohydrates are needed for energy.
If you’re looking for a takeaway from the movie or how to apply all that was thrown at you in the movie, keep it simple.

  • Appreciate that everything you place in your mouth either helps or hurts you. Make better food choices and make efforts to migrate toward a higher intake of plants and foods that increase fiber.
  • Drink water!
  • Don’t rely on medicines for your health. If your interest in your health begins at the point in which you’ve developed a disease, you’re too late.
  • If you focus on your health, yes you will begin to eliminate toxins and introduce incremental improvements regarding whatever is ailing you, but please don’t believe your lifelong ailments will magically disappear. The more important point is to get a plan, get focused, get started, and keep at it. You will see the difference.

It stands to reason that I should point out that Straight, No Chaser is no in any way supported or influenced by corporate sponsorship.
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