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Every now and then a movie comes along that's full of misinformation and sometimes infuriatingly wrong assumptions about food and health. What the Health is that movie right now.
This post is a bit on the long side, but you can certainly get by just reading the bullet points if you'd like.
Here's the big takeaway: People are made to eat meat, and sugar makes us sick.
The Science Behind the Top 10 Claims from What the Health
Every couple of years, a new “health” documentary pops up in the media or over dinner conversation. Nine times out of 10, the movie’s takeaway is that you should consume your vegetables in liquid form and eat soy burgers for the rest of your life.
What the Health, a Netflix documentary brought to you by the makers of Cowspiracy, is one of those documentaries.
Why respond to something so … not science?
Normally, something like this doesn’t even deserve a response, but some of the claims in this movie are downright harmful.
When controversial documentaries, articles, and conversations cross into your personal space, remember one thing:
If you present solid science, you don’t have to emotionally charge your audience with scenes of parents serving their children cigars wrapped in hot dog buns. Heavy-duty evidence stands on its own.
After watching What the Health, your friends start side-eyeing the hunk of butter you just plunked into your coffee. If you’re looking for some real science behind the claims in this movie, read on.
Here are the top 10 claims from What the Health and the real science behind them.
1. Meat is as dangerous as cigarettes
Nope. This is a claim that pops up in the news every couple of years, and my response is always the same: Not all meat is created equal – and some meats aren’t even good enough to be considered food.
But when someone lumps all meat together as being bad for you, regardless of quality, you can bet there’s more fear-mongering than science behind the claim.
In What the Health, the documentary’s anti-cheese meat-hating doctor Neil Barnard, M.D. sent researchers into fast food restaurants to test for carcinogens in their products. Surprise! They found carcinogens in every chicken sample they took.
In other news, water is wet.
Fast food chains are notorious for having the worst quality “meat” possible. Chicken McNuggets® contain more than 30 ingredients, including fillers, flavoring, and preservatives. Failing to distinguish between processed versus unprocessed, overcooked versus slow-cooked, and grass-fed versus industrially-raised meat is comparing apples to oranges. This point honestly doesn’t even deserve a rebuttal.
So, when the narrator compares processed meats to cigarettes, I tend to agree with him. Sodium nitrite-cured sausage made from meats raised in crowded, unsanitary conditions are terrible for you. But they are nothing like grass-fed beef raised on sustainable pasture without pesticides and antibiotics.
2. Fat causes diabetes, not sugar
This is one of the most irresponsible claims I’ve ever heard and could seriously hurt people.
Dr. Barnard gives the example of a cookie as a fatty food that leads to weight gain and diabetes. He claims the sugar is the lure and fat does all the damage. Actually, his literal claim is that “diabetes is not and never was caused by eating a high-carbohydrate diet.” Instead, he says diabetes is caused by a “buildup of fat in the blood” and that fat causes insulin resistance, not sugar.
This is blatantly and literally not true and defies all sense of logic, not to mention science.
You’ll get even more out of a low-carb or ketogenic diet by eating a truckload of vegetables and fresh herbs, cooking your food slow and low, and keeping your toxic load in check as laid out in the Bulletproof Diet.
Check out this excellent Bulletproof Radio episode with Dr. Perlmutter to learn more about sugar’s effects on your brain function.
3. Sugar is harmless
Dr. Neil Barnard rejects the notion that sugar causes diabetes. He says decisively that he doesn’t blame sugar, that it’s “fat in the blood” that causes insulin resistance and leads to diabetes.
Again, this idea goes against the very basics of physiology.
It assumes that sugar and fat go straight from mouth to bloodstream, without undergoing any sort of metabolism in between. Several metabolic steps happen after you ingest food that determine how it is used and where it ends up.
Research shows that reducing carbs and upping your fat intake reduces fat in your blood, which in turn lowers your risk of diabetes.
Another What the Health vegan author Dr. Garth Davis says sugar is stored as glycogen, not fat. There’s only a shred of truth to that. A small amount of sugar is stored as glycogen, but that has limits. If you have the most basic understanding of physiology, you know that fat is our energy storage mechanism. If you go overboard with carbs (once you add sugar into the mix, it does not take long to max out), it’s stored as fat and you develop insulin resistance or even non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
The film’s doctors shrug off sugar as an innocent bystander, but sugar does more than just make you fat:
- Sugar messes with your hormones. It tanks your testosterone and stimulates the release of cortisol and estrogen, which in excess leads to heart disease.If your heart makes it through these hormone shifts, sugar increases platelet adhesiveness which also leads to coronary heart disease.
- Sugar is highly addictive. It lights up the reward centers of your brain like drugs do, and is more addictive than cocaine. Just a couple weeks of a high-sugar diet increases fat in your blood, which elevates insulin and contributes to diabetes.
- It causes inflammation. The biggest problem with sugar is that it causes inflammation, and inflammation is the root of almost everything that could go wrong in your body. Inflammation causes cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and a lower carb diet reduces C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation.
4. Carbohydrate overload does not cause disease
Except it does. The last 50 years in the U.S. offers all the data you need.
As a population’s carbohydrate consumption increases, there’s an obvious increase in type 2 diabetes. There’s clear documentation that high carbohydrate diets have detrimental effects, and more and more doctors advise diabetic patients to stay low-carb. Similarly, blood sugar spikes from carbs increase the risk of coronary heart disease.
5. The only way to reverse disease is to stop eating animals and their byproducts
Don’t worry, the film’s producers sourced self-proclaimed “professional idiot” Steve-O to back this claim. If you recall, this guy is a Jackass, not a nutritionist. (This is not an attack. This guy literally lights himself on fire for money. But that’s kind of the extent of his professional experience.)
Instead of listening to the guy who staples index cards to his man parts, let’s see what researchers found about reversing diabetes and heart disease.
A quick search revealed piles and piles of studies that demonstrate that a lower carb diet improves blood glucose control and reduces diabetes medication better than eating a low fat, high-carb, grain-based diet. If you don’t have heart disease or diabetes but want to lose weight, low-carb works for that, too.
Not only that, a large randomized control study found that a low-carb diet was easier to stick to than a low-fat program, and the low-carb dieters lost more weight than the low-fat group. LDL cholesterol (the one you want to keep low) didn’t change much but HDL (the one you want to be high) jumped up in the low-carb group.
6. Eating one egg is equal to smoking five cigarettes
Without a reference to support it, this claim is nothing more than a scare tactic. Let’s see what the science says.
Researchers showed eating eggs improves coronary heart disease precursors and insulin sensitivity, which indicates the study participants’ likelihood of diabetes decreased. Additionally, researchers made no association between higher egg consumption and coronary heart disease or stroke. Plus, egg yolks contain choline, which is crucial for many biological processes and hard to come by in food.
Eggs are a fantastic source of nutrients, fat, and protein. Pastured eggs contain two and a half times the omega-3 fatty acids and twice as much vitamin E as eggs that cage-raised hens produce. Organic eggs are also rich in B vitamins and vitamin K. Comparing them to cigarettes is ridiculous.
7. Meat production is bad for the animals and environment
Yes. The crowded, unsanitary living conditions of factory farms harm the animals, pollute the environment, create antibiotic resistance, and sicken the people living near feedlots.
Once again, this isn’t the full story. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison.
Factory-farmed meats fall into the caution zone on the Bulletproof Diet Roadmapsince consuming the end product leads to inflammation and disease.
Here are some nutrition and environmental benefits of sustainable farming practices:
- The meat is better for you. Organically raised, grass-fed animals have a lower omega-6 to omega-3 ratio than conventionally raised meat. Too many omega-6 fatty acids cause cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.
- Fewer harmful toxins. Organically raised meat carries less toxic load from hormones and antibiotics. Bonus: it’s also more appealing in appearance and texture.
- It feeds our soil. Without animal poop, soil dies. Dead soil doesn’t efficiently hold water, and that causes flooding and erosion. More importantly, nutrient-void soil won’t grow vegetables. Plants don’t grow in dust, and without plants, you have nothing to eat.
- Great for the environment. Sustainably-raised animals maintain a symbiotic relationship with the environment. Plants and animals operate as a system, and without them both, you have to use fertilizers that disrupt the natural ecosystem.
8. Humans aren’t built to eat meat
The film’s narrator, Kip, and Dr. Milton Mills attempt to make the case that humans are frugivores, animals that eat mostly fruit, based on anatomy. A major argument was that the canine teeth are useless at ripping and tearing animal flesh. Kip demonstrated this by playfully nuzzling his cat and it didn’t die. :/
If you lick your pet and it survives, you didn’t exactly prove you can’t kill an animal. There’s plenty of anthropological evidence that we’re meant to hunt in groups and use tools to get the job done. People have dextrous hands, weapons, and hunting buddies. We don’t need huge fangs.
Plus, humans have the digestive features of an omnivore:
- Your digestive tract lacks the enzymes and digestive structures of an herbivore, but our intestines are longer than those of a carnivore. Its structure indicates humans break down quick energy foods like plants and can also handle the longer breakdown requirements of animal proteins and fats.
- Your body doesn’t neutralize phytic acid from grains and legumes like herbivores do. This is a problem because phytic acid binds to minerals and keeps you from absorbing them. In this case, that means you aren’t getting much of the iron, zinc, and calcium from the grains and legumes you eat. Phytic acid will also bind to those three nutrients in any other veggies you eat alongside grains.
- Several nutrients are more bioavailable to humans from animal sources, such as protein, vitamin K, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Dr. Mills also supports his claim that we are natural vegans by pointing out that fish smoothies are unappetizing. Seems legit.
9. Health organizations and their doctors are hiding something
Big-food sponsors of the American Diabetes Association and the American Cancer Society likely influence the organizations’ recommendations. We saw that with the American Heart Association’s absurd recommendations that we should eat more corn and peanut oil. I don’t trust these conglomerates either, but not for the same reasons the film says we shouldn’t trust them.
Kip makes several phone calls throughout the film. He grills the person on the other end about complex health issues, and when they put him on hold to refer him for an answer, the scene changes while Kip laments, “they weren’t able to answer my questions.”
Who exactly can’t answer these questions? The receptionist? The answering service? The janitor? Kip never tells.
He also doesn’t tell us what happened during follow-up communications. Hold on, let me refer you to the appropriate person. The end.
Tip: if you answer a call from Kip, you had better know everything about everything and answer while he’s rolling. It’s your only shot.
Whether he got a return call or not, he paid a visit to the American Diabetes Association. Kip’s interview with the Chief Medical Officer of the American Diabetes Association ended abruptly when Dr. Robert Ratner refused to enter into a discussion about recommended diets.
Dr. Ratner explained that the ADA does not endorse any one diet. When Kip hinted at his agenda, Dr. Ratner ended the conversation.
Kip assumed Dr. Ratner’s dismissal means the organization is hiding something. More likely, it wasn’t Dr. Ratner’s first rodeo and he didn’t want to go in circles with a militant vegan.
If you want to be vegan for religious reasons or because you think it’s mean to eat animals, do it in a way that will keep your blood sugar stable and inflammation down. People generally do well on a lower carb vegan diet. It takes careful planning to make sure you cover your essential amino acids, so work with a nutritionist if you don’t trust yourself to consistently plan week to week.
Personally, I don’t think it’s mean to eat animals. I keep animals here on the farm, and they have a pretty great life. If you find an ethical supplier, you can guiltlessly continue eating animal products.
The ethics of eating meat
I learned the ethics of eating meat from a Tibetan lama in a monastery high on the Tibetan plateau. Fresh off nearly a year of being a raw vegan, I accused the head of the monastery of being a hypocrite. How could they teach “no killing” and hang a yak skin from the prayer pole? With a twinkle in his eye, the wise llama said simply “one death feeds everyone.” We talked about it for a while. It turns out that you can eat a half a pound of beef from a grass fed cow and kill about 0.35 animals per year in total. You don’t need that much meat, and I don’t recommend it either. Animal fat is the real treasure. A soy burger kills dozens to thousands of animals depending on how you think of it, including bunnies, turtles, mice, ladybugs, butterflies, and lots of other animals killed by combines and habitat destruction.
The grass fed cow grazed on land that wasn’t suitable for agriculture without irrigation, and no animals died unless the cow accidentally stepped on a frog. No tractor kills because there are no tractors!
Writing the Bulletproof Diet and then Head Strong and interviewing more than 450 experts on Bulletproof Radio has convinced me more than ever that we are part of a complex system in the environment around us. We interact with it and it interacts with us. Most humans fail to thrive on vegan diets. That is a fact. Some humans do thrive on mostly vegetarian diets, depending on where they live on the planet because temperature, sunlight, and altitude are important variables.
But all of that research and all those interviews have taught me one thing – how to spot propaganda and what to do when you see it. The first thing you do is laugh and ask yourself whether people will fall for it. Then you dismantle it in case people actually do fall for it.
How to spot propaganda
This movie is propaganda from the people behind PETA who simply don’t give a crap about what is healthy for you. One of the people behind the movie went to jail for firebombing medical researchers. When I was studying in university, PETA was firebombing the biology department for doing research on chicken eggs. I oppose animal research the vast majority of the time, but I do not oppose chicken egg research.
My advice? Don’t take health advice from extremist propaganda. There are more reliable sources online.
That said, as a researcher and a journalist of sorts, I’ve got to hand to these guys. They did one hell of a job with this film – it’s slick, well-funded, and may even achieve its goal: to scare you so that you will stop eating animals and even animal products. Not because they care about your health and performance, but because they care about chicken eggs.
The Bulletproof lifestyle is different. We care about treating animals ethically which is why we don’t eat industrial meat. We also care about soil integrity which is why we eat grass-fed animals and butter and eggs. But more importantly, it’s about having the energy to do what you are here to do. It turns out that the Dalai Lama put it best:
Every day, think as you wake up, I am fortunate to be alive. I have a precious human life. I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all of my energy is to develop myself. To expand my heart out to others. To achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. I am going to have kind thoughts towards others. I am not going to get angry or think badly about others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can.
That means you owe it to yourself and the world to fuel your brain and your body so that you have the energy to fully honor your precious human life. And that means you’re going to eat more than vegetables. I wish it wasn’t that way, but it is.
Hope you enjoyed this post! Thanks for reading and stay Bulletproof.