A vegan friend recently sent me the link to What the Health with the hashtag #nutritionfacts. After clicking on the link to some of the supposed “facts” of the documentary, currently airing on Netflix, it struck me that perhaps #alternativefacts was more apt (although I really can’t imagine KellyAnne Conway, Sean Spicer or Donald Trump espousing veganism).
The arguments for and against veganism are often so emotive that truth becomes collateral damage. That is certainly the case with What the Health, made by the vegan activists who made Cowspiracy.
What the Health does make some valid points including concerns about the influence of Big Food on dietary recommendations and about poor farming practices, which can be both inhumane and bad for the planet.
But such truths sit alongside distortions of truth, skewing our perception of what is and is not fact.
The makers cherry-pick science, use biased sources, distort study findings and use “weak-to-non-existent data” to make claims such as eating one egg a day is the equivalent of smoking five cigarettes. They show provocative images of a mother sauteeing cigarettes in a frying pan to serve to her young children for breakfast (in place of meat, which is also apparently as “bad as cigarettes”).
It is true that, regardless of your diet of choice, eating more greens is good for us and eating mostly plants while reducing our intake of animal foods and processed foods has a range of health benefits.
This is a far cry from the suggestion that veganism is the only answer for health, for ethics and for the survival of our planet. In fact, as far as ethics and the environment go, there are numerous arguments that eating meat and animal products is entirely natural but can be done in a more ethical and sustainable way (AKA conscientious omnivory). Suggestions include reducing our intake by 50 per cent while increasing the quality and supporting small, local farmers.
Veganism is just one option. Sensationalising the subject doesn’t help any of us make educated decisions about our diets or help either side put down the picket lines to find common ground: our own health, the health of the planet and humane treatment of animals.
“Unpacking a topic like this involves shades of grey, and if I’ve learnt anything about human behaviour, it’s that we, as a species, do not do well in the grey. Black/White, Left/Right, Vegan/animal murderer,” says Robb Wolf, a research biochemist and former review editor for the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism and Journal of Evolutionary Health.
Dr Joanna McMillan says that part of the problem with documentaries like What the Health is the reduction to binaries as the filmmaker tries to sell their story or argument.
“To me it’s the usual product of those who are filmmakers and not nutrition scientists or trained in any aspect of medicine or science, therefore not trained or qualified to make sense of scientific research,” McMillan says.
“I share concerns over the impact of big business on our food choices and the impact of food choice on the environment. But so much of the language is simply to drive emotions – calling cheese ‘coagulated cow pus’ is just ridiculous!”
As far as the health claims go, on the one hand there’s the argument that no human population has been recorded surviving (or thriving) for multiple generations on a vegan diet and that it is nutritionally insufficient. On the other hand, there is the environmental/ethical argument and there are thriving vegans like athlete Rich Roll.
“From a nutrition science stance you could pick out studies that support both carnivorous and vegan diets for good health,” McMillan says. “And the bottom line is that you can have healthy and unhealthy versions of both. For example a meat eater who doesn’t eat enough plant food and consumes too much junk – or a vegan who relies on packaged vegan foods or raw vegan cakes that pack in the kilojoules into every mouthful.”
She explains that while vegans may be more at risk of some deficiencies, a good diet and supplementation for long chain omega-3s (“you can get algal supplement for this”), B12 and taurine help.
There is also the fact that we respond differently to different foods and diets (dairy, for instance, is perfectly healthy for some while for others it is not).
“Your genetics, our environment (how much we exercise, where we live, exposure to toxins and so on), our habitual diet, the diets of our mothers and grandmothers (and probably parental line too but stronger evidence for material line) and our microbiome (which changes in response to diet and environment too),” McMillan explains. “Then there are personal preferences and moral/religious beliefs. All these things matter and have to be taken into account to pull together the best diet for an individual.”
Whether you choose to follow a vegan, vegetarian, paleo, flexitarian or any of the seemingly endless array of diets or food combinations, we all need to ensure we eat enough plants and minimise processed foods.
And we all deserve to have facts, not alternative facts, on which to base our decision.
“So bottom line is I would ignore the hype,” McMillan advises. “Don’t get your nutrition information from sensationalist documentary filmmakers and bring it back to basics – eat real food, less junk and in appropriate amounts.”