What the Health? Here’s what people are saying about the controversial Netflix documentary

If your nightly routine includes scrolling through a list of titles on Netflix, you’re in good company. In fact, Netflix has almost 100 million subscribers worldwide and thousands of rom-coms, action movies, television series and documentaries to instantly stream at the touch of a button. 

One documentary — food film What the Health — has been making waves lately. 

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Image courtesy of whatthehealthfilm.com

The documentary follows filmmaker Kip Andersen as he “uncovers the secret to preventing and even reversing chronic diseases – and investigates why the nation’s leading health organizations don’t want us to know about it… Audiences will be shocked to learn the insidious roles played by pharmaceutical companies, agribusiness, and processed animal food companies in the nation’s health, especially in the most vulnerable communities, and will cheer at the transformation and recovery of those who took their lives into their own hands,” states the film's website.

It’s a lofty declaration, but Andersen stands by his investigations and research. Some have applauded the film’s “transparency” and opted into entirely plant-based diets as a result. Others have critiqued the documentary for being “sensational” and “cherry-picking” information to support its claims.

So — let’s break it down.

What the supporters say

  • Actor Joaquin Phoenix, who is the film’s executive producer, said that despite considering himself a “very well informed (person) on the benefits of a healthy diet,” What the Health opened his eyes to the “sinister influence” of the pharma and processed food industries. He called the film’s findings the “largest cover-up of our time.”
  • A vegan restaurant owner in the meat-lovers city of Dallas, Texas said that within days of the film’s release she welcomed five new customers alone who said they’d decided to go vegan as a result of the documentary.
  • A pro-vegan doctor who was featured in the film said that while What the Health is not perfect — noting that “it is not a journal article,” that moving towards a plant-based diet is a “really good move.” He said that “if you’re standing on the edge of the swimming pool, sticking your toe in the water and noticing what a great time everyone is having… and wondering if you should dive in, the answer is yes, now is the time.” (In this case, the swimming pool = a vegan diet.)
  • This author watched What the Health and cut meat out of his diet the very next day. He calls the documentary “as enthralling as it is eye-opening.”

What critics say

  • Several health experts have disputed What the Health’s claims, including dietitian and nutritionist Mary Jane Detroyer who told the Daily Mail that it was "distorted science" to claim that one serving of processed meat a day hikes diabetes chances by 51 percent. "If you misrepresent something like that, I just can’t trust anything you tell me,” she said.
  • Vox reporter Julia Belluz said the film mischaracterizes what Americans know about food and disease. “Reflecting on a youth spent inhaling hot dogs and cold cuts, (Kip Andersen) asks, ‘Was this like I had essentially been smoking my whole childhood?’ No, Kip, not really,” she writes. While Belluz admits that we could all stand to eat less meat and pack more fruits and veggies into our diets, she said that What the Health “cranks the food fear sirens to irresponsibly high levels.”
  • Retired family physician Harriet Hall, MD, gave an in-depth review of the film topic by topic for sciencebasedmedicine.org. In summary, she called the documentary, spectacle - not science. “It cherry-picks scientific studies, exaggerates, makes claims that are untrue, relies on testimonials and interviews with questionable ‘experts,’ and fails to put the evidence into perspective.”
  • A vegan dietician wrote that while she appreciated that the film addressed topics like the pollution that comes from pig farms and the benefits that a diet rich in plant foods can provide, she wished the documentary had stuck to these observations and supported them with an informed discussion of evidence. “Instead, it cherry-picked the research, misinterpreted and over-stated the data, highlighted dubious stories of miraculous healing, and focused on faulty observations about nutrition science.”

Summary: What the Health created quite a stir and the debate over what it got wrong and what it got right is heated on both sides.

So, which side do you fall on? Or, maybe you don’t have an opinion either way. Have you watched What the Health? If so, what did you think about it?

Share any thoughts you have on the meat and pharmaceutical industries, medical science, veganism, and diet in general in the comments below or on Facebook — we’d love to start a discussion.

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