What’s up with What the Health?

As many of you may have heard, there is a popular documentary floating around Netflix called, What the Health? It aims to persuade the viewer that a plant based, no animal product diet is the best diet for optimal health. It even suggests that meat consumption is the root cause of many chronic diseases. As a dietitian, I tend to have mixed feelings about nutrition documentaries. I like the fact that nutrition documentaries gets the general public interested in nutrition. Unfortunately, nutrition documentaries suffer from a few issues. They often paint the picture in a very one sided manner and tend to take a biased look at the available research to fit their message. They also make sensational claims that have the potential of causing more harm than good.

Unfortunately, What the Health, like many nutrition documentaries before it, suffers from these issues in a big way. Several claims in the documentary had some great evidence. Others not so much. I often found myself puzzled at many of the sensational claims made. That’s when I decided to look at the fact sheet of the film. The fact sheet organized all of the claims made in the film with the accompanying evidence. It was the perfect starting point to investigate if there were any truths to these sensational claims.

Here are top 3 of the most puzzling claims from the What the Health fact page.

1. If you eat meat, the chances of getting diabetes are about 1 in 3

The first claim refers to a study done in 2009. The study investigated the relationship between GRS (genetic risk score) and typical western diet on type 2 diabetes risk. The typical western diet is what you would call a junk food diet. It was defined as, “loaded heavily with red meat, processed meat, refined grains, sweets and dessert, French fries, and high-fat dairy products.” The study found that, “Genetic predisposition may synergistically interact with a Western dietary pattern in determining diabetes risk in men.(2)” The group that had a higher GRS and ate the typical western diet had a higher chance of getting diabetes while the diabetes risk for those who had a low GRS was not significant. The authors then conclude, “Our findings suggest that the adoption of a Westernized diet may increase diabetes risk, especially among the genetically high-risk population.”

So they found that a junk food diet increased the risk of diabetes for those who already had a high genetic risk. That’s interesting but that doesn’t sound like evidence for the claim that eating meat raises your chances of getting diabetes by 33%.

2. If you eat meat, chances of getting cancer if you’re a man 1 in 2, if you’re a woman 1 in 3

The next claim refers to an article from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Just a brief heads up. The National Council Against Health Fraud has criticized PCRM as being “a propaganda machine.” The American Medical Association has called PCRM a “pseudo-physicians group” that promotes possibly dangerous nutritional advice. That’s not a very good reputation to have. Anyways, the article refers to a study published in 2005 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.  The study found the group with the highest red meat and processed meat intakes had about 30 to 40 percent higher colon cancer risk for women and 50 percent for men compared to those with lower intakes.(1) That seems pretty significant and cause for concern.

There’s one small detail the article fails to mention. When the researchers adjusted for factors such as smoking, BMI, and physical activity, higher red meat and processed meat intake did not associate with a higher risk for colon cancer. These are some pretty important lifestyle factors to account for. When you include these factors, the claim that eating meat can increase cancer risk by 50% in men and 33% in women doesn’t quite hold up.

3. If you eat meat, you’re chances of gaining weight about 2 in 3

The final claim refers to a YouTube video and an article from the Environmental Working Group. The video talks about a study that was published in Diabetes Care in 2009. The study found that vegans had lower BMI and risk of type 2 diabetes than the individuals who ate some type of animal product (4). Those are some pretty interesting findings. While I was reading the study’s conclusion, the authors mentioned something pretty interesting. The vegan group ate 33% more fruits and vegetables than the other groups. That’s a pretty significant amount.

Fruits and vegetables have so many documented health benefits that it’s no wonder the group who ate a third more had lower BMI and a lower risk for getting type 2 diabetes. It’d be interesting to see what would happen if all the groups ate equivalent amounts of fruits and vegetables.

Overall Thoughts

Overall, What the Health has some good intentions but unfortunately ends up being a mixture of fact and fiction with more of the latter. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t bring up some great points. For instance, they are 100% correct when they say we all need to incorporate more plants into our diet. Research continues to show that a plant based diet is optimal for health and longevity. Everyone can benefit from having a majority of their diets coming from plants.

On the other hand, plant-based does not mean that you have to ONLY eat plants for a long, healthy life. Even though the documentary makes it seem that we are destined for a lifetime of disease for eating meat, don’t freak out. While there are benefits associated with solely plant based diets, the research has shown you can reap similar health benefits with a plant based diet that also incorporates some animal products. For instance, the Mediterranean diet (a diet based around fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, olive oil, poultry, and fish) has some pretty promising evidence supporting it as a great nutrition strategy for health and longevity. A meta analysis found adhering to the diet was associated with a 9% reduction overall mortality (3). That’s just a small piece of the larger body of evidence showing that a plant based diet containing some animal products can also be beneficial for your health.

Summing it all up

To be clear, it’s by no means a necessity to include animal products in a person’s diet. My point is that a healthy diet can contain animal products if desired and you are not wrong or setting yourself up for a lifetime of disease for doing so. Ultimately, choosing to include or exclude animal products should be a personal choice, not one influenced by fear and paranoia.

At Studio Element, we preach personalization when it comes to our nutrition approach.  Many of our Fuel clients have seen excellent results adopting this approach! For a more personalized nutrition plan feel free to contact us today!


  1. Chao, A. (2005). Meat Consumption and Risk of Colorectal Cancer. Jama, 293(2), 172. doi:10.1001/jama.293.2.172
  2. Qi, L., Cornelis, M. C., Zhang, C., Dam, R. M., & Hu, F. B. (2009). Genetic predisposition, Western dietary pattern, and the risk of type 2 diabetes in men. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 89(5), 1453-1458. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2008.27249
  3. Sofi, F., Cesari, F., Abbate, R., Gensini, G., & Casini, A. (2008). Adherence to Mediterranean diet and health status: meta-analysis. BMJ. Retrieved July 20, 2017, from http://www.bmj.com/content/337/bmj.a1344
  4. Tonstad, S., Butler, T., Yan, R., & Fraser, G. E. (2009). Type of Vegetarian Diet, Body Weight, and Prevalence of Type 2 Diabetes. Diabetes Care, 32(5), 791-796. doi:10.2337/dc08-1886



Written by: Jesus Hernandez RDN, LD

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