“What the Health” and the Religion of Nutrition

A somewhat controversial outlook on the documentary “What the Health” from Netflix.

It’s 5:15am and I am sitting at my computer after being woken up from a deep sleep filled with rage. I will admit, I am regularly full of rage these days likely related to the pregnancy hormones coursing through my veins. The rage tends to pour out of me over the tiniest things, like my husband eating the last of my Trader Joe’s “special” chocolate.

But, today, the rage woke me up and told me to get out of bed. It told me to sit at this computer, write this piece, and allow the words to flow out, so maybe the rage has a chance to express itself in a way that doesn’t involve throwing beer bottles at the living room wall. (True story, which occurred during my last pregnancy, poor poor husband).

I am going vegan!

Anyway, here it is. This weekend my Facebook feed was filled with people declaring “I am going vegan!” after watching the new Netflix documentary called “What the health”. And this has me enraged and up at 5am.

First, I will admit, I tried to watch this documentary last week. But, after about 10 minutes and a ludicrous statement that said “eating one egg is the same as smoking 5 cigarettes” I had to turn it off. I am struggling with controlling my hormone-induced anger and this movie full of insane nutrition-related LIES and half-truths was not helping me stay calm.

Anyway, I wanted to write a few things about the information in this movie from the perspective of someone who has dedicated 15 years of her life to the study of nutritional science. I understand that these days nutrition is more like a religion than science. Most people don’t care what science says really, they are more swayed by catchy click bait headlines or super persuasive nutrition “experts” who are fantastic at marketing, but spew copious amounts of questionable advice.

First, if you are looking for an evidence-based rebuttal to the documentary Robb Wolf did a great job in this article. It’s long, but worth the read if you are one of the few that is concerned about what science actually says. But, most people, like I said, really don’t care and just want to follow advice that “feels” good. Before you convert to veganism or start the latest diet being preached by your favorite guru, let me tell you a few facts about human nutrition and why you should do neither.

1. Nutrition is hard to study.

Nutrition science does not lend itself easily what is considered the “gold standard” of research, which is a double-blind randomized control study to determine causation and not correlations or connections. This is a big problem because, without these types of studies, we will NEVER be able to fully determine what the “perfect” diet is. Here’s why:

Let’s say you want to do research on which fruit is better pineapples or apples. In order to do that properly, you would need to take your subjects, divide them into two random groups and feed 1/2 pineapples and 1/2 apples for a period of time. The problem is, you can’t do a “blind” study on food because people and the researchers can see what they are eating. Its not like a pill where you can make the placebo and experimental pill look the same. Pineapples and apples look and taste completely different. The fact the researchers and subjects know which group they are in automatically biases the results.

Therefore, all we are left with is epidemiological studies, where people are followed over a period of time to see what diseases they develop and researchers try to find connections. But, these studies are problematic because they rely on people self-reporting what they are eating and almost everyone lies. Its impossible to get a real idea of what someone is eating without locking them up and controlling 100% of their diet (not really ethical to do or very, very costly).

Also, epidemiological studies can only show correlations, which are only connections. They cannot determine causation. Here is a hilarious graph to demonstrate the correlation between watching Nicholas Cage movies and people who have drowned by falling into a pool. Looking at this data, you think that Nick Cage somehow is causing these drownings. He is not. You can see more of these “correlation graphs” here.

I particularly like the connection between divorce rates and margarine consumption, I am likely still married because I don’t eat margarine.

Image source: Spurious Correlations.

All this being said, anyone who says that a particular way of eating is the “best” for all humans all the time, clearly doesn’t know what they are talking about because there simply isn’t data to back that up. And that brings me to my next point….

2. Humans eat (and thrive on) all sorts of food.

If you look at human diets in different parts of the world, they are radically different, especially “traditional” human diets. Some people have thrived on an 80% fat diet, while others ate tons of dairy, and others did well on more meat or more plants. Humans are adaptable. They can eat a variety of things and be healthy.

But, in looking at traditional cultures, there is one thing they ALL have in common. They are generally healthy with very few chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, autoimmune disease, heart disease, etc. Sure, infectious disease may have wiped them out, but they certainly didn’t have blood sugar issues or die of heart attacks. The reason why has nothing to do with them not eating meat because they did, it has to do with them eating real, whole food. Food that is available locally, is seasonal and is minimally processed. They ate what was available, what nature provided for them, and that made sense, meat or not.

3. Protein, omega-3s, and micronutrients.

So, although nutrition is difficult to study, there are a few things we do know. First, is that we need certain nutrients to survive. There are new things we are learning about them all the time and requirements for how much we need change, but overall we know we need a variety of macro- and micronutrients in our diet. And here is where the “vegan” diet falls apart for me because unless you are HIGHLY skilled in what you are doing with your diet, for 99.9% of people who “go vegan”, they are likely missing key nutrients their bodies need.

First, protein. The word protein comes from the Greek for “first” or “primary”. It is the macronutrient that is of primary importance. Protein is made up of amino acids, nine of which the body cannot make itself and must come from the diet. With a very careful selection of plant-based protein you MAY be able to get all 9. But, why put yourself through that? If you can eat an egg, a serving fish, chicken, or beef and get all 9 without worry?

Additionally, most plant-based proteins are either highly processed (ever seen the “vegan” bacon, Ron Swanson had it right on this one, YUCK) and full of crap worse than what might be in meat, or are super high in carbohydrates which may not be great for most of us struggling with blood sugar issues. I just don’t think most plant-based proteins are that great of a choice to rely upon regularly as your main protein source.

First, protein. The word protein comes from the Greek for “first” or “primary”. It is the macronutrient that is of primary importance. Protein is made up of amino acids, nine of which the body cannot make itself and must come from the diet. With a very careful selection of plant-based proteins you MAY be able to get all 9. But, why put yourself through that? If you can eat an egg, a serving of fish, chicken, or beef and get all 9 without worry?

Additionally, most plant-based proteins are either highly processed (ever seen the “vegan” bacon, Ron Swanson had it right on this one, YUCK) and full of crap worse than what might be in meat, or are super high in carbohydrates which may not be great for most of us struggling with blood sugar issues. I just don’t think most plant-based proteins are that great of a choice to rely upon regularly as your main protein source.

The second thing you might be missing in a vegan diet is omega-3 fats. Omega-3s are highly anti-inflammatory and lower your risk of almost every chronic disease. Yes, there are “plant-based” sources of omega-3 fats, flax, walnuts, chia seeds are some. But, these contain ALA, not EPA and DHA (these are the three types of omega-3s). There is some question that ALA might not be QUITE as amazing for health, as it needs to be converted into EPA and DHA once it gets into the body, and the conversion rates are quite low (only about 1%). It also hasn’t been studied as extensively as EPA and DHA, so we can’t really say if it has the same benefit. The primary source of EPA and DHA is wild-caught fish, so if you are vegan you are not getting EPA and DHA unless you take a supplement.

Last, are the micronutrients or vitamins and minerals. A plant-based diet is full of vitamins and minerals because plants are AMAZING sources of most of these. But, there a few that are are lacking and are of primary concern: Vitamin B12, iron, and zinc. These are hard to get on a vegan diet, particularly vitamin B12. A B12 deficiency causes issues with memory, the nervous system, and anemia. So, you are going to have to supplement B12 for as long as you are not eating meat. I am sure there are “vegan” foods out there that are fortified with B12 these days, so maybe you will just eat those. But, again, why do that, if by eating meat you don’t have to worry about it at all?

So, here is what it comes down to. You can “go vegan” because some unfounded documentary on Netflix told you to. But, I can assure you, you will not be any healthier. Maybe you will lose a little weight because you will be forced to cut back on fat (and therefore calories), but you will eventually gain it back from eating an enormous quantity of carbs. Most people I see wanting to “go vegan” are doing it not because they actually like vegetables, but because they love animals. So, they end up just relying on vegan junk food, like french fries (THEY ARE VEGAN!), and gain a ton of weight. They are usually pretty unhealthy and from eating so many inflammatory carbs, their cholesterol is high.

Frequently after a while, they feel pretty tired, may have blood sugar issues, and aren’t any healthier than when they started. There may be exceptions to this rule because like I said, one size never fits all, one diet never fits all. But, after 10 years of practice, this is the trend I usually see.

I do want to say, I understand the desire to eat or no meat when it comes to animal welfare and the environment. I think the treatment of animals in factory farms SUCKS. I have considered cutting out meat because of this alone. I think we need to look at the environmental impact of how we raise and kill animals. I am fine with eating LESS meat, or even looking at other sources of protein (such as insects), if it means less destruction of the rainforest or a more humane treatment of animals. But, I still don’t believe that going vegan is the answer.

Here is what I recommend instead if you TRULY want to be healthier and lower your risk of chronic disease:

1. Eat more plants.

Yep, eat a crap-ton of fruits and veggies. Your diet should be 60-75% plants and should be as unprocessed as humanly possible. This doesn’t mean you can’t cook things (don’t even get me into the RAW vegan diet) as some vitamins and minerals are better absorbed after cooking. Make the plants taste good, so you eat them. I really believe food needs to taste good, so don’t ever sacrifice taste.

2. Quit eating processed junk or food your grandmother wouldn’t recognize.

This is the real culprit of poor health. Doesn’t matter if the food is vegan or not vegan. If it comes in a brightly colored package, is full of nutrition “claims”, or it has a HUGE list of ingredients, put it back. Its not healthy for you, vegan or not.

3. KISS. Keep it simple stupid.

Nutrition is simple. Eat real food. Don’t jump on the latest diet fad. Don’t be a religious fanatic about it. Nutrition is not a belief system, it doesn’t make you superior, moral, or good if you eat a certain way. Food is just food. Don’t demonize certain foods, there is NO individual food that makes you “healthy” or “unhealthy”, it is much more about long-term patterns. Make the best choice you can every day and don’t beat yourself up if you can’t or even if you simply don’t want to sometimes. Food is meant to be enjoyed, so enjoy it.

At the end of the day, eat a large variety of real, unprocessed, whole foods. Source food locally if you can, eat meat that is treated humanely. Don’t get swayed by the latest sensational headline, documentary, nutrition guru, or diet cult. The loudest voices are usually the least reliable with the least amount of evidence to back up their claims. They are appealing to your emotions, not your brain. So, use common sense, eat plants, eat some meat, consider the environmental impact your choices are having. Look deeper into the issues and don’t take radical stances because the truth really usually lies somewhere in the middle.

I am feeling better now, less rage-y, is 6:30am and I should probably get my day started and enjoy my breakfast of (real) bacon, butter, and eggs.

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