There is no question that the recent documentary What the Health has sparked some incredible, and controversial, ongoing conversations among health professionals and consumers.
You don’t have to look very far to find an opinion on the content of the film, the data and studies that were highlighted, the filmmakers, the interviewees, or the conclusions drawn and proposed calls to action for viewers. Heck, you can even find a critique of the pants that the filmmaker wore.
Many doctors, dietitians, nutritionists, health bloggers, and health-conscious consumers — both vegan and non-vegan alike — are fueling the discussions around this film and what it means for us as a society, by chiming in with their personal reviews, facilitating discussion threads on their social media platforms, and coming out with the latest end-all-be-all “let me break this all down for you” professional summary of their thoughts and recommendations around the film’s content as your health authority. Some are supportive of the film, some are not. But they are all igniting further emotionally-charged responses from people about what they eat.
Me? I consider myself an educated, experienced health professional with credentials that check out, but I will not be one breaking this documentary apart to shed my opinions on every single detail that was presented. That actually sounds boring to me, and I will instead leave it up to you to formulate your own conclusions — and most importantly, decide how you want to fuel your body. Should you decide that you need some direction or support after you figure it out, then by all means let’s chat.
Personally, I’d much rather spend my time and efforts helping others successfully make the plant-based switch who wish to do so, than argue over whether or not a documentary was biased. For the record, I would hypothesize that most all documentaries are biased to a certain degree. They aren’t peer-reviewed scientific journals and therefore cannot be held to the same expectations. Why else would most documentaries be made, but to make us consider thinking about something in a new perspective? Often something mainstream, and often something controversial. Sometimes praised for it, and sometimes vehemently attacked for it. They spark conversation, and tend to do so with wild success regardless of the subject matter. What the Health was released March 7 and the internet is still shitting bricks over it.
As for tearing apart quotes and discrediting the plant-based physicians who appeared in the film, as many critics are doing, interviews for these types of films are usually multiple hours long and, much like journalism, are cut short with final approvals regarding what to include by the filmmaker and not necessarily the interviewee. I would encourage everyone to take a closer look at the decades of work these individuals have done and understand the immense improvements their patients have seen through a plant-based (and often non-medically invasive) approach. See the positive impacts they have had for yourself, maybe instead of just taking someone else’s word for it that they’re all just vegan-and-therefore-quacks and cannot be trusted.
All of that being said, I think most of us, What the Health naysayers included, can agree that the recommendations to 1) eat more whole plant foods 2) reduce our consumption of processed animal protein and refined foods characteristic of the Standard American Diet and 3) pay actual attention to where our health and nutrition information comes from, are pretty solid.
Though I’m glad veganism has been brought to our attention once again, IMHO the imperative conversation that we should be having doesn’t actually revolve around debating the ins and outs of this film. In the case of What the Health, perhaps once we can get past the argument over whether or not we liked how the information was presented, and instead talk about the bigger issue of why the plant-based movement is so important to understand, we can make some actual progress toward improving our health — and be empowered to affect the outcomes of the entire world around us. Our dietary influence potential is huge when we decide to become open to realizing it, whether that decision is sparked by some vegan documentary or a casual conversation with a friend.
But when it gets down to it, there is really only one thing that I do want to address as a result of the What the Health-fueled conversations about the plant-based movement.
That is, the vegan agenda.
You may have noticed that this is a term being thrown around quite a bit, by health professionals and consumers, to summarize why you should not trust or endorse this film. For example, here are a few of the many statements I’ve personally come across online:
“It’s vegan propaganda! Turned it off.”
“This is very clearly a film made with a specific vegan agenda.”
“I haven’t watched it yet, but as soon as a vegan started preaching, I mean talking, about it, I knew I did not need to.”
“Stop with the no meat agenda yo, it’s tired. I’m just tired of people pushing their propaganda on me at this point.”
“Vegans: Quit trying to sell your belief system!!!!”
“After 20 mins I thought I was in the twilight zone! Luckily my husband eased my mind and told me it was vegan propaganda. Very irresponsible in my opinion.”
“He also seeks out a slew of vegan and animal rights–friendly health professionals rather than a more balanced roster of experts.”
Okay, but I’m confused. What is the vegan agenda exactly? (And also, find me a ‘balanced roster of experts’ to do a film on veganism who aren’t naturally animal advocates or vegans themselves. Anyone who truly understands why people go vegan will eventually be one, or close to it. What kind of experts would you like to see on a pro-factory farming documentary? Vegans?).
In the interest of transparency, let’s be straight up about what the vegans are doing, getting all up in your business.
Because an “agenda” is formally defined as a list of things to do or consider, I brainstormed on this and every motive of the vegan community. The list I came up with is below.
Reasons many people may decide to go vegan (and then advocate for others to go vegan):
- To take personal responsibility to invest in their long-term health and well-being
- To reduce risk for developing chronic diseases, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, that may be preventable through healthy lifestyle and dietary choices
- To achieve and maintain a healthy weight
- To reap the nutritional benefits and flavors of a plant-based diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lentils, and legumes
- To get their children started on a healthy, whole foods diet early, and learn culinary and nutrition habits that will serve them for life
- To remove their support from factory farms (which are >95% of the farms in the United States) where video evidence has shown that animals are beaten, abused, kept in cages so small that they can’t even turn around or lay down, castrated and debeaked without painkillers, live in their own waste among sick and dead peers, raped by machines, and removed from their mothers before having the chance to bond or wean (either to be slaughtered, sent to the veal industry, or to become dairy cows themselves).
- To take a stand against industrialized inhumanity, injustice, speciesism, sexism, and criminalism protected by Ag-Gag Laws
- To reduce their carbon footprint, environmental impact, and contribution to climate change
- To realize their potential to impact and protect global public health
- To help protect clean water and reduce wasteful water use
- To help protect the rainforest and its animals who have lost their habitats to factory farming
- To help save endangered species
- To protect the ocean and the health and population of its marine life
- To protect wildlife, such as wolves, bears, coyotes and foxes, often killed because they are a threat to the livestock industry (after factory farms are built on their habitat)
- To think on an influence scale much larger than themselves
- To align their lifestyle choices with their core values as an ethical, compassionate, and open-minded human being
Now, I know that there are plenty of “unapologetic” extremists out there who speak louder than the rest of us and, as a result, turn many people off from even considering going vegan. I’ve seen this firsthand when seeking out online support communities for raising vegan families, many of which I have opted not to be a part of after noticing the extreme behaviors and judgments regarding the veg-curious. Like any group of cause-minded individuals, there are some who unfortunately chose an all-or-nothing approach far more antagonistic than inviting to those just getting their feet wet. That being said, the makers and participants of What the Health are not these people. Nor are the overwhelming majority of vegans. Judge Judy once used an example of one moldy blueberry in the pint, slowly making the others around it moldy and eventually ruining the whole experience for everyone by association. The same goes for vegans and the power of one negative experience to taint the whole community’s reputation. But, the unfortunate stereotype of the entire vegan community as being inimical, uninformed, elitist, and dangerous is simply untrue.
Could it be that many What the Health critics are quick to cry “vegan agenda” not because of the way they feel the information was presented, but because the information presented threatens their current way of living? As humans (and remember, we’re all human), we like to have our habits and beliefs validated, and are often offended when someone tells us we’ve been doing something wrong or have been misinformed — especially when we’ve been told otherwise our whole lives. In the case of diet? We’ve been conditioned to the normalization of eating animals simply by being born in the American culture that exists, a culture of carnism. We’ve also been taught that the best way to minimize our carbon footprint is to drive a Prius, conserve energy, and recycle more. Anything different from that is weird, and apparently, personally threatening to others.
Crying “vegan agenda” is the easiest way to distract from and discredit any potentially life-changing information people may hear by actually listening to what vegan advocates have to say. If we don’t actually hear the information and evaluate how it affects us, we won’t be 1) offended 2) forced to face any moral battles with our conscience 3) tempted to veer from our dietary comfort zone.
Instead of wasting our time debating the presentation of a film that unquestionably has brought the vegan movement to the forefront, we could instead begin acknowledging the larger actual agendas we and our children (often unknowingly) are bombarded with on a daily basis, at an exponential level — which, might I add, nobody is talking about.
Luckily, the multi-billion dollar meat and dairy industries never tell us we’re doing it wrong.
I often suggest that people watch their television for 30 minutes and pay attention to the commercials they see. You know, the ones between the pharmaceutical advertisements for all of the gastrointestinal, hormonal, sleep, cardiovascular, respiratory, degenerative, bone, endocrine and skin disorders we have. And the ones for gummy vitamins we must buy to make up for our children being too picky to get their micronutrients from all the vegetables they inherently dislike and will never eat enough of.
What else do you see?
Double bacon cheeseburgers at every fast food restaurant for ‘real men’. New meat lovers’ sandwiches at all of our favorite chain delis. Pizza with 6 types of cheese in the crust within fingertip reach. Milk from smiling cows so we can grow up big and strong. Yogurt with probiotics to keep us regular. Artisan cheese melting everywhere. Eggs from ‘cage-free’ chickens so we can feel good about ourselves. Cartoon pigs happily eating bacon. Kids enjoying ice cream with their parents on a hot day. Crisp-looking salads piled high with bacon, egg, and cheese to ensure that you get your protein with all that lettuce.
Did you see the one about eating more broccoli, the new tofu sandwich at your favorite chain, or making easy dairy-free swaps at home? No? Must have missed it. I guess the broccoli industry doesn’t have an unlimited budget to inundate our subconscious with advertisements 24/7. Or perhaps they just don’t feel the need to spend their money marketing like crazy, because there has never been a single credible study to suggest that eating more vegetables has a negative impact on anyone. In fact, according to the WHO, “insufficient fruit and vegetable intake is estimated to cause around 14% of gastrointestinal cancer deaths, about 11% of ischaemic heart disease deaths and about 9% of stroke deaths” globally. But the connection between health and eating more plants — that’s not really surprising now, is it?
I’d like to draw your attention to Dairy Management Inc. This is the marketing brainchild of the USDA, funded by America’s dairy farmers and dairy importers, created in 1995 to drive consumer sales of dairy products (remember “Got Milk?”). The government may talk a lot about the obesity crisis and be supportive of the horrendous “all foods fit” and “everything in moderation” mantras, but it also supports tactics to get consumers to eat more health-damaging foods we already over-consume when the animal agriculture industries are especially threatened. And when there’s oversupply of animal products (typically due to decreased consumer demand), the push for consumers to consume these products becomes even more aggressive. I’m not talking about just telling you to eat more low-fat yogurt or to throw some string cheese into your child’s lunches. I’m talking about partnerships between DMI and fast food chains like Domino’s Pizza, to create a new line of pizzas with 40% more cheese (saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium) on them. Or the collaboration with Taco Bell to create the steak quesadilla, which “used an average of eight times more cheese than other items on their menu”, including over 75% of the daily recommended levels of saturated fat and sodium. DMI is transparent about the partnerships “to provide consumers with great-tasting dairy products” it values on its website, which include KFC, McDonald’s, Domino’s, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell. Not exactly chains that make their money off of consumers purchasing health foods or encouraging lively discussions about compassion or environmental stewardship.
Something you may have heard about is the controversy among the use of the term “milk” for plant-based beverages that made headlines earlier this year, when dairy products called on the FDA to regulate the term only to be used for dairy milk, and make it illegal for non-dairy beverages to use it in their product naming. Why? Plant-based milk alternatives grew 54% over the last five years and generated $1.4 billion in US sales in 2016. All the while dairy production has declined by 11% in the last year, and consumer demand has fallen, threatening the industry. Time for some tactful DMI partnerships and aggressive targeted marketing to get us all drinking more cow’s milk again?
One last thing on this. As taxpayers in the US, we pay $38 billion yearly to subsidize meat and dairy, and only $17 million to subsidize fruits and vegetables. If you’re interested in more statistics about how much the meat and dairy industry truly propagate us, please read the book Meatonomics by David Robinson Simon, or check out the facts page on his website here.
Indeed, bias is everywhere. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t biased toward the plant-based movement, and I think that’s pretty obvious. We all have our own biases; if we didn’t, we’d stand for nothing. But we have to be aware of where our biases and personal agendas come from, and acknowledge that some are dangerous and some are not. Remember that we also create our own biases, which may prevent us from considering perspectives outside of the ones we’ve adopted so strongly. For example, whether you’re an advocate for veganism, Paleo, the blood type diet, or the latest juicing detox, who do you go to for advice on how that community thinks? Case in point: when What the Health hit Netflix and the discussion started exploding on the internet, the first thing that much of the Paleo/Whole30 crowd said was, “Let’s wait to talk about this until Melissa Hartwig provides her response to the film.” We will never truly advance and evolve as a society until we start actually listening to different perspectives, rather than talking about people, or defaulting to our designated authorities to speak on our behalf.
The “vegan agenda” argument becomes irrelevant in the conversation about the plant-based movement when you simply take an honest look at what else is going on in in our food system.
There is no Big Money in the vegan agenda.
We all know by now that an agenda also typically means that person advocating for it gains something from it, usually financially. Unlike what we can easily uncover in the meat and dairy industries, there is no giant financial scandal going on among vegan advocates and educators. As much as I would like to be a part of it, there is no annual underground meeting to talk about vegan world domination. We’ve already established that there is no Big Broccoli industry set out to destroy factory farms for the financial benefit of cruciferous vegetable farmers. It’s just not a thing. Dr. Joel Kahn, Dr. Garth Davis, and presumably all of the other individuals interviewed for What the Health, were not paid for their appearances. The website nutritionfacts.org, run by Dr. Michael Greger, is a self-sustaining nonprofit organization itself, free for everyone, with no ads or corporate sponsorships. Every penny from Dr. Greger’s speaking engagements, the DVD series he has made, Latest in Clinical Nutrition, and his most recent book, How Not to Die, goes to charity. Vegans educate and advocate because they want others to know the truth, and to realize the life-changing potential they never knew they had — not to come out on top financially.
But yeah, damn you hippie extremist vegans and your biased agenda.
In the end, here are my main takeaways from the What the Health conversation:
- This is one film, made to spark conversation. Whether you liked it or not, it clearly sparked some kind of emotional response in you. Why? Examine that a little more closely, away from all the noise and influence on the internet.
- Care about your health and pay attention to where your health and nutrition information comes from (including who you see as an authority figure in this space and why).
- Eat more plants. Even if you still eat meat, for the love of God just eat more plants.
- There are larger (actual) agendas in the food system that are much more concerning than what the vegan community is trying to do. The vegan agenda vs. the meat and dairy agenda? Apples to oranges; not on the same playing field whatsoever.
- If you decided to remain a meat eater or go vegan because of this film, that’s your prerogative — and hey, if chose the latter and need help going veg, I’m your girl.
- And lastly, if the vegan agenda is to advocate for compassion toward all living things, improving global health outcomes, and grow the number of forward-thinking environmental stewards on this planet, then I guess the critics caught us.
That’s our big scary agenda.