The idea to write a series of blog posts reviewing health documentaries came to me in the form of a young man with morbid obesity who presented to my office for a new patient evaluation.
Early into the visit, we discussed the many health risks related to his weight and how diet is a huge factor. While this topic is often greeted with platitudes followed by requests for diet pills, this new patient impressed me with his understanding of the subject and genuine interest to drastically alter his diet to reduce his risk for heart disease, stroke, and cancer. Most people aren’t this motivated until they suffer a major medical event, if then. How had he gotten here so quickly? Before I had the chance to ask him, he answered me with his own question: “Have you ever seen the documentary What the Health?”
Documentaries as a motivational force to improve health hadn’t really occurred to me until that moment, but in retrospect, I should have known. Exhibit A … me. I have personally adjusted my own diet over the last few years, cutting out soda, reducing animal fat, and increasing fruit and vegetable intake. I’d like to say this is a healthy by-product of a career reading medical journals, but I have always found documentaries to be considerably more compelling. Clearly, I am not alone.
What the Heath
Despite its title, this documentary focuses on the political at least as much as the health issues. We follow Kip Andersen as he discusses government and other public health organizations, their ties to the meat, poultry, dairy, fast food, and pharmaceutical industries, and how money influences their recommendations, creating egregious conflicts of interest. Mostly, the documentary is depressing. I don’t know if there is anyone in the world who finds the collusion between government and big business surprising, but Kip makes a good case for it here.
On his website, he lists all the “facts” discussed in his documentary and it is, in a word, overwhelming. Click the link to see for yourself.
The rest of the time, he promotes a vegan diet. While he relates convincing evidence to cut or at least reduce animal fat and follow a more plant-based diet, he is prone to exaggerations that undercut his argument. Equating eggs and processed meat to smoking cigarettes and breathing asbestos only undercuts his credibility. He is correct in pointing out how excess fat in the diet will worsen diabetes, but inexplicably argues that sugar and carbohydrates are not a problem in diabetes at all.
He tends to focus on the studies that support a vegan diet and ignore all other conflicting data. This is a shame because he does an excellent job presenting the health and environmental problems caused by eating meat, poultry, fish, and dairy. Even watching this with a jaundiced eye, I found the overall documentary to be a gripping argument against eating processed meat (which include hot dogs, sausages, canned meat, and most deli meat) and for reducing animal fat in favor of plant-based options.
This documentary has interesting graphics and is often entertaining when it doesn’t get bogged down with exaggerations and cherry-picked data. I think it is worth watching for more of a political than a health perspective. The highlight is Kip’s interview with Dr. Robert Ratner, the (now former) chief medical officer of the American Diabetes Association, whose squirming in the face of fairly benign questions about diet recommendations for diabetes creates cringe-worthy drama. What the Health is available for streaming on Netflix.
About the author
David Z Hirsch is the pen name of the author of the award-winning novel Didn’t Get Frazzled, a medical comedy-drama described by BlueInk Review as “the best fictional portrayal of med school since ER” (starred review). He also published (under his actual name) the award-winning novel Jake, Lucid Dreamer hailed as “a fantastical tale with a powerful message” by SPR.
Also, check out his YouTube channel featuring educational videos on common medical conditions.
He is a practicing internal medicine physician in Maryland.
Check out my other reviews: