In Defense of What The Health Documentary: an Open Letter to Progressive Vegans

If you’re interested in veganism and/or plant-based diets, you’ve probably heard about the new documentary called What The Health.

It’s created by Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn – the same people who had previously authored Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret.

While this documentary was officially released a few months ago, recently it’s been one of the top things discussed in the vegan community after it was added to Netflix.

In defense of What The Health documentary: an open letter to progressive vegans

(Please note: in case you haven’t seen What the Health or Cowspiracy, my post below contains some spoilers.)

While Cowspiracy focuses on the environmental impact of animal agriculture and points at plant-based diets as the possible solution, What The Health investigates the connection between the standard American diet and poor health. Once again, plant-based diets are portrayed as the remedy.

I’ve been loosely following the online discussions about this new documentary, and interestingly, it seems like people who have watched What The Health are now divided into two camps:

1. Those who think the movie has had a positive impact – there are quite a few stories from people whose staunch non-vegan friends or relatives finally decided to give this whole plant-based diet thing a go after watching What The Health;

2. Those who think the movie does more harm than good –  there are negative opinions voiced by progressive-leaning vegans, particularly about the message that going plant-based will cure all of our diseases and make us resistant to getting sick in the future.

A lot of people bring up the fact that some health improvement stories pictured in this documentary were a bit extreme. Also, it doesn’t help that the movie seems to play on our fears at times, and that fat-shaming messages are plentiful.

While I mostly identify with the progressive/liberal line of thought in my opinions on life, politics, and the choices I make (including my food choices), I have to stand up to the negativity I’ve been seeing from my fellow ‘woke’ vegans when it comes to this new documentary.

Okay, I admit: this documentary isn’t perfect. But hear me out.

First off, vegan/plant-based people are not the target audience of What The Health.

There are LOTS of people who have never heard about how the standard American diet affects their health, and this is who this movie is meant for.

I’m thrilled about every example I hear of people who finally decided to ditch meat and dairy after watching What The Health. Even though I was already aware of most of the facts brought up in this documentary, I’m still going to talk about it for the benefit of those who aren’t.

Second, in search of perfection we the progressive types often dismiss the ‘good enough’.

Yes, there are issues, and I’ve rolled my eyes a few times as I watched What The Health (for example, I wish there were a disclaimer that the health improvements depicted in some of the people’s stories were not a typical result).

But at the same time, I don’t believe it’s fair to dismiss the whole movie because of a few snafus. (By the way, the website for What The Health features an extensive list of references on a minute-by-minute basis for all the health claims brought up in the movie.)

I’m going to say something that won’t gain me any popularity in the liberal circles: this is why democrats lost the presidential election in the US last year. We the left-leaning folk were so busy arguing whether or not ‘our’ candidate was good enough to vote for that we got completely blindsided when ‘their guy’ trumped (no pun intended) all expectations and got to the top.

Of course, there isn’t an imminent election coming up in which we’d have to decide if we want to continue eating meat or not, but my point is, can we please stop the in-fighting because it’s not doing us any favors?! If you think that vegan documentaries can be better, please reach out to filmmakers and collaborate with them on a new one.

Third, there are a lot of good points brought up in What The Health. In addition to talking about the connection between our food choices and our well-being – something most Americans are still unaware of – there’s plenty of useful info that this documentary brings up. Here are a few points that come to mind:

1. The connection between the large-scale agribusinesses, their lobbying power, and the medical system in the Western society;

2. The lack of nutritional training doctors go through in medical school;

3. How the meat and dairy industry employs tactics similar to those used by the tobacco industry when talking about its products and public health;

4. Why organic meat, dairy and eggs are not necessarily better for us than their conventional counterparts;

5. The devastating impact of animal agriculture on the underprivileged communities of color, as shown in the example of Duplin County, North Carolina.

6. The role of USDA checkoff programs in promoting meat and dairy to the public;

7. How our obsession with animal-based protein is harming us, etc.

Once again, for people who have never heard of these things, this information can be life-changing.

For this reason I will recommend What The Health to anyone who expresses any interest in going vegan/plant-based, followed with Cowspiracy to round out the picture.

Yes, some points in these documentaries may not align with my opinions 100%, but if I want a movie that fits my beliefs completely, I’ll have to make it myself.

Anyway, what are your thoughts on What The Health? Did you find this documentary problematic, or do you think it does more good than bad? Let me know in the comments!

UPDATE 7/25/2017. This documentary has been getting a lot of attention in the non-vegan circles, including lots of negative reviews from various ‘big name’ gurus of the meat-eating world.

I feel like it’s only fair to address this negativity. If this is the first time you ever hear about the negative health impacts of eating a meat-heavy diet, the connection between our society’s insatiable appetite for things like bacon and how this appetite affects communities living near large-scale animal farming operations, etc. – don’t brush it all off until you do your own research.

Just because something sounds shocking doesn’t mean it’s nonsense. Yes, I may be a bit biased here, but keeping an open mind and doing the research goes a long way in all areas of life and knowledge.

UPDATE 8/23/2017. For people accusing doctors featured in the documentary of being biased, here’s a great response from Dr. Garth Davis, MD, on Also, see my review of Dr. Davis’s book, Proteinaholic, over here.

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31 thoughts on “In Defense of What The Health Documentary: an Open Letter to Progressive Vegans”

  1. I’m a vegetarian but the blatant use of scientific language to mislead people in this documentary is unacceptable. I only watched a couple minutes and had to turn it off. There are many reasons for people to consider a vegetarian or vegan diet, I believe it’s irresponsible to make reasons up. For example it is true that carbohydrates are stored in the form of glycogen, however the human body can only store about 2,000 calories of glycogen plus the glycogen that is stored in the liver. Carbs in excess of what the body is able to store is turned into fat. This is why sugar leads to obesity. Fat and protein can also be converted and stored as glycogen. Fat can also help raise testosterone (boosting metabolism) levels, and is used for energy at low intensities. The healthiest diet in the world the Mediterranean diet is very high in fat for good reason. I am scared that the blatant lies in this documentary will make people dismiss very well done documentaries like Forks Over Knives and food Inc.

  2. I am plant based BUT I found some of the info in this documentary not believable or else all meat eaters would have been wiped from the earth long ago. In short, I do NOT try to convert others, nor do I condemn their choices. Everyone needs to be responsible for their own lives and no one else’s. The movie was not completely truthful but hey, not many are.

    1. Your comment does not make sense. At no point did the film make any claims that a meat diet would instantly kill meat eaters. It simply explained why people who eat meat and dairy deal with a much higher rate of disease. Vegans/plant-powered people are not completely immune but it sure does help a LOT.

  3. Hi Alina. Thanks for the great article. I’m not a vegetarian and straddle the fence on which way of eating is healthier; I.e., carnivore versus vegetarian. The topic has become so confusing as there are so many scientists and physicians with Phd’s that have completely opposite opinions, Help! I am a female and weight train three times a week which I love and need to continue as I have osteoporosis. I also take great satisfaction in building visible muscle. There are many trainers and scientists that stand by their claims that one must consume animal protein to gain muscle mass and to maintain energy and health. I was a vegetarian for two years after trying to watch Earthlings and learning about the atrocities of the animal agriculture business. Over time I grew tired and leary of eating mock meat and somewhat processed vegetarian fare. After one last time reading the ingredient list on a package of tofurky versus an organic chicken breast, or plant based coffee creamer versus organic half and half, I caved and said, enough! I’ve went back to organic eggs and meat/poultry. I’ve also watched most of the food documentaries available on Netflix and find them fascinating. A book that also got me rethinking plant based is Grain Brain by Dr. Perlmutter (?). I found it frightening and started eliminating grains. As a side note, I also found cooking vegetarian meals somewhat difficult; my food just didn’t taste that great! To summarize, I’m so confused and am truly seeking guidance and the best food direction to take! Thank you!

    1. Hi JoEllen! I agree that there’s so much information from both omnivore and veg-friendly camps that it’s easy to get confused. One thing I can say for sure: if you ditch meat/dairy/eggs, it doesn’t mean that you have to use their processed vegan substitutes! The plant-based dietary approach can be just as unprocessed/organic/wholesome as eating the way you seem to aspire to. Those processed vegan meats, etc. are a good ‘crutch’ for new vegans who still miss the flavors or textures of what they used to eat before they made the switch, but it doesn’t mean that they have to eat them all the time from now on. As for protein, you probably know that it’s built from amino acids, which in turn are abundant in plant foods – ‘food’ animals don’t generate them, they get them from the plant-based foods they eat. By eating plants for protein, you’re basically ‘skipping the middleman’. If you eat a varied plant-based diet with plenty of calories to maintain your daily physical activities, you should be covered. There are lots of vegan athletes who are quite successful eating this way. As for making tasty vegan meals, I highly recommend experimenting with Pinterest, various cookbooks (see a list of my favorite tried-and-true cookbooks with easy and delicious plant-based recipes over here), etc. Hope this helps!

  4. Hi, I felt like sharing my new vegan life style story with you all. My mother and I sat and watched the documentary on July 9th and it really changed our life. At the time I was 196 pounds and on the verge of becoming diabetic, as of right now I am pre-diabetic and so is my mother. My doctor believes I was born with it, as a ten pound baby it seems possible. After watching the documentary my mother and I immediately went to the fridge and threw out everything that was non-vegan and went to the store at 10 pm and bought as much as we could from Safeway, which wasn’t a lot. Since then, August 15th now, I have lost 14 pounds only a month and 4 days later weighing in at 182 pounds and I feel a heck of a lot better about myself. I’m not saying that becoming a vegan is curing me but it’s sure as heck doing a lot better than I was before. Although I’m sure that I can’t go on a raging sugar binge because supposedly “sugar doesn’t cause diabetes.” I feel more comfortable eating some sugary things without feeling like I’ll lose my legs if I do. I would say this documentary is a blessing to my life. A lot of people have hated on my mother and I for believing one thing after one time. But I honestly think it was one of the best choices I’ve made. I’m definetly happy and suggest that many people watch the documentary, if they haven’t already. Some people might hate and others might believe it’s really up to them. But I certainly know now I feel much happier with the way my life is turning out and I hope if people learn something from the documentary it makes them happy too!

    1. That’s wonderful, Kayla, glad to hear that you and your mom are already seeing the benefits of going plant-based!Good luck on your journey to better health!

  5. WTH was on my radar to watch, along with “the C word.” WTH got bumped up when a singer (Ella Mae-sp?) that my teenage daughter likes. suggested it to her fans. That was received a lot better than me telling her. Since watching WTH, I have decided to embrace vegetarianism with my son (he’s been one since 2nd grade after watching a PETA commercial). I’m sure this will improve our health and give him the support that he had been missing. Thanks for the article.

  6. I watched , What the Health , on Netflix ,last week and loved it. It woke me up to how we have been lied to by the govt. ,regarding the food pyramid , etc… Also the part about Big Pharma and drugs , that once you start the idea is to keep you on the meds for life , hench cashflow for the drug companies till you die. I am an animal advocate , and hope more people watch this documentary , and get a better understanding of how food plays a big part in their health and this great earth. Also saw an article about how scientists disagree with this doc. , well I’m sure Big Pharma and the meat and egg producers , etc… see how this will affect their incoming $$$$$ , and may of paid some so-called scientists to try and find something wrong with this doc. ,no matter how small.

    1. I agree, it can be quite eye-opening. Also, re: people criticizing this documentary: it’s easier for people to criticize things than to change their ways.

  7. I loved it- and tried vegan (no processed or junk food of course) for two weeks. I felt SO tired after the third day. After two weeks, I was in a bad mood, dead tired all day. So, yesterday I ate a turkey burger. Today, I am starting to feel like myself. I honestly wish this were not true. I so want to go vegan, but I was feeling so bad. What the hell?

    1. Hi Doodle bug! Sorry to hear that you’ve been feeling tired after going vegan. It’s hard for me to say because I don’t know what you’ve been eating on a daily basis, but it sounds like you might have been not eating enough calories, fat, etc. It’s easy to do so if you’re eating ‘extra clean’, lots of low-calorie vegetables, etc. I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong in having some of the more processed vegan foods once in a while (I like an occasional veggie burger with oven-baked fries). Adding some of the more ‘substantial’ foods like grains, starches, avocadoes, etc. might give you more energy. I wrote this post some time ago for people who are experiencing trouble when they first go vegan. Take a look, hope this helps!

  8. I watched the documentary with my 15 year old daughter who had a shamelessly terrible diet. After viewing it, we BOTH decided to go vegan. I was vegetarian (mostly) and she was definitely a carnivore. She has even decided to start herself off as a raw vegan for the first two weeks. We are also going to watch it several times, just to make sure we have retained all the information. My daughter is now spreading the word to her friends. I was concerned about the direction her health would take, but now I’m pleased that she made such a good decision.

  9. Personally, I watched this after my mother told me about it. She told me she was going to a plant based diet and then proceeded to tell me about “What the Health”. I immediately went home and watched it. My life was practically changed forever!
    I am not a Vegan however I am vegetarian at this point. I havent had meat in days and honestly dont miss it. I was never a big meat eater to begin with so it didnt break my heart. The closest I have come to any animal/animal by product is chocolate. But just like with any lifestyle choice, MODERATION is key. You can over eat and gain weight while being Vegan. Just because you are living a plant based lifestyle doesnt mean you can sit and eat an entire pack of oreos because they are “accidentally” vegan. This documentary opened my eyes and I am now following a plant based diet. I am working on getting my children to make healthier choices. I just wish this was released 10 years ago….

  10. Why no mention of “glycemic index” in the movie? Why the near-defense of refined sugar and white rice? Why the implication that ANY plant-based diet is healthful?

    My own diet is probably 98% plant-based. I stopped eating red meat ca. 1970 and white meat 10 years later, but I still eat 2 or 3 servings each of eggs and yogurt per week and an occasional piece of salmon. However, I think minimizing or avoiding white sugar and flour is even more important than reducing animal food consumption. A spoonful of sugar before or during exercise admittedly won’t hurt, because it gets burned right away, but it is probably very harmful for a sedentary person.

    1. Hi John! I think if the creators of the movie had found that sugar was detrimental to our health during their research and interviewing the doctors, scientists, etc. featured in the movie, they would have mentioned it. Assuming that a spoonful of sugar is very harmful is just that – assuming.

  11. Hey, this plant-based diet looks actually very interesting. Not sure yet, but I think I’ll give it a go soon. Thanks for entertaining article!

  12. I recently watched this documentary and thought it was really interesting. I am not a vegan or vegetarian (bear with me!) but I found it very compelling. I also recently watched In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan and he reccomended a mainly plant based diet with very little meat and no dairy. Any thoughts on this? I think I would have a hard time convincing my family to be vegan, but I might be able to pull of “almost vegetarian”

    1. I think lowering the amount of animal products we eat is a step in the right direction, even if it’s not a complete elimination of those from our diets. Glad that What The Health and In Defense of Food planted a seed in your mind, Leah! It took me a while to come around to the idea of veganism – I only committed about a couple of years after watching Forks Over Knives for the first time. I’d say, if you get a chance, watch Cowspiracy (it’s also on Netflix) – it shows why our food choices are important not just for each of us personally (like the health aspect) but also for the all of us (the environment). Anyway, hope the ideas you got from these documentaries stick around!

  13. I had not heard anything about this documentary before your post, Alina. I will find it and watch it as well as Cowspiracy as soon as possible. Then I will add my comments about the movie here.
    I just got my carnivore husband to watch Forks Over Knives and he is now willing to try a plant based diet. Perhaps it will help his hypertension and high cholesterol. Since I have been vegan/plant based for about 30 years, he does eat vegan at dinner when I cook at home. I introduced him to your chickpea salad sandwich and now he is making himself one for lunch. He is even taking one to the golf course for lunch rather than eating an animal based meal.
    Thank you for the timely information. I will get back to you after I view the movie.

    1. Hi Sandy! Glad to hear about your husband’s new interest in trying a plant-based diet! I’d love to hear your thoughts about What The Health once you see it. Also, glad to know that your husband likes my chickpea salad sandwich recipe – I’m actually craving it now 🙂

  14. I loved this movie. Although I’ve been vegan for over 7 years, there were things in this movie that were new to me, and that I found shocking and disturbing! I encouraged my youngest daughter to watch it. She is in remission from ovarian cancer and I’ve been telling her for a long time that she needs to eat more plants, and after watching this movie, she has decided to give up meat! Eventually she wants to be completely plant-based, but she is converting gradually, which I completely support! Progress, not perfection, like you said!
    I’ve posted several times about this movie on my FB page, telling people to watch it. I’m not sure if any of my family and friends will do it, but hey, I got at least one loved one’s eyes open to what’s going on with the standard diet!

    1. That’s so great to hear about your daughter’s decision, Tammy! Every example of someone making a step towards going plant-based/vegan after watching What The Health is a win for this movie!

  15. Melodie Nichols

    I just watched the movie with my husband this weekend, and we liked it. I found it was an accessible way to the topics that vegans try to educate carnists about. As for the fat shaming – there was a great point in the movie that, while we should accept all body types and sizes, that often means we accept poor health. Unfortunately, that is often a true statement! As for health problems, so many are truly diet-and-lifestyle based – my husband was a diabetic. Lost 75 pounds and went vegan, diabetes is GONE! Does healthy diet cure everything? No, but it doesn’t CAUSE any illnesses, so why not try it? People need to get over their own hangups and look at the bigger picture – every person who goes vegan WILL help themselves and the planet, and WILL save an animal. That may be enough….

    1. Hi Melodie! You bring up good points. I think people who have had issues with some of the messages in this documentary are comparing its main points to their own scale of priorities, i.e. the order they’ve arranged the benefits of plant-based diets as most valuable to them. For some of us going against fat shaming is more important than helping the environment, etc. Movie makers just can’t please everyone. Like I said, if we want a documentary that 100% aligns with our opinions, we’d have to make it ourselves.

      1. Mikelle Pellum

        Ok, I’m 2 years late to this. I watched this and Forks over Knives to get some ideas of how to heal my own medical issues. I also tried to look at the overall documentary and not nit-pick certain things. I did feel there was slight bias in some cases, but overall, there was plenty of good information.

        And fat shaming . . . I seem to only remember ONE comment that could in that regard, and I really didn’t take it as fat shaming at all. I’m a size 14 (which in the fashion world, which I work in, equals plus sized and by American standards, overweight), and I understood what the doctor was saying. It’s really a fine line. Everyone’s body is unique and not everyone will naturally be “thin” (nor should they be, in my opinion). But where do you draw the line between loving yourself as you are and understanding that you may not be treating your body as lovingly as you could be because of the things you choose to feed it?

        1. Hi Mikelle! I think we all have to decide for ourselves where we want to draw that line. This being said, I also think that body size isn’t always an indicator of how healthy or unhealthy one’s diet is. There’s plenty of “plus-size” people who eat healthy and lead an active lifestyle, just as there are lots of skinny people who feed themselves junk and never exercise. I believe that we will all be better off if we pay attention to doing and eating things that make us feel our best rather than watch the scale. But in the end, it’s a personal decision that each of us is entitled to make for themselves.

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