The basic premise of Kip Andersen's latest documentary is that animal-based foods are killing us. Picture: LIWEI12/123RF
The basic premise of Kip Andersen's latest documentary is that animal-based foods are killing us. Picture: LIWEI12/123RF

Kip Andersen is a hero for many in the vegan community. First he brought out Cowspiracy widely lauded for drawing attention to industrial animal farming, widely condemned (even by vegans) for massive data manipulation and generalising.

Now he’s back with What the Health. The basic premise of this escapade is — surprise — that animal-based foods are killing us, and that eschewing every single one of them will cure diabetes, cancer, heart disease and pretty much any other diet-related diseases of modern society.

If you don’t know much about nutrition or how research and data can be mangled, it might have its convincing moments, but this flight of fancy shouldn’t be allowed to go by the name “documentary”. Convincing people that a certain diet will cure their often-fatal diseases is a helluva thing, and requires some damn good evidence.

Sadly, what the doccie gives us (in large bucketfuls) only looks like evidence. It would take a book to dissect the gross mountains of misinformation here, and while a few are worth mentioning, the really big thing you need to remember if you plan to watch it, is that quoting doctors and research often means nothing, because data, stats and numbers often mean nothing themselves. Worse than nothing, research results can often be the most dangerous of weapons.

What the Health is the latest documentary from Kip Andersen. Picture: A.U.M. FILMS & FIRST SPARK MEDIA/IMDB
What the Health is the latest documentary from Kip Andersen. Picture: A.U.M. FILMS & FIRST SPARK MEDIA/IMDB

Just take a look: if I tell you my research shows that eating say, soya, doubles your cancer risk, you’d be fairly alarmed, right? Double seems pretty damning. But if you looked at the study and saw how I got to that conclusion, you might be less worried: in the group who ate soya, two out of 1,000 people died, while in the group who didn’t eat it, one out of 1,000 died. So what we actually have is a 0.1% change.

It’s too small a change to even be considered statistically significant. It’s very nearly nothing. But two is double one, right? So, yup, I can legally write my research up that way. Of course, if I wanted to prove that the food didn’t cause disease, I’d use the 0.1% number. Pretty nifty, right?  

Andersen and his assembled authorities use this trick to great effect. And while some of it may be deliberate, I also think there’s a degree of good-willed “evangelical blinkers-on” syndrome. There’s so much fairy-tale nutrition here, it’s gobsmacking. One of the main arguments against animal products is saturated fat, but none of the doctors or nutritionists notice that there’s more unsaturated fat in a beef steak than there is saturated fat, that there’s more saturated fat per gram in olive oil than beef, and that in fact any food on the planet that contains fat contains saturated fat.

Dr Neil Barnard (a vegan by some coincidence) baldly states that carbohydrates and sugar aren’t implicated in diabetes. This is not just bizarre, but plain wicked. We’re also told that eating one egg a day has the same risk as smoking five cigarettes, and that egg yolk “coats your red blood cells”. Even my cat knows that’s not true.

Dr Michael Greger (also coincidentally vegan) tells us that within “minutes of going into your mouth, meat-based foods are causing damage to your arteries”. Well, that’s just plain amazing, given that it takes hours before proteins and fats have broken down enough to even leave the digestive system. Health is not the issue here. Freaking you out with fearmonger tactics is the name of the game. No wonder that, once again, even vegans have been critical of Kip’s tactics.

Health is not the issue here. Freaking you out with fear-monger tactics is the name of the game.
Andrea Burgener

And, yes, of course there are people who go vegan to cure disease and do feel better, but it’s irresponsible to claim that’s the no-meat effect. You’re highly unlikely to battle your cancer by removing all animal products but sticking with the crisps, soda and your usual breakfast doughnut, right? These diets are generally thought to work in the short to medium term because — another surprise — consuming whole food will always be more beneficial than consuming junk.

And how about comparisons for balance? Heart disease and diabetes were almost unknown in the Innuit while their diet was largely fatty meat, but these conditions have constantly increased since their adoption of a more Western, processed and carbohydrate-based diet. I mention the Innuit because it’s an extreme example, so could have been instructive to discuss — if there was any interest at all — in actually getting to the facts.

As is Andersen’s way, virtually all the arguments against animal products in this movie are, in reality, critiques of modern industrial farming. And this farming can be truly terrible. But that people who live right near the waste pools of appalling industrial hog farms are sick should be an argument against our industrialised system. The broad coarse brush that paints all “bad” foods is the same brush that conflates the very worst sort of sewage-spilling, antibiotic-riddled animal production with good, free-range animal farming. Damn the whole lot without nuance or doubt, says What the Health; one of the most effective tools of propaganda.

If only the lens wasn’t so coloured, we’d actually take the good points he makes more seriously. Yes, corporates, government and health care are often in bed together, and that’s one of the greatest evils of our time. But that doesn’t mean fish kills or broccoli cures. Yes, the American cancer foundation is sponsored by meat and dairy food organisations. That’s a huge problem. But they’re also funded by organisations selling vegetables, breads, cereals and more besides.

Shouldn’t old Kip be casting his net a bit wider? That Big Pharma and Cargill or Monsanto and the FDA are part of a corrupt “revolving door” system doesn’t automatically mean that going vegan is going to cure anyone’s serious diseases (well, not while plants are being sprayed with Monsanto’s best-selling glyphosate, at any rate). What we need next is a nutrition documentary that takes a measured look at the increasingly ubiquitous abuse of so-called “research” and “facts”.