“What The Health” (2017) Is Dangerous Propaganda

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Kip Andersen ("What The Health") looking over San Francisco.

A few months ago, I put on Kip Andersen’s pro-vegan agitprop, What The Health, and although it was supposed to be mere muzak- I was making dinner at the time- I had to turn it off after the first twenty minutes. I forget my breaking point, but perhaps it was Kip’s implication that deli meats are as carcinogenic as plutonium, with the WHO- rather ballsily, I may add!- cited for this ‘fact’. Perhaps it was the director’s badgering of security guards and receptionists with inane medical questions, then feigning disbelief when they could not easily answer. Or maybe it was the eerie (and duly transparent) cinematography meant to instill a sense of dread every time I’d glance over at the screen for confirmation that, Yes, I had indeed heard yet another bit of piffle which most viewers would inevitably swallow out of fear. The reality is, one can stop the film pretty much anywhere and find something to cringe over or debate- but only if one is already knowledgeable on the topic. The result? It may be short on data, but What The Health is still a fine piece of propaganda, and a testament to not only the ease with which one can rile up the masses by alleging that they are under attack, but also the fickle nature of trust and distrust, as viewers run from one authority figure to the next in the hope for answers that are probably not there.

Now, don’t get me wrong: the film employs no novel techniques, no interesting framing, no great dialogue, and no real information, but so what? It is really how it all unfolds that plays on human weakness, and makes it both poor art and an effective bludgeoning device. It begins, for example, on a rather sinister note with Dr. Robert Ratner of the American Diabetes Association going on about America’s diabetes problem, then suddenly refusing to discuss diet- a nice edit, on Kip’s part, since What The Health can now set its misleading agenda from the very beginning. After some brief biographical sketches meant to ingratiate Kip with viewers, he tries to wriggle into their good graces by pretending to be like them – such as in his suggestion that he only recently found out about the dangers of processed foods, and is now on the hunt for ‘the truth’, in real-time, as the documentary unfolds. In this way, the viewer is made to feel as if he is starting at the same point as the film’s underdog, and that its many experts – all of whom start to pile up rather quickly – are really the ones taking him through the process, impartially and systematically, against the backdrop of a corporate greed and hapless government bureaucrats too ignorant and lazy to do a thing about it.

To Kip’s credit, the film’s talking-heads are not mere quacks (at least not in the conventional sense) but actual doctors and doctorate-level researchers who further put the audience at ease. They include Dr. Michael Greger (author of How Not To Die), Dr. Neal Barnard (who claims fat consumption causes diabetes), nutritionists, cardiologists, and more, all sandwiched between a slew of chronically ill patients with poor diets discussing their various woes. Studies touting the health benefits of dairy are quickly thrown out as mere industry propaganda (though sugar and plant industry studies are given a free pass), even as Kip glosses over the countless issues in his own evidence. Lesser-known problems, such as dioxins in the food supply, are brought to the fore only to get simplified for the purpose of fear-mongering, while the more legitimate concerns of antibiotics, ethics, and environmental damage from meat consumption – really, the only compelling pro-vegetarian arguments available – are only briefly touched upon. But while this is a strike against the film, it is a boon to its agenda, since playing up to a person’s own self-interests as opposed to ‘deeper’ concerns is the best way to sell dietary guidelines. More bizarre sequences include a failed interview with a heart surgeon, where a hospital rep is ‘caught’ on candid camera arguing that they need to continue profiting off of bad dietary choices, Kip throwing raw fish into a blender to ‘prove’ how unappetizing flesh is, and shots of formerly sick people in good health again after just a few weeks of vegan intervention. Near the end of the film, previous shots of rotting animal carcasses are replaced by vegan athletes, who cap off what is, ostensibly, a just-the-facts documentary with a barrage of ‘You must change your life’ anecdotes – Kip included, who claims to feel his cells vibrating with new life.

Robert Ratner ("What The Health") speaking.

The film’s smeared, de facto antagonist.

Now, there are two ways to tackle falsehoods- by dealing with the theoretical foundations or by a slow, methodical war of attrition against individual details. Generally, I prefer to start with the former, since it is really in the premises where biases tend to take root and allow for the real mistakes to flower. The basic premise of Kip’s work is classic dietary essentialism: meaning, there is a rather narrow set of nutrients which can explain the best (and perhaps only) way to eat. To be fair, I suspect that the various experts profiled in What The Health might reject this assessment, since they’d argue that healthy foods have so many unknown, life-giving properties, and thus it is impossible to draw meaningful distinctions between them. Perhaps, but what they would miss in their objection is that they are still practicing essentialism on a far wider scale, then simply using that scale to logically excuse it. No, they are not isolating individual vitamins and minerals as the ‘key’ to life, but they ARE setting up a clear dichotomy between plant and animal foods, the latter of which always (they argue) trend us towards sickness and disease. Putting aside whether or not that’s even true, it should be noted that Kip does not draw any further distinctions within plant foods themselves- a clear indication of the film’s agenda, since it leaves viewers with the impression that most plant foods- even sugar, highly refined oils, and low-quality carbohydrates- are acceptable. At some point, one expert even goes as far as arguing that we evolved to be strict vegetarians, which is false not only according to his own logic, but also due to the fact that, in the prehistoric world, even highly ideological vegans would have been unwittingly consuming insect and animal parts on a daily basis.

This nullifies any credibility the film might have, but there’s still more to consider. It is questionable, from a purely anthropological standpoint, whether it’s wise to eliminate broad categories of foods that have always been traditionally eaten. Of course, one may argue about the unique, causally opaque benefits of traditional preparation (such as between sourdough bread versus commercial bread), or whether ALL foods that we have evolved to eat – including a great diversity of plant foods – are in fact equal from a health standpoint. These are all legitimate questions to ask, but it is important to note that What The Health answers them by cherry-picking data and refusing to interview dissenting voices. Yes, Andersen goes out of his way to target some of the biggest names in American dietary associations, but they are merely used as piñatas to drive home the film’s message- that there is some deep, hidden truth in pure veganism, and that the experts’ skittishness around this question is proof of a wider conspiracy. Yet what Andersen does NOT tell you is that for every study cited on, say, the ravages of butter and cholesterol, there is an ever-growing body of evidence indicating the exact opposite, with many experts dating back to the fat wars of the twentieth century still unconvinced of even the basics of the lipid hypothesis. Further, one can too easily disaggregate the question of the objective health merits of a vegan diet from the evidence presented in this film, since while I am convinced of the benefits of mostly eating fruits, vegetables, and quality grains, it is undeniable that the evidence Kip uses to make this case is misleading and incomplete.

It is unsurprising, then, that the film opened to wide condemnation from dietary experts. Now, I am as skeptical of modern agribusiness just as those profiled in What The Health are, but keep in mind that ‘the meat lobby’ is not necessarily bigger than the sugar, soy, or corn lobbies, which- with the help of mid-century politicization by way of Ancel Keys– has successfully agitated for dietary recommendations, even if indirectly. I mean, even a quick Google search will bring you endless breakdowns of the film’s science from amateurs and professionals alike, with the worst sins reminiscent of the now-discredited China Study, which aimed to change eating habits the world over yet only managed to push more discerning readers away from vegan desperation in the face of growing scientific dissent.

The environmental waste produced by pigs in "What The Health"

One environmental impact of meat-eating that What The Health argues for.

And this is not to say that vegan diets are necessarily unhealthy- they are not, since they do get most things right. But it is also true human beings have thrived on many different food types in the anthropological record, and still can to this day. This includes (mostly) plant-based diets, but also diets that skew quite heavily towards animal fats and organ meats, blood, grains, fish, and almost everything in between (depending, of course, on one’s genetics), with strong evidence suggesting that even ‘exotic’ foods can be adapted for in a relatively short time. And while there may be an ideal diet for everyone, it will be discovered slowly, and inductively, with only one logical deduction available to us at present: that it will NOT be the typical Western diet of highly processed and de-natured foods. Perhaps one may argue that this is, indeed, what the film gets right, but at what cost? To reach a correct conclusion by way of faulty thinking is nothing more than an accident, and privileges happenstance over the very thinking process which would make America’s thoughtless and self-destructive eating habits less prevalent in the first place.

And, oh- perhaps you are reading this essay because you, yourself, are looking for a guru. So, what is the ideal diet for the average person? Lots of leafy greens, a wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, high quality butter, nuts, avocados, eggs, meat, fish, soy, cheese, full-fat yogurt, whole grains (yes, this may include corn), EVOO, beans, spirulina, adaptogens, B vitamins, K2, D, retinol, bone broth, magnesium, turmeric, a smattering of high-quality PUFAs, and more- much more. No fast food, no refined carbs, no oils of unknown etiology. No trans fats. Ignore fads and avoid extremes. Prefer traditional preparation over commercial techniques, since causal opaqueness is real and likely underrated for health.  Does this list piss off pretty much every ideologue on the planet, from Paleo nutballs, to vegans, and the American Heart Association? Maybe. Do I believe in and personally follow my own recommendations? Yes. But if you think I have ‘the’ answer, or can really be your guru, or offer some sort of guarantee against what is, essentially, a lottery of diseases over which we can exert only modest control, then you have not been reading very well.

8 Comments “What The Health” (2017) Is Dangerous Propaganda

    1. Gisele

      The writer will write about what -he- wants to write about on -his- website in the order -he- likes.

    1. Alex SheremetAlex Sheremet

      But that’s the point- we don’t have a time machine. America needs to focus on what it’s good at as well as develop/invest in new industries it can be great at, not simply protect dying industries (coal) or ramp up manufacture in some half-assed way to compete with nations whose very niche is manufacture.

  1. Gisele

    Thank you for your analysis, Alex.

    It’s interesting how Kip (amongst others) lazily snakes in a specious argument to compel people to adopt veganism, rather than retelling/reimagining, fleshing out and refining the three pro-veganism arguments you listed to captivate and influence the very viewers that previous vegan docus failed to galvanise. Those three reasons are powerful as is. Then again, environmentalism and ethics aren’t going to woo everyone…why stop there when you can throw in a whole lot of deception peppered with half-truths to rouse and jolt the food-anxious, health-conscious and nutritionally naive into compliance…

    The ones who feel a tickle in their loins upon receiving a reaffirmation—gift-wrapped as something sciencey and ostensibly legitimate—then readily disseminate it. It is again swallowed whole by the food-anxious, health-conscious and nutritionally naive members of their social circles, along with a few others who didn’t know they were aching for something WTH apparently offered them. The notion that these arguments are sound and valid subsequently becomes entrenched in these spheres by virtue of their ubiquity and in-group support.

    The situation must feel dire or distressing to a lot of vegans to the point that they can’t or don’t want to waste time dealing with abstractions or complex arguments. Perhaps they don’t possess the intellect or desire to navigate this information with a discerning eye. In any case, people are increasingly embracing veganism or vegetarianism around the world—no thanks to thrillers like WTH. That said, some are indeed “converted” through fear-mongering or guilt-tripping. Do you think such folk could evolve beyond behaving as ideologically possessed practitioners of veganism in spite of their evangelisation, and without confronting and understanding the way in which they arrived at that position?

    Reply
    1. Alex SheremetAlex Sheremet

      I do believe vegetarianism is the future, mostly due to ethical reasons. People will enter it much in the same way that they enter anything else: a gut feeling refined by whatever time period they are in, followed by post-hoc rationalizations which may or may not be valid. To use a less controversial example, most people are pretty good at knowing how to act, and what is ethical or not ethical, but they probably wouldn’t be able to give you a sophisticated explanation, or to properly differentiate between instances, or to systematize their thought in a meaningful way. I don’t see why becoming vegetarian would be any different.

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