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    A physician’s take on “What the Health”

    Editor's Note: Welcome to Medical Economics' blog section which features contributions from members of the medical community. These blogs are an opportunity for bloggers to engage with readers about a topic that is top of mind, whether it is practice management, experiences with patients, the industry, medicine in general, or healthcare reform. The series continues with this blog by Jonathan Kaplan, MD, MPH, a board-certified plasic surgeon based in San Francisco, California. The views expressed in these blogs are those of their respective contributors and do not represent the views of Medical Economics or UBM Medica.


    Become a vegan! That's the message of the recent documentary from Netflix, What the Health.


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    This is a purposely incendiary documentary in the same vein as Super Size Me, the documentary claiming—wait for it—that McDonald's food is bad for you! In other words, What the Health tells us some things we already knew (like processed meats are bad) and uses inaccurate comparisons, detailed below, as well as editing interviews in a way to purposely take comments out of context—all in an effort to make us angry and emotional. But look past that. Don't get caught up only on the issue of Veganism. While there are some frustrating aspects of this documentary and assertions that shouldn’t be taken as fact, there are several other messages worth focusing on in this documentary.

    Processed meats and dairy

    Now, on to the film. We're presented with the fact that the World Health Organization considers processed meats (deli meat, bacon, hot dogs, etc.) as class 1 carcinogens, in the same category as cigarettes and plutonium. They also claim that eating one egg a day is similar to smoking 5 cigarettes per day. While the fact that processed meats are considered bad for you, and certainly not news, the comparison between eggs and cigarettes is outlandish.Dr. Kaplan

    For completeness, what's the reasoning behind the eggs and cigarettes comparison? The claim is that the saturated fat in egg yolks can increase cholesterol and lead to cardiovascular disease in the same way cigarettes can. But according to this study, this claim is not supported. As a physician-viewer, you immediately feel insulted as to the false drama in these claims and presenting old news as if it's hot off the press.

    With the help of several experts, we're told how what we eat affects our health—also something we already knew. In the process, they shatter some supposed myths about how sugar isn't really the culprit to a bad diet, but that meat and dairy are the underlying cause of our diseased human state.


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    As they promote conspiracy theories and debunk "myths," you quickly realize you don't know what to believe anymore. For example, they claim that carbs and sugar aren't really that bad. The problem is fat.

    However, this NY Times story provides evidence that the sugar industry paid researchers in the 1960s to write a paper refuting the concerning link between sugar and heart disease, and instead shifted the blame to fat. But now, most reputable organizations and studies show the risk of heart disease is in fact due to sugars and fat.

    Next: "The most fascinating discovery in this documentary"

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    • Anonymous
      I disagree with Dr. Kaplan's "take" on the documentary, "What the Health." I did not find it to be in the slightest bit incendiary as he states. I found it quite factual and the scientists and physicians interviewed made comments that were not taken out of context as I have attended conferences at which many of the same scientists have spoken and all the comments in the documentary are consistent with the science they present. The study to which Dr. Kaplan refers as the documentary's basis for the comparison between eggs and cigarette smoking is NOT the study referred to in "What the Health." The documentary referred to the Harvard Nurses' Health Study where they DID find that eating an egg a day was equivalent to smoking 5 cigarettes per day in terms of cardiovascular risk. I am a physician who has been studying nutrition for over 10 years and have independently come to the same conclusion as the documentary's featured scientists: that a whole foods, plant-based diet is overwhelmingly the healthiest diet for humans and pretty much all the scientists in the documentary have each also independently come to the same conclusion. Dr. Michael Greger's website, nutritionfacts.org, is likely the best place on the internet to find non-industry-biased summaries of the peer-reviewed literature on human nutrition. Anyone who is truly searching for the truth in this field which is subject to industry misinformation and bias would do well to spend a few hours viewing Dr. Greger's Year-In-Review nutrition lectures to find out where the truth lies. Dr. Kaplan's "take" reflects significant ignorance about the overwhelming consensus on what constitutes good human nutrition and goes overboard in trying to discredit the an honest effort by honorable scientists to get the word out about how poor our nation's nutrition habits are and what can be done to improve it.

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