"What the Health" Review - a collaboration with Fight the Fads

I met up with Fight the Fads to discuss the controversial Netflix documentary "What the Health?".

You may have watched the new Netflix film called ‘What the Health‘. It is described by it’s film producers as “the film (which) exposes the collusion and corruption in government and big business that is costing us trillions of healthcare dollars, and keeping us sick.” Here are our thoughts on the some of the claims and statements made:

World Health Organisation report as classified bacon & sausage as carcinogenic to humans

Recently, the World Health Organisation (WHO) did indeed classify processed meat as a class 1 carcinogen.This is the official WHO justification for processed meat being grouped as a class 1 carcinogen. Other class 1 carcinogens include tobacco and plutonium. It does not require a science degree to realise that one bacon sandwich and one plutonium sandwich are not equally dangerous. Dose is important!

Whilst evidence has shown a link between excessive consumption of red meat and increased risk of colon cancer, the Department of Health doesn’t recommend cutting out red meat altogether. This is because, in the British diet, red meat makes a large contribution to our intakes of protein, vitamins and minerals such as iron and zinc. Cutting out a large food group such as red meat without careful planning appropriate substitutions could leave you deficient in certain essential nutrients.

Current recommendations advise people who eat more than 90g (cooked weight) of red and processed meat a day to cut down to 70g, which is the average daily consumption in the UK. If you choose not to eat red meat that’s also fine, so long as you ensure you are meeting your daily protein and vitamin and mineral requirements from other sources.

However, if you wish to reduce your red meat intake why not try one of the following?

  • Have at least 1 meat free day during the week
  • If you are making a bolognese/burgers, why not swap 50% of mince meat for a protein alternative, such as lentils or other legumes. You’ll get the protein and the healthy fibre!

Pharmaceutical industry sells 80% of all antibiotics made in the United States to animal agriculture 

Globally, antibiotic resistance is a serious problem and the mass use of antibiotics in animal agriculture does contribute to this. When animals are kept in a confined space and given lots of antibiotics, bacteria that are resistant to the drugs will survive and multiply.

However, this documentary was filmed in the US, where antibiotic use in farming is much more prevalent than in the UK. We have much stricter rules and regulations to help limit the antibiotics given to animals and prevent resistance.

For women who have had breast cancer, just one serving of dairy a day can increase their chance of dying from the disease by 49% and dying from any disease by 64%

The documentary claims that consuming dairy increased mortality after a breast cancer diagnosis. We looked at the original paper that they referenced. We found that although consuming full-fat dairy products was CORRELATED (correlation is different to causation) with higher mortality, consuming low-fat dairy was not linked to higher death rates (which they conveniently did not mention).

Post menopausal breast cancer is strongly linked with low levels of physical activity and obesity. It is important to consider that those choosing full-fat dairy products may be less health conscious. For example, these people may make poorer lifestyle choices when looking at their whole diet and physical activity, which could explain the correlation with higher mortality.

American Cancer Society, American Diabetes Association and American Heart Association accepting millions of dollars from pharmaceutical companies 

The programme describes relationships between organisations such as the American Heart Association and the food industry as ‘sinister’. When an organisation responsible for health promotion receives commercial sponsorship this can create concern. People might worry that information provided by the organisation is influenced in a way that may favour food industry profit margins rather than public health.

This isn’t necessarily the case; many collaborations of this kind involve organisations working with brands to improve the nutritional profile of their products, for example, the collaboration between the Food Standards Agency and UK food producers in 2009 which successfully reduced the amount of added salt in many commercial products. There is huge potential to improve the quality of food through collaboration between health professionals and food producers.

The problem with this programme is that it criticises collaboration between the American Heart Association and food companies like Kraft without saying what the relationship involved. For all we know Kraft could be sponsoring the American Heart Association to look at ways of promoting exercise for heart health- which could be positive!? The problems arise when the public isn’t given all the facts, which can make us feel like we are being ‘hoodwinked’ to the detriment of our health. Transparency is key.

Diabetes is not caused by eating a high carbohydrate diet or sugar 

Although there isn’t a single cause of diabetes, a meta-analysis of 11 studies showed that people who had at least 2 servings of sugar-sweetened beverages/day vs those who had less than one serving/month had a 26% increased risk of Type 2 diabetes (T2DM).

More recently, WHO/ SACN 2015 reviewed the evidence on the effects of carbohydrates on health.  Although SACN did not find an association between total or individual sugar intakes and incidence of T2DM, evidence from prospective cohort studies did show that greater consumption of SSBs is associated with increased risk of T2DM.

Observational studies such as the Nurses’ Health Study showed that carbohydrates with a high Glycaemic Index (GI) for example biscuits, cakes and pastries foods are positively associated with increased incidences of Type 2 Diabetes.

Check the credentials!

The two film-makers of this programme had a clear agenda- to use pseudoscience and distorted evidence which favours a vegan lifestyle. This creates fear-mongering! We are not saying that one diet fits all- a vegan diet may be right for YOU!

However, the evidence presented in this programme is often misinterpreted or misleading. The film-makers claim that this is “the health film that health organisations don’t want you to see”. It is not surprising that health organisations were reluctant to get involved- the programme had a biased slant, made sweeping statements, and were not transparent about the extent of the collaborations between health organisations and food industry.

Take home messages:

– Not all class 1 carcinogens are equally dangerous. Dose is important.

– A high GI diet/SSBs has been linked with increased risk of T2DM

– Antibiotic resistance due to animal agriculture is a problem, but the UK have strict regulations to help prevent this

– Evidence does not suggest eating dairy increases mortality after a breast cancer diagnosis

– Collaboration between health professionals and the food industry can be useful-transparency is key

– The film-makers do not have scientific backgrounds but do have confirmation bias. They are not a credible or impartial source of nutritional information