What “What The Health” Teaches Us About Veganism and Diets

One reason many people decide to go vegan is because they’re told it’s healthier than the modern diet that considers animal products a centerpiece. I think it’s great that people are going vegan; for every person that eliminates animal products from their diet, there is a corresponding decrease in animal suffering. But what if people are going vegan for the wrong reasons?

The problem is that the supposed health benefits that are thought to be heralded by veganism aren’t as well established as we’re often led to believe. Research on the human diet is seeped in conflicts of interest, manipulation of data, and epidemiological studies that tell us virtually nothing about which foods do and don’t lead to disease.

So you can imagine the uneasy feeling provoked in me by the soaring popularity of ‘What The Health,’ a documentary on Netflix produced by the same folks that brought us ‘Cowspiracy.’ Within the first twenty minutes, there were so many misleading claims and outright absurdities that I had to shut it off. (I did finish it, eventually.) They actually said that sugar doesn’t cause diabetes. To support this claim, their website lists five citations for the “fact” that “diabetes is not caused by eating a high carbohydrate diet or sugar”; just two of the citations are from primary sources. The first is a review by Dr. Neal Barnard in which meat consumption is argued to be a risk factor for diabetes, wherein the word “sugar” is not mentioned at all and “carbohydrate” appears only twice. The second is a report of the results of a study that concludes that “insulin resistance in the skeletal muscle of insulin-resistant offspring of patients with type 2 diabetes is associated with dysregulation of intramyocellular fatty acid metabolism, possibly because of an inherited defect in mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation.” I haven’t the slightest clue what that means, but I suspect it has nothing to do with how sugar and carbs supposedly don’t cause diabetes.

Such is the state of nutrition research. There are studies and data to support the notion that whatever diet you’re into is the healthiest diet there is. Particularly abused are the epidemiological studies, which show “people who eat X are more likely to be diagnosed with Y,” neglecting to control for all of the important variables that will allow us to learn anything about what the findings actually mean.

And don’t get me started on the “we are 100% herbivore” bit espoused by the likes of Gary Yourofsky and repeated in the film. We are not 100% anything. We are products of evolution, adapted to the environment of our ancestors. Whether our ancient relatives ate only plants, only meat, or a mixture of the two is irrelevant and inconsequential. At some point, we began to eat animals, and we have evolved physiologically to handle that. As long as we intake the right number of calories, some fiber, and various nutrients, it doesn’t matter where it comes from.

The fact is that it is possible that the healthiest diet one could eat consists mainly of animal products. Don’t be alarmed: there is no reason to believe that a vegan diet is unhealthy. But we should avoid making claims regarding the health benefits of veganism — and, by extension, the detrimental effects of a diet heavy in animal products — until we know for sure. If it turns out that veganism is the healthiest diet one can follow, then great. Many people will go vegan for what will amount to be another good reason to do so. But if it turns out that, say, a ketogenic diet including bacon and eggs every morning is most likely to reward you with a long life, we will look like fools.

We need to be careful with what we say because we never want to have to backtrack. We want to be scrupulous, careful, and scientific. We need our argument for veganism to be bulletproof.

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