"What The Health" – my thoughts

food choices & feeding mood learning & behaviour parenting

I watched “What The Health” the other night on Netflix.

Short answer is… I’m not a fan. The movie has a very obvious vegan agenda, which is fine… whatever.  I have nothing against vegans. But it turns a very complex subject (the question “what should we eat?”) into black and white, misses the entire concept of bioindividuality and leaves out a significant portion of nutritional research – particularly on the potential negative effects of a vegan diet on the brain.

I wavered on whether to even write a response, but given that most of my audience struggles with mental health, learning and development issues I felt compelled.

My concern is that parents are going to get very confused by this film and either throw up their hands feeling guilty about everything or worse, adopt a diet that might not suit their family’s needs because of the “oh my god, really?” response this film evokes.

If you’re going to change your family’s diet, do it based on a full spectrum of information. 

Here’s a part of the film I agree with: factory farming and processing of animals is not good for our health, for our planet, for our fellow humans, or for animals. It produces poor quality food and is inhumane and unhealthy on so many levels.

But I’d add that large scale agriculture and processing of plants might not be a heck of a lot better. Nutritional and bacterial diversity of the soil and the food grown on it is being depleted by farming practices, and chemicals like glyphosate and other pesticides are proving detrimental to health.

The film does not address this. The message is just “if you want to live, run from animal foods”.

Here’s another part I agree with: corporate interests have overtaken food policy, health care, the government agencies that are supposed to protect us and even nutritional research. We’ve reached a new level of insanity and it’s incredibly hard to know who and what to trust. 

But while the film points a finger at the dairy and meat industries, no mention is made of the wheat, sugar, corn or soy lobbies which are just as fierce.

But here’s the biggest problem I have with the film: the science it explores is far from complete. And this is what is going to cause the confusion.

We’re busy parents who just want to do right by our kids and I worry this movie will scare parents into making food choices while keeping them unaware of some really important info.

I’m not going to spend time dissecting the science from the movie or point fingers. Truth is, the doctors in this film are doing great work with vegan diets and are seeing great results and helping a lot of people. I’ve nothing against that or against them.

But this film does not explore the entire story of how food influences the body and a vegan diet is not right for everyone. 

There’s no mention of how a mediterranean-style diet that includes moderate amounts of meat, dairy and fish might improve depression, or how a grain free diet can improve blood pressure, insulin resistance, autism, Crohn’s or anxiety or the amazing work of doctors who are using a Paleo approach to reverse autoimmune disease (see references below). Not even a whiff or a nod. Again… it’s, “if you want to live, run from animal foods”. And, quite frankly, that’s not always the case.

For those of you interested, here is a link to a decent overview of some of the cherry picking that went on in this film, the backstory on some of the people interviewed and some of the counter arguments. 

But here’s really what I want to say to parents about this film….

By all means try a vegan diet if you want to. Eat more fresh plants for sure. They’re full of fibre, micronutrients, enzymes and phytochemicals that are part of a healthy diet. For most of us plants will keep the bowels moving, the gut bacteria healthy and the immune system strong.

But if you’re going to ditch animal foods, here are my cautions:

  • Do it with the understanding that a vegan diet is not all about what you take out… it’s just as much about what you put in. Forgetting this is a major pitfall of any restrictive diet approach.
  • Do it out of curiosity rather than out of disgust or fear. Do it consciously with your eyes wide open and maintaining a mindset of possibility
  • Do it with a firm understanding of the symptoms of nutritional deficiencies like those associated with zinc, iron, B12, B6, fatty acids, vitamin A, and choline. You’ll find those symptoms outlined in appendix F and K in my book. They are common deficiencies for vegans and can be detrimental to brain health. 
  • If you are considering a vegan diet for a child be very cautious if they are entering puberty. They need tons of nutrients to weather this hormone storm, particularly zinc, cholesterol and B vitamins, low levels of which have been linked to the development of eating disorders, acne, aggression, anxiety and depression (which often coincide with puberty)
  • Be very cautious with this if you or your child is depressed or experiences anxiety. Here’s a lovely explanation of why from Dr Kelly Brogan MD 
  • Be very cautious going vegan if you or your chid has ADHD. Nutrient deficiencies including zinc, the B, iron, essential fatty acids, and phospholipids have been linked to ADHD and a vegan diet might make matters worse if you’re not careful.
  • Be very cautious if you are a mom recovering from pregnancy, especially if you are experiencing mood changes. Read this post for more on that.

Bottom line is please don’t get confused by this film. A vegan diet might be great for some people. it can reverse health conditions in some people (like those in the film), it can cause health conditions in others. You could argue that it’s better for the environment, but then again, you could also argue (as Joel Salatin does here) that animal farming is imperative for plant agriculture, it’s just that “Big Ag” is doing it wrong.  

Factory farming and corporate influence isn’t good for anyone. But Veganism isn’t right for everyone. There are many paths to health. 

If you want to get beyond diet dogma and really focus in on what makes a diet healthy read this post.

For more about nutritional contributors to mood and behaviour issues see the references below


A few selected references:

On zinc and eating disorders: http://europepmc.org/abstract/med/11930982

On cholesterol and aggression: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1359178998000093?via%3Dihub

On nutrients and ADHD: http://www.feingold.org/Research/PDFstudies/Kidd00.pdf

On Fatty acids and ADHD: http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/71/1/327S.short

On nutrients and ADHD: https://academic.oup.com/nutritionreviews/article-abstract/66/10/558/1825726

On nutrients and ADHD: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1586/ern.09.7

On red meat and depression: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/9158235/Red-meat-halves-risk-of-depression.html

On mediterranean diet and nutrients and depression https://bmcmedicine.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12916-017-0791-y

On Paleo diet and pre diabetes https://www.nature.com/ejcn/journal/v63/n8/abs/ejcn20094a.html.

On glyphosate http://people.csail.mit.edu/seneff/

On pesticides and the brain https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/features/health-benefits-organic-food-farming-report/

On corruption in scientific journals https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2964337/

On Paleo and autoimmune disease: http://terrywahls.com/about-the-wahls-protocol/ |  https://www.thepaleomom.com/start-here/the-autoimmune-protocol/

On grain free and autism: http://www.crohnsboy.com/linked/scdsumm.pdf | http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0024585

On grain and Crohn’s:  http://journals.lww.com/jpgn/Abstract/2014/10000/Clinical_and_Mucosal_Improvement_With_Specific.20.aspx


About Jess Sherman, FDN-P, M.Ed, R.H.N

Jess is a Functional Diagnostic Nutrition® Practitioner, Registered Holistic Nutritionist and a trauma-sensitive Family Health Educator specializing in brain health & resilience for kids. She is also a teacher, with a Master's degree in education. Her Calm & Clear Kids introductory course, her Amino Acids (with kids!) Quickstart program, and her signature Resilience Roadmap,  along with her book Raising Resilience, have helped families in at least 44 countries improve the lives of their children with learning differences, anxiety, ADHD, and mood disorders and reduce their reliance on medication. She is the 2019 recipient of the CSNNAA award for Clinical Excellence for her work with families, and she continues to bring an understanding of the 5 Core Needs For Resilient Health to the mainstream conversation about children’s mental health, learning, and overall resilience through her blog, courses, workshops and as a contributor to print and online magazines. 

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The content on this website and in the guides and courses offered here is meant to provide information so that parents can make informed decisions and discuss these issue with their health care teams. It is not intended as, nor should it be considered a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or individualized care.