The typical American diet is the number one cause of deadly and chronic illnesses in this country.
In addition, the companies that produce some of the food products Americans eat aren’t likely to try to help reduce these serious problems.
And don’t look for assistance from government agencies and some of our best-known health-related organizations.
They have conflicts of interest because they receive funding from the meat, dairy, and pharmaceutical industries.
That’s the main premise of a new documentary that premiered online last week.
“What The Health,” which is streaming now on Vimeo, seems to have garnered early attention.
The hour-and-a-half long documentary was the top trending video on Vimeo On Demand in the first few days after its release on Mar. 22.
Filmmaker Kip Andersen was not available this week for an interview, but in press materials he said the documentary “reveals possibly the largest health cover-up of our time.”
Officials at some of the organizations criticized in Andersen’s film are not impressed.
They accuse Andersen of cherry-picking studies and ignoring the importance of industry-funded research.
“There’s no doubt that poor diet and lack of exercise can lead to various health problems, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes,” Greg Miller, PhD, FACN, chief science officer for the National Dairy Council, told Healthline in an email. “People want to do their best when choosing a healthy diet, but so much information — and misinformation — makes it hard to know who and what to believe. That’s why it’s unfortunate when films such as ‘What the Health’ misrepresent sound nutrition science.”
What the documentary entails
Andersen begins his film by discussing how his family medical history got him interested in the topic.
“Like a lot of Americans, I have a family history of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, so it was important to me to learn more,” Andersen, who co-directed “What the Health” with Keegan Kuhn, said in a press statement.
Andersen proceeds to detail the health hazards of some of the favorite foods in the United States, citing numerous studies along the way.
He says meat, in particular processed meats, is a major cause of cancer and cardiovascular disease. This includes all meat products from beef to chicken to turkey to even fish. Chicken, he points out, is the top producer of cholesterol in Americans’ diets.
Andersen, who also made the film “Cowspiracy,” then goes after the dairy industry.
He says the health risks of products such as milk, cheese, and eggs have been underplayed. He states that eggs are pure fat and cholesterol.
Andersen then checks the websites of some of the country’s major organizations.
He says the American Cancer Society has no warning about meat on its site and even has suggested recipes that include processed meat.
Andersen also finds recipes for meat dishes on the American Diabetes Association website.
There are also “heart healthy” recipes for beef dishes on the American Heart Association website.
Andersen also notes the Susan G. Komen foundation has no warning about dairy products on its site even though he quotes research linking dairy products to breast cancer.
Andersen calls each of the organizations for an explanation but does not get answers.
He finally lines up an interview with an official at the American Diabetes Association. That interview ends with the official walking out of the room.
After feeling stonewalled, Andersen goes online and looks up the funding sources for these various organizations.
He finds each of them has a long list of corporate sponsors.
The American Diabetes Association receives support from Dannon yogurt, among others.
The American Cancer Society receives support from Tyson Foods, among others.
And the American Heart Association receives support from the Texas Beef Council, among others.
He adds that the organizations also receive funding from the pharmaceutical industry.
Andersen points out the federal commission that formulates U.S. dietary guidelines every five years is filled with members who have received corporate support.
During the course of the film, Andersen interviews a dozen people in health-related fields including physicians and dietitians.
He also profiles three people with chronic illnesses near the end of the documentary who are faring better after two weeks of cutting out medications and eating a more plant-based diet.
The start of a healthy debate?
Kurt Mosley, the vice president of strategic alliances for Merritt Hawkins health consultants, said the documentary brings up several important points.
The first is the unhealthy aspects of the average American diet.
“I think that is key,” Mosley told Healthline. “It’s our fast food diet.”
He does disagree with the filmmaker’s contention that eating well is cheaper than eating poorly.
“I try to eat healthy and it’s expensive,” he said.
Mosley said the potential conflicts between the health organizations and industry are interesting, but he’d like to know exactly what support they’re getting, what percentage of their budget comes from those sources, and who else provides backing.
“I’d like to see what sponsorship is across the board,” he said.
Mosley said one of the big “takeaways” from the film is the point that many organizations try to help people cope with a disease, as opposed to preventing it either through lifestyle or medical advances.
“We need to cure diseases rather than live with them,” he said. “We need to advise people on how to take better care of themselves.”
Mosley said this is a prime topic when he discusses poverty’s effect on healthcare with various groups.
Overall, he said the documentary could serve as an impetus for discussion of all these important issues.
“This is really good as a start,” he said. “We have to start the conversation.”
Representatives from some of the organizations highlighted in the film are criticizing Andersen’s film for a number of reasons.
Suzanne Grant, vice president of media relations and issues management at the American Heart Association, said her organization’s recommendations on diet have always followed a “rigorous, systematic review system of the best available scientific information.”
She said the association’s most recent lifestyle guidelines, for example, recommend that adults follow a diet that emphasizes vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. It also includes low-fat dairy products, poultry, and fish, and suggests limiting red meat as well as products laden with sugar and salt.
As for the recipes on the association site, Grant said it’s part of the organization’s goal of “meeting people where they are.”
“A vegan or vegetarian dining pattern is not the dominant one in the U.S. today,” Grant said. “While we recommend that adults who could benefit from lowering their LDL cholesterol or their blood pressure should limit their red meat intake, we also recognize that red meat is a common feature of the American diet, and we urge all Americans to make informed choices to follow the recommended overall heart-healthy dietary pattern noted above if they choose to eat meat.”
She added that nearly 80 percent of the American Heart Association’s revenue comes from sources other than corporations.
Grant noted that the association is transparent about the money it receives from industry.
“Financial support from a wide variety of corporations from across the country helps us achieve our goals of improving the cardiovascular health of all Americans and saving more lives,” she said.
Officials at the American Cancer Society had a similar reaction.
They point out they have a detailed list of dietary and lifestyle guidelines on their site.
Included in those guidelines are warnings about potential cancer risks with processed meats.
Officials add the nonprofit organization has participated in studies that have shown a link between red meat and cancer.
Critics also noted that Andersen uses only one study to link dairy to breast cancer when there is other research concluding there is no link.
Miller, of the National Dairy Council, said the documentary’s statements about healthy eating and dairy foods “are not supported by the science community.”
He said there are numerous ways to build a healthy diet.
Dairy foods, he added, “play an essential role due to their unique set of nine essential nutrients.”
He said emerging research shows that dairy foods like milk, cheese, and yogurt are associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Miller also dismissed the notion that any research funded by industry is biased.
“The assumption that research sponsored by industry which shows a favorable outcome is biased is disappointing to say the least,” said Miller. “What people may not realize is that without funding from industry, high-caliber research may not be possible. By focusing on funding bias, we risk dismissing what are potentially important contributions to scientific literature.”
He said the dairy council sponsors research at national and international universities that adheres to scientific principles.
“That’s why it’s important to look beyond the funding acknowledgements and make sure the research is rigorous and not biased toward outcomes to determine how it fits in the totality of science,” Miller said.