Two Diet Wrongs Don’t Make a Diet Right

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Documentaries are generally intended to enlighten and provoke us. Those I have seen in areas outside my own expertise always seem to do both. Those in my area of expertise—broadly, nutrition, lifestyle practices and health—often seem to be more about provocation than education, and at times, even provocation at the expense of education. That makes me wonder if the other films have similar liabilities, and I simply lack the expertise to recognize it—but I will continue to give them the benefit of my doubt.

But doubt is the very matter that concerns me. If, for instance, my wife and I see a documentary advocating for vegan diets and the narrative suggests that (a) sugar in the diet is not a concern, or (b) deli meats are as likely to cause cancer as smoking, or (c) eating wild salmon is toxic for people, she turns to me and says: “I’m confused.” The goal of documentaries about diet should not be perpetual confusion and doubt.

If my wife is confused by food documentaries, I have to infer that she has a lot of company. Catherine has a PhD in neuroscience from Princeton, so she is extremely well educated and exceptionally smart. She lives with a nutrition expert husband, and is an expert cook in her own right. Yet, diet documentaries tend to confuse even my wife. Why?

Because to achieve the intended provocation, they do what too much of our pop culture dialogue about health already does: they invoke a single scapegoat, or silver bullet. So, once they tell you the one thing “wrong” with our diets, they must tell you how utterly and dreadfully wrong it is—and that everything else is “right." Or, at least, not the problem.

Focusing on One "Culprit"

The recently released documentary, What the Health, which features a number of my friends and colleagues, seems to embrace the view that if processed meat is a problem with prevailing diets (it is!), then sugar cannot be.

I disagree, emphatically. There can be more than one thing wrong with a diet, and being wrong about that doesn’t help make diets right. Rather, it talks people into more of the same: an endless exploration of different ways to eat badly.

The film notes near the beginning that the International Agency on Cancer Research had declared processed meat a “class I carcinogen” (technically, that should be “group 1”)—the same as tobacco and various industrial chemicals. Red meat in general is classified in group 2. The narrator emphasizes this throughout, expressing outrage that something as toxic as tobacco could show up in recipes recommended by the American Cancer Society, among others.

I agree entirely that the American Cancer Society, and the American Heart Association, and any other organization purporting to defend health, should have nothing to do with processed meats and should be encouraging all Americans to eat less meat for many reasons. But the link to cancer is fundamentally exaggerated in the film, due either to ignorance or willful manipulation of the audience.

What do I mean? Well, sunlight is also a “group 1” carcinogen on the IARC list. The What the Health narrator fails to mention that. The IARC groups are not about the strength of the carcinogen or how much cancer each causes, but simply the strength of the evidence. The strength of the evidence linking radiation in sunlight to skin cancer is decisive, so sunlight is on the list. Should we therefore be outraged with any health organization that recommends walking outside?

Take a Whole Diet Approach

This to me, though, was the minor problem with the film. The far more major problem in the general context of such distortions was the “pick one dietary villain” theme. The film interviews several health experts who all but say that as long as you avoid eating meat—the conclusion the film had obviously reached before the first question was posed—nothing else matters much, including how much sugar you eat.

Don’t be confused, and don’t get talked into thinking this way. Diet is of profound importance to health, and what matters most is what makes up most of your diet. The dietary patterns consistently and strongly associated with the best health outcomes, based on every kind of study, and people all around the world, emphasize whole, wholesome plant foods. They are rich in vegetables and fruits every time; beans and lentils almost every time; nuts and seeds much of the time; and whole grains most of the time.

The world’s healthiest, most vital and disease-free people rely on plain water to quench thirst, and often drink tea or coffee, and perhaps some wine (another IARC group 1 carcinogen, by the way), but never (or hardly ever) soda. They eat little meat,and very little if any processed meat, but also eat very little added sugar.

In other words, their diets are good not because of any one thing, but because of everything, and their health is generally good for the same reason.

There are, indeed, unsavory ties between corporate sponsors and health organizations, and I appreciate the exposure of such issues by films like What the Health. We also know that the health of both people and planet would benefit tremendously if human beings ate a lot less meat and processed meat and wholesome plant foods in their place, as a matter of routine. If you want one practical tip, substitute beans for beef every chance you get.

But the idea that if processed meat is bad for us, sugar must be fine, simply invites us to keep making old mistakes in new directions. We have already, needlessly, surrendered far too many years from lives, and far too much life from years, by exploring alternative ways of eating badly.

Let’s stop that.  Two dietary wrongs don’t make diet, or health, right. Wholesome foods, mostly plants in a sensible combination, do just that.

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