Will You REALLY Get Cancer if You Eat Meat?
Well, you might. But it won’t be because you had bacon last Sunday.
This time, the Things That Keep Me Up at Night crew discuss the 2017 “documentary” What the Health, a hyper-biased trek that explores the correlation between meat-based diets and basically every chronic disease known to man. Also, Olivia gives out her favorite salsa recipe (even if she is confused about where capsaicin comes from).
Though Kip Andersen does make valid points, his lack of professionalism and general ignorance of science completely undermine any informational value What the Health might have.
How Do Meat-Based Diets Affect Health? - (12:03-43:05)
We recommend reading up on Vox.com’s debunking of this documentary, but even they couldn’t talk about everything wrong with it. While processed meats are currently classified as a Class 1 Carcinogen by the World Health Organization, this alone means nothing in relating how dangerous meat really is. Plutonium and cigarettes are also Class 1 carcinogens, but you won’t die of radiation poisoning if you walk through a room full of cold cuts.
Simply put, the connection between omnivorous diets and overall health are tenuous at best. As Dr. Ratner from the American Diabetes Association put it, studies can be poorly executed or yield incorrect results. For a dietary study to have any real meaning, it would require a huge sample size of children to be locked in a monitored area for the entire duration of their lives while scientists force them to eat strict diets of either all vegetables or all fast foods and processed meats. This may sound a little, I don’t know, unethical? Impossible? So a study with real meaning is nearly impossible. Moreover, there is no such thing as a “control” diet, so there isn’t anything neutral to which scientists can compare the results.
(15:20) This is why no one from reputable organizations can provide definitive answers to Andersen’s highly leading and extremely annoying questions. Well, that, and he asks for scientific data from receptionists and then wonders why they have to transfer his call. It’s not a conspiracy, Kip, it’s just that you’re talking to a Communications major who started her job two weeks ago. Relax.
(17:36) It’s also important to note who exactly Kip Andersen chooses to be scientific liaisons in his documentary. As Brooke found in her own research while watching, every single representative featured in What the Health is selling something, and most of them are indisputably biased by their own affiliations, both private and professional. Most of the doctors’ organizations are well-known animal rights and plant-based diet advocates, one of which with ties to domestic terrorist organizations. One of the organizations claims that water fasting can cure a whole host of diseases, even shrink malignant tumors. No, Dr. Klaper. It can’t. One of them offers a non-insurance-covered $1,200 program for a plant- and oil-free diets, which I’m sure doesn’t create a conflict of interest at all.
(36:40) Now, that isn’t to say that eating more fruits and veggies isn’t objectively better for you than not. Your diet absolutely should include a variety of plants - they’re great for your gut, provide tons of vitamins and nutrients, and taste damn good to boot. Overeating meat is absolutely possible and will cause you some pretty nasty health problems in the short term (constipation, anyone?). But to claim that meat is the root cause of nearly all chronic diseases is a dangerous oversimplification, and a plant-based diet will absolutely not cure cancer. What is so upsetting about Andersen’s presentation is his unwillingness to listen to science fact, opting instead to lean into pseudoscience to support his agenda. An egg is not equivalent to smoking five cigarettes, and no doctor worth their salt will tell you so.
Is What the Health Propaganda? - (43:05-46:36)
Lies from bad doctors aside, the film itself is fully stocked with a fresh crop of full-on propaganda. The images Andersen uses aren’t meant to illuminate information, but rather to draw false equivalences and feed on the audience’s fear. The unfortunate end result is a collection of cartoonish and often-laughable B-roll that includes sausages fried with cigarettes, cigar hot dogs, and a bizarre claim that humans aren’t omnivores because they “don’t look like bears” and because they find blended raw fish disgusting.
But the dangerous thing here is - not everyone is laughing. Whereas we went into this documentary knowing its reputation, many people very well might take the information (or misinformation) at face value. When Andersen effectively equates sausages to cigarettes, that image is more likely to stick with a viewer than a chart or statistic. Sure, the logic breaks apart with a little bit of critical thinking, but it’s much easier to remember the image of a human morphing into a bear than it is a dissertation on physiological evolution in humans.
This film is dangerous for the same reason all propaganda is dangerous - it exploits the way humans learn and remember information to spread an agenda based in fallacies and outright lies. It’s no longer about eating more greens and cutting back on the burgers, it’s about presenting lies as facts.
How Meat Production Influences the Environment and Society - (46:36-70:50)
No offense, Kip, but fish aren’t “mercury sponges.”
Yeah, bioaccumulation and dioxins are real things. Waste runoff causes algae blooms, industrial farming has a massive negative impact on the surrounding people and environment. There absolutely are ethical concerns when it comes to the treatment of animals involved in the industrial farming complex. But, as we discuss at length throughout the episode, it is impossible to make a valid point if the point is surrounded by lies.
This documentary’s biggest crime is discrediting its own point. Agricultural racism absolutely exists, but the documentary dedicates ten minutes to that point, neglecting to provide data or reasoning behind their claims. Andersen also addresses the ethical concerns surrounding animal treatment, but inexplicably cushions it with outright lies about the pus content in milk (spoiler alert: it’s zero).
(51:35) Moreover, the documentary chooses to simply ignore the construction of the industrial farming complex, choosing to blame the farmers rather than the corporations who contract them. Listen to hear the ways in which agricultural legislation only affects the often-impoverished farmers who must buy their own equipment, not the billion-dollar corporations that receive the bulk of profits.
(54:08) Not to sound Marxist or anything, but for real change to be made in the farming industry, capitalism would have to be overturned at its core. At the very least, the way in which corporations contract farmers would have to be completely overhauled. For Andersen to ignore this facet of the issue and attribute environmental and social destruction to the private decision to eat meat is reductive and damn near victim blaming.
(57:25) It’s also worth pointing out that there’s no shortage of ethical issues with farming fruits and vegetables. As Olivia outlines, there are plenty of issues with importing migrant workers for little to no pay, spraying pesticides - yes, even in organic farming - and food deserts where plant-based diets are prohibitively expensive.
Yeah, Lobbyists Exist - (70:50-80:34)
Kip Andersen seems to be under the impression that he uncovered the conspiracy of a lifetime when he discovered that lobbyists and corporations give money to nonprofits. Now, we aren’t saying that lobbyists don’t present certain ethical issues - they absolutely do, and we covered it with Matt Gallaugher! But the climax of the film draws laughable conclusions in the face of mega-corporations’ connections to some of America’s biggest health organizations. Yeah, KFC takes subsidies from the government. But no, it’s not because of some nation-wide conspiracy to keep America sick with cancer-causing death flesh. It’s because KFC wants to make money. Sure, it’s a corrupt system that prioritizes capital over social needs, but that isn’t the American Heart Association’s fault, and it certainly isn’t the average middle-class family’s fault.
National studies aren’t faking studies to keep Americans in the dark about what is and is not bad for them - we just don’t have a reliable method for determining how certain foods affect humans over a long period of time. As much as we’d like them to be, rat bodies aren’t good models for tumor growth in humans, and we can’t test for tumor growth in human. Because, ya know, ethics.
In Short… (the rest of the episode)
When it comes to which diet works the “best,” there are more questions and answers. Bodies are different, needs are different, genetics are different, and there’s no real way to determine the perfect diet for you without a fair amount of trial and error. You should definitely eat plants - I’d even go so far as to say you need to eat a lot of plants much more than you need meat.
But your dietary needs are your own, and should never be dictated by pseudoscience. Natural, “clean” eating will never reverse cancer, Alzheimer’s, type 1 diabetes, etc. Water fasting does not cure disease. Meats are not as bad as asbestos or cigarettes. Simply put, veganism is not a one-size fits all for every person. It is dangerous and irresponsible to claim that it is. The position that vegans are inherently healthier than others is a singularly privileged one, especially given the nuanced socioeconomic and genetic influences on the issue. No, Kip, not everyone can be vegan. Not everyone wants to be. And no one needs to be to ensure good health.
Your documentary is bad, Kip. But damn if we didn’t have a good laugh.