What the Health

The Bottom Line on “What the Health”

“What the hell is going on around here?” That’s one of my favorite sideline videos of Vince Lombardi as he’s talking to his players, and that’s the way I felt after watching this movie. As I said, I’m going to cover one of the studies that was cited several times, but there’s a whole lot more science that warrants explanation; it’s available for Members and Insiders as a Straight Talk on Health audio. Now to the study.

“A Vegan Diet Is Better Than ADA Diet”

One of the films experts may be recognizable to some readers: Dr. Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. He’s a leading proponent of a vegan diet. He led a research group that conducted a study to compare a vegan diet with a diet based on the American Diabetes Association diet guidelines (2). In the film, there were several references to the study that claimed it was more effective than the ADA diet—in fact, twice as powerful at controlling or reversing diabetes as the ADA diet, which included meat and dairy.

Researchers gave both groups dietary guidelines to follow for each diet as well as training with a registered dietician; 49 subjects began in the vegan group while 50 began in the ADA group. The study went 22 weeks and then continued through 74 weeks with the subjects tested periodically. I don’t know the significance of the 22 weeks; those results were not included in the paper.

Here are the results that didn’t quite make the movie:

  • There were no differences in the decrease in blood sugar; both diets reduced fasting blood sugar a similar amount.
  • Fewer than half the people in both groups completed the study.
  • The subjects in both groups claimed to reduce their caloric intake over 400 calories per day. However, weight loss was just ten pounds in the vegan groups and seven pounds in the ADA group. Really? In 74 weeks? Those results are simply not possible unless the subjects did not accurately report what they ate.
  • Finally, this study didn’t show that a vegan diet was twice as beneficial as the ADA diet; it showed that they were both ineffective at achieving reasonable goals for weight loss and a reduction in HbA1c over an extended period of time. While it was statistically significant, a reduction from 8.1% to 7.7% in over a year is not much improvement. Yes, it was better than the ADA diet in which the HbA1c stayed the same, but I wouldn’t start touting the benefits for diabetics just yet.


What the Movie Did Right

The only expert who comes through this movie unscathed is Dr. Caldwell Essylstein, the physician from the Cleveland Clinic who has demonstrated in a large clinical trial that severe CVD can be reversed using a low-fat vegan diet. I’m a fan of his work and education program. He was in only a couple of scenes and did not corrupt science in anything he said.

No so for many others in the movie. I just don’t understand why these medical and healthcare professionals would say the things they said. I have more to say, and it’s in the Straight Talk on Health audio for Members and Insiders.

What the movie got right was to provide the research that the experts cited in the movie. It was done scene by scene and makes it easy for anyone to check where the experts got their research facts. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop the research from being misinterpreted by people who know better.

The Bottom Line

“What the Health” is a mess of a documentary. It’s not an objective examination of what constitutes a healthy diet; it’s a critique of the food industry and health organizations that get funding from that industry. The problem is that it’s not done very well and never quite gets around to proving what it claims. Maybe they’ll do better next time.

I know a vegan diet is a very healthy way to eat if you do it right. We must move to a more plant-based diet if we’re going to be healthy, and it’s better for the planet as well. While I don’t think it’s the only healthy diet, it’s certainly great if you take the time to learn how to follow it correctly. The problem is that the plants we count on for nutrients may continue to have fewer of them. That’s the topic for next weeks Memos.

What are you prepared to do today?

Dr. Chet


1. What the Health. Directed by K. Andersen and K. Kune. 2017.
2. Am J Clin Nutr 2009;89(suppl):1588S–96S


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