Calling Bullshit: What the Health Part 1

What the Health

So there is a new health documentary out on Netflix called What the Health and it is meant to be a treatise on the importance of diet for health.  It’s not exactly that.  It is more accurately a beautifully done vegan propaganda film with shoddy science and even worse knowledge of how statistics work.  I do need to give the filmmakers prop, What the Health is very effective at evoking an emotional response.  I’m going to take my time here and do a mini series wherein I interpret every important claim made in the movie and see if it valid.

One of the first claims I think needs to be analyzed is their claim that 1 in 3 Medicare dollars is spent on someone with diabetes.  The language that is used in this claim is what makes it true.  There is not 1 in 3 Medicare dollars spent on diabetes care, there is 1 in 3 dollars spent on someone with diabetes.

The reason this trick works is because someone with diabetes is more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, obesity, and other diseases in which money would need to be spent.  Basically there are a relatively small number of people in poor health that the majority of the money is spent on and many of these people have diabetes.  They’re trying to manipulate the language to make it seem much worse than it is.

I decided to take a minute and try to get some more accurate numbers.  It seems direct medical costs for diabetes and pre-diabetes in the USA are approximately $176 billion.  (Here)  US healthcare spending in total is approximately $3.2 trillion.  (Here)  That means diabetes accounts for approximately 5% of healthcare spending.  Yeah not quite as bad as they try to make it seem.  How you use statistics matter.


The next point we are going to talk about because it pissed me off even more was the way they dealt with the WHO classifying processed meat as a class 1 carcinogenic.  In their last monograph they listed processed meats such as deli meat and bacon as a class 1 carcinogenic.  A class 1 carcinogenic for the WHO means it has either been directly linked to cancer or humans, or there is a suggestive link in humans and strong evidence in animal models.  That sounds pretty bad right?  Well again things are a little more complicated when you actually analyze the science.

The filmmakers use the fact that tobacco smoking and plutonium are in this same class to support the idea that eating processed meat is just as bad as smoking.  They also say that eating processed meats raises your risk of cancer by 20%.  This is another one of those cases where it is really useful to know statistics.  The study they are referencing is a cohort study that found people who consumed a serving of processed meat every day raised their risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.  Or put another way, if you eat processed meat every single day of your life your risk for getting colorectal cancer increases from 5% to 6%.  That doesn’t seem as bad now does it?  Turns out that people who are trying to sensationalize studies to get people on their side tend to focus on the relative risk increase instead of the objective risk.

They then use the fact that is classified as this class 1 carcinogenic to try to compare its consumption to smoking tobacco.  Let’s ignore the fact that tobacco smoke is a multi-organ carcinogenic and processed meat only seems to be a single-organ.  Approximately 80-90% of lung cancers seem to be smoking related (here).  The estimate is that approximately 30% of cancer deaths are due to smoking.  The difference in scale here is so immense it makes this comparison complete and utter bullshit.

What makes it even worse is the filmmakers of What the Health try to use the evidence against processed meat as the building ground for their argument that meat as a whole should be eliminated.  This is one of their foundational building blocks and it is rested on bad science and worse statistics.

This is going to be a multi-part series because I have pages of notes left but I think that is enough for today.  What the Health has some serious problems.  Six minutes into this movie and I am already unbelievably pissed.  Just wait for the rest.

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