A new, high-profile documentary claims eating an egg is about as dangerous as smoking five cigarettes.
It’s one of several bizarre claims made in What the Health, a new, feature-length documentary backed by Academy Award-nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix and filmed by Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn, who made Cowspiracy, a 2014 documentary about the impact of animal agriculture on the environment, produced by actor (and outspoken vegan) Leonardo DiCaprio.
By cherry-picking nutrition studies to make rickety claims, the makers of What the Health risk ratcheting up fear of certain foods based on weak science. It’s not a responsible way to try and change people’s behavior, and it does a disservice to nutritional scientists in the field.
The filmmakers set out to make the case that a vegan diet is the best answer for preventing and treating an array of chronic diseases—including heart disease, colorectal cancer, and diabetes—and that foods derived from animals raise the risk of those ailments. But the film relies on a few cherry-picked studies to make its case, and ignores many others that contradict its position.
The film cites three sources of information: The first is a 2012 study (pdf) linking egg yolk consumption and risk of carotid plaque buildup in those at risk for heart disease. A second source is simply a video referring back to the 2012 study, and the third source doesn’t once mention the word “egg.”
There is a consensus among America’s leading nutrition experts that eating more fruits and vegetables is beneficial for the average diet. But none argue that any one food should be tossed out of the diet wholesale. That includes meat, dairy, and, yes, eggs.
In fact, in 2016, a federal panel of nutrition experts that convenes every five years updated its dietary recommendations and removed cholesterol as a “nutrient of concern,” thus absolving eggs. That decision—which was consistent with the position of the American Heart Association—was the subject of huge amounts of media attention.
And eggs weren’t What the Health‘s only target. The film overhypes the World Health Organization’s (WHO) position that red meat is carcinogenic, as well as non-WHO nutrition studies linking milk consumption to cancer.
On any given day, researchers around the world produce studies containing evidence that common foods—eggs, wine, coffee, meat, and more—both prevent and hasten health problems. There isn’t anything necessarily insidious going on; these studies, while in some cases individually contradictory, are part of a large and growing ecosystem of evolving science. If a bulk of those studies have evidence that points to a similar finding, nutrition experts weigh those data when advising people on diet. But no one should be taking health advice based media stories on individual studies.
Nutrition science is a particularly tough field to tackle. It isn’t ethical for researchers to play Dr. Frankenstein with someone’s livelihood by experimenting and testing different diets on them, so nutrition scientists often lean heavily on observational studies rather than randomly controlled trials, which are the gold standard in scientific research. And because there are so many observational studies published every year, there are a lot of whiplash-inducing headlines like these trickling out on a near-daily basis:
- “White wine may do no favors for a woman’s skin”
- “Surprising health benefit of red wine: gorgeous skin”
- “Nutrient in meat and eggs may play role in blood clotting, heart attack”
- “Eggs are okay again”
With this kind of competing information published virtually all the time, it’s easy for groups with agendas to take advantage of the fact that most people are not health experts.
The claims made by What the Health about eggs are particularly egregious, and have generated so much attention, that even vegans have weighed in with critical views, including this one written by vegan health professional Virginia Messina and published on Vegan.com. “I suspect that in the long run…this kind of outreach sets our efforts back and slows our progress on behalf of animal rights,” Messina writes.