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There's One Big Thing Missing from the 'What the Health' Documentary

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The wellness world has been abuzz with talk about What the Health, a documentary by the team behind Cowspiracy that's sparked extensive debate and discussion. If you haven't seen it, What the Health delves into the negative impact of highly processed industrial animal foods on health and communities, and shines a light on the involvement of leading health organizations and pharmaceutical companies.

As a dietitian with experience and education in food politics and agriculture, I certainly had my thoughts. To be clear, I started out with two rough drafts of this article—one eventually became what you're reading here, and the other was basically a collection of the different ways you can say "Are you f***ing kidding me?!"

Many of my colleagues in the wellness world have spoken passionately and articulately about the documentary and the validity of its claims, but I really want to talk about what's NOT in the film. I was rooting for it to share a new perspective—or at least offer some new, approachable ways to help people feel empowered instead of fearful about their food choices. However, I realized by the end that they stuck with the same old fearmongering tactics, completely missing the opportunity to share accessible solutions for those who are trying to eat in the vast gray area between the stereotypical American diet and strict veganism.

By perpetuating the misconception that meaningful changes must be drastic and difficult, What the Health missed an opportunity to effectively engage their audience and help them make sustainable lifestyle shifts. Instead, the filmmakers freaked the hell out of them, dropped a lofty ideal in their lap, and rolled the credits. (Trust me, I know what it's like to drastically change your diet for the wrong reasons, and it doesn't end well. Proof: Becoming a Vegetarian for My Boyfriend Was the Worst Decision Ever.)

My nutrition counseling experience has shown me that most people will tune out when presented with a recommendation that calls for them to overhaul their whole lifestyle and give up the foods they love and rely on. Rather than start on a gradual path toward better health, they never even start. (And there are A LOT of foods vegans can't eat.)

All that said, there's plenty of research to support the noted benefits of a plant-based diet (which may or may not include small amounts of animal products). However, I worry about people who may adopt a vegan diet in a moment of panic without giving thought to the balance of nutrients they need. This can set themselves up for deficiencies that could cause other issues. (Read about 4 four ways vegan diets are missing out on nutrition.) Protein gets the most airtime, but you also need to pay attention to vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids.

Rather than yet another army of vegan athletes showing off their muscles and extreme stories of people who allegedly cured their serious illnesses by changing their diet for two weeks, I would have loved to see some actionable advice for making gradual, effective, and healthy changes that people can maintain.

Regardless of whether you watched the movie or not, if you want to make changes to your diet, here is one example of how you can make it happen without turning your eating habits entirely upside down:

Step 1: Identify what you want to change.

Maybe you decide that you want to cut back on beef to help reduce the global impact of methane emissions or reduce your cholesterol and lower your risk of colorectal cancer while you're at it. Awesome! But, wait, what if burgers and steaks are your dinner mainstays? See step two.

Step 2: Make a realistic plan.

Start by allowing yourself to enjoy your favorite burger or a serving of grass-fed beef once a week and try some new recipes using organic poultry, wild fish, eggs, beans, nuts, seeds, tofu, or other foods you maybe haven't tried all that often. By purchasing a higher quality and smaller amount of beef, you'll still feel satisfied and may even save a few dollars while you work toward your goal. (If you're embarking on a big dietary shift, it's wise to touch base with a doctor or registered dietitian to make sure you're meeting all your nutrition needs.)

Step 3: Evaluate and adjust.

Check in with yourself after several weeks to see if you feel ready to step your red meat intake down to once or twice a month. Maybe you decide the experiment and diet changes aren't for you. But maybe you feel better than ever and eventually, a pricey grass-fed steak from a local farm could become an indulgence a few times a year instead of something you crave every week. Or maybe you decide you want to cut beef out completely—do you.

Step 4: Decide what's next.

Are there more changes you want to make? Go for it! You've shown yourself that you can make meaningful eating changes in a way that fits your lifestyle and helps you feel great.

There's no rule saying you have to go vegan or that you have to eat meat or that you should label yourself in any way when it comes to your diet.

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