Sometimes things don’t add up.

This happened when Kip Andersen began investigating how to avoid diabetes, heart disease and cancer – all diseases that have afflicted his close family members. But when he clicked over to the American Diabetes Association website for guidance, he was shocked to find the site promoting recipes laden with meat and dairy – foods he knew have been increasingly correlated with the development of diabetes.

Then he checked the websites of the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, the Susan G. Komen Foundation and other major health charities. Everywhere the story was the same: recipes and recommendations to eat meat-and dairy-based meals.

Andersen, a documentary filmmaker fresh from his provocative 2014 film “Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret,” sensed corruption. He turned once again to the camera to find out why major American medical charities promote meat- and dairy-based meals.

“It seemed all of the large health organizations were encouraging people to eat the very foods linked to the diseases they’re supposed to be fighting against,” Andersen says in “What the Health?” the film he made that records his investigation.

An eye-opening, feature-length documentary co-directed by Keegan Kuhn, “What the Health?” premiered in Los Angeles in March. The film will screen in South Portland in June, presented by the Portland-based health education group Plant IQ. It is also streaming online on Vimeo.


I caught up with Andersen, who is based in California, earlier this month while he was attending premieres for the film in Europe.

The film opens with Andersen meeting Dr. Robert Ratner, the chief scientific and medical officer for the American Diabetes Association. Ratner calmly recites dire statistics about the growing diabetes epidemic. Then Andersen – in his characteristic quiet, non-confrontational manner – asks Ratner about the link between diabetes and the consumption of animal products. “I’m not going to get into that,” Ratner replies, his emotion rising. He ends the interview and leaves the room.

Andersen – and filmgoers – are left wondering why Ratner doesn’t want to answer such a simple question.

We soon learn the question is anything but simple.

Andersen begins to uncover a web of payments to these nonprofits from food companies that sell meat and dairy products and from drug makers that sell treatments for diabetes, heart disease, cancer and other chronic diseases associated with the standard American diet.

Turns out the American Diabetes Association is more forthcoming than the other health charities Andersen contacts. The other medical nonprofits he calls, emails and visits in person either reject his requests for an interview or never get back to him.


Instead, Andersen and his team turn to the growing field of plant-based medicine. Here they find experts who don’t sugar-coat the medical literature.

For instance, we hear cardiologist Neal Barnard, founder of the Barnard Medical Center in Washington, DC, say “sugar doesn’t cause diabetes.” Surgeon Garth Davis, medical director of the Davis Clinic at Methodist Hospital in Houston, notes that meat consumption is “strongly correlated” with the development of diabetes. And Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn of the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, where he directs the cardiovascular prevention and reversal program, talks about the study he published in the Journal of Family Practice, which found 99.4 percent of heart disease patients who switched to a plant-based diet avoided major cardiac events.

Filmmakers Kip Andersen, left, and Keegan Kuhn.

Andersen also explores the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s extensive promotion of animal-based foods. This prompts Dr. Milton Mills, a critical care physician at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church, Virginia, to call the government marketing of dairy products “institutional racism” because many people of non-European ancestry are lactose-intolerant. “Our government is encouraging Americans of color to eat foods that it knows is going to make them ill,” Mills says.

Throughout the film, Andersen weaves stories of Americans struggling with chronic diseases (and the dozens of pills they’ve been prescribed) into the narrative. We also hear from professional athletes who follow vegan diets because of the competitive edge and health advantages they say it gives them.

The film closes on an optimistic note of self-reliance in the face of misinformation and a health care system that promotes foods linked to the development of disease.

“The takeaway is that though these organizations have collectively not shown us the light,” Andersen told me by email, “at the end of the day, now that we know this information, we can make these important choices that affect our health. We don’t need these groups to allow us to thrive and be super healthy. That is on us.”


While the film illustrates how the major sponsors of the nation’s health charities have a financial interest in keeping Americans ignorant of plant-based medicine and how to avoid disease through diet, it doesn’t issue a damning condemnation of mainstream medicine or put forth a list of next steps.

Nor does “What the Health?” explore what would happen if plant-based medicine became standard practice tomorrow and the demand for insulin injections, cardiac catheterizations, chemotherapy, heart surgery, dialysis or so many other medical procedures were to drop.

In all fairness, such an exploration would likely require its own feature-length film.

Because it’s not just hospital beds and operating rooms that could be idled if the medical community promoted a plant-based diet rather than pills. Think about all the pharmacies, drug manufacturers and medical device makers that could potentially see a sales decline if our country’s diet were to tilt away from animal-based foods.

While it doesn’t tackle the long-term repercussions of a medical system based on the evidence surrounding plant-based medicine, “What the Health?” provides an unsettling look at the inherent conflicts that plague the health care system while at the same time showing that the power to improve our own health is as close as the kitchen.

“What the Health?” offers an elegant solution to our complicated health care crisis. But getting there will be anything but simple.

Avery Yale Kamila is a freelance writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at:

[email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

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