IF YOU’RE ANYTHING LIKE US, your conversations tend to revolve around two main disciplines; food, and Netﬂix. So it was only a matter of time before provegan documentary of the moment, What The Health, took over our discussions – and, in turn, many of our fridges as well. There’s no doubt that Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn’s provocative ﬁlm has inspired many to make more plant-based food choices, but just because it’s convincing, does it mean it’s true? And for all the advice it offers, is it also shrouded in a biased agenda that we don’t get to see? We asked Dr Shefali Verma, an Integrative Medicine Specialist at Dubai’s Institute for Biophysical Medicine, to offer her expert take on the documentary dividing us all…
“The ﬁrst time I watched What The Health, I couldn’t get past half an hour. Since its release, I’ve had around 15 people tell me that they’re thinking of going vegan. And although there are some genuinely good parts, I found that they were overshadowed by irresponsible claims and medical statements. So while the most positive lesson to come from it is to teach people not to take what they eat for granted, there was no balanced viewpoint encouraging the viewer to look at the other side, or to really educate them. It was far more about scare tactics. I truly believe that if the science behind something is that strong, you don’t need to paint pictures of kids eating cigarettes to push people into believing it.
WTH began by talking about processed food. It’s not new information that it’s bad for you, but there are still people choosing to eat it. Having the ﬁlmmakers highlight that was a good thing, making people question; what do I put in my mouth? Where does it come from? They also discussed industrial farming 10 and organic food; both important topics to open a discourse on. They were right to encourage asking questions about them; we should be responsible and reading up on the most-sprayed crops etc. Because even when something’s labelled organic, it can still be difﬁcult to tell 100 per cent. It might be organic initially but we don’t know the conditions in which it’s transported to the end user. When you see these giant, shiny, out-of-season apples in the supermarket, or if it takes a while for food to go bad, those are key markers of whether it’s organic or not. But I’m a huge advocate of organic eating so would still rather buy something certiﬁed organic – even if there’s a small chance it isn’t – than buy something uncertiﬁed, which 100 per cent guarantees that it isn’t.
They also talked about dairy, and I have to say – I agree. I take a lot of people off it, but I do it far more with food-sensitivity testing and symptoms. How it breaks down can activate morphine-type receptors so some people end up craving what they’re sensitive to. It’s one of the most allergenic foods, along with gluten and eggs, but it’s not up to me to make everyone stop eating it. If you ask me my opinion, though, I’d agree with WTH; it’s made for baby cows. And technically, we are encouraging lactation for long periods of time in order to support the dairy business.
The documentary also linked it to osteoporosis and breast cancer, which there may be a correlation between, but what kind of ethical study can prove a causation? Statements of that kind are just too big. Like all chronic diseases, cancer is multifactorial so we must be sure we’re looking at everything. Are they a smoker? Who funded the report? Learning to read medical studies and choosing which paper to refer to is a skill and not everyone can do it. You can play on words; A plus B causes C, versus A plus B is correlated with C – but it doesn’t mean it’s causing it. It’s how you choose to read it. So the dairy claims were true in some respects, but generally they were far too extreme.
WHAT WE EAT MAKES A HUGE DIFFERENCE – BUT IT’S NOT ONE-SIZEFITS-ALL
I also tried to look at both sides of the story as to what the documentary makers were trying to achieve and uncovered that they were animal-rights activists. Both were already vegan before they started making the ﬁlm. All the doctors they interviewed were also vegan or animal activists. In my opinion, once you’ve already made your mind up, it would be hard to objectively present both sides of the argument, meaning that it was always likely to be a skewed perspective. I just wish that the audience could make the right decision based on the relevant information, but I felt like if everyone in Dubai watched it, they’d come away telling people, ‘See? I told you doughnuts are ok!’
Let’s just look at this region and obesity. You can’t say that these people can have as much sugar as they want as long as they don’t eat animal protein. That’s just wrong. I alone have changed so many people’s blood markers related to insulin sensitivity by taking them off carbs and putting them on protein. Sugar plays a part in fat storage and you can’t say otherwise. To me, that’s just irresponsible. If you’re already diabetic and obese, and you start eating just carbs and sugars, that could lead to a complete disaster.
Similarly, the claim that eggs are as bad for you as cigarettes. That’s a ridiculous comparison. Firstly, you can’t put all eggs and meat in the same bracket and say that eating frozen nuggets is the same as eating organic, grass-fed chicken from a farm. First divide the two, then come up with a theory. There’s a lot of goodness in organic eggs. Vitamins E, B, K, protein… you can’t say they’re the same as smoking because of the fat they contain. Especially as there’s so much new knowledge when it comes to good and bad fats. We need good fats to absorb fat-soluble vitamins, plus there’s a lot of evidence that a ketogenic diet – one high in protein and fat – is helping many people. But I could reverse that and claim there’s a lot of research to say that sugar feeds tumour cells in cancer, and technically all vegetables break down into glucose (sugar)… so can I now say that vegetables increase the risk of cancer? Of course not. You can’t just use one theory to prove something.
For me, it’s powerful to ask questions. I teach my patients that what we eat makes a huge difference, but it’s not a one-size-ﬁts-all affair. Everything I recommend is personalised, with blood tests, medicals and an entire history from birth till now. I’ve been called a medical detective and will ask about everything; sleep, energy, stress, diet, mental health. When was the last time you felt well? What was your upbringing like? I encourage people to de-burden and do a lot of psychotherapy recommendations. It all helps to get to the bottom of it. Two people can come in with exactly the same symptoms and I would treat them differently. It’s just not so simple as one diet for everyone – or that changing your diet can always ﬁx everything.
We all have a genetic print, but our environment affects how these genes are expressed; it’s called epigenetics. If I said my dad had heart disease but ate X, Y and Z, I might technically be high-risk, but if I ate completely differently to him, it’s not guaranteed that I’ll end up the same. It’s also not always clear what’s genetic and what’s cultural, so what we learn about food from our parents means that we might end up making the same mistakes. But is it genetic? Not necessarily. So what you eat really matters, as opposed to just accepting that something runs in your family. We have a huge part to play in our story. We can change things. It’s empowering.
By the age of 30, if you have or are going through some kind of stress, chances are your digestive system isn’t operating optimally. Do a lot of people who go vegetarian or vegan feel better? Sure, because the stomach takes a break from digesting protein. But the answer isn’t just not to eat something – it’s to improve your digestion! It’s not to just accept that it doesn’t suit you – it’s to ask the question why. Don’t just symptomcontrol. I have nothing against vegans or vegetarians; in fact, I see alot of patients who choose not to eat meat for either religious or anti-cruelty reasons. I’d never try to convert them – I’d just teach them how they can do it healthily with enough amino acids and nutrients. You need to learn about your body; you want to understand it more than anyone else. We’re built to be able to ﬁght, but we have to have faith in ourselves. Living scared is not ok. Our bodies are complex and amazing. We need to believe in them.”
• Follow Dr Shefali Verma or visit ifbm-uae.com/ call +971 4 432 2188 to make an appointment