A couple of months ago I watched a truly awesome documentary: What The Health.
The documentary, by Cowspiracy director Kip Andersen, explains the economic relationships between the US government and profits-driven multinational corporations who control commoditised industries, such as corn and of course the meat and dairy industries.
It also shines light on the poor information shared by government agencies such as the American Heart Association and Cancer Association. For example the American Cancer Association recommends a diet that includes processed meats that have been clearly classified as carcinogenic based on comprehensive scientific research by The World Health Organisation. It is crazy!
What The Health exposes the continuous lies built around animal products consumption. I am vegan now, and a plant based diet makes a lot of sense to me, but I spent 30+ years of my life eating meat, chicken, fish and dairy products. I grew up being told that I needed to consume those animal foods to be healthy. It was part of my upbringing and I honestly thought vegans were crazy people until my early 30’s. I am not proud of it but it is the truth!
I discovered Veganism when one of my IIN (Inst. for Integrative Nutrition) lecturers, Dr. Neal Barnard, opened my mind up to healing the body through plants. I became vegan mostly because I had severe IBS and it was a nightmare for me to be at work after lunch, with my stomach aches, bloated belly and feeling awful.
Becoming vegan, however also came with my knowledge of what foods I should eat to stay healthy, as health is important to me. One of the problems I always had is sugar addiction. I am terrible with sugar; once I start having some, it is the end! To be honest, becoming vegan helped. The milk chocolate I was devouring every weekend was gone, so my sugar consumption was decreased. My casein addiction was also quite strong, which is a point highlighted in the documentary.
While I was excited to see Dr. Barnard being featured, I did find it confusing that he almost made no differentiation between types of sugars, seemingly endorsing sugar as a whole, in fact, and condemning fat for diabetes.
Now do not get me wrong. Nutrition is the only science where two completely contradictory theories can be proven right and sure, cells low in mitochondria and filled with fat create issues as glucose (sugar) cannot be taken to the cells and used for ATP (energy) but at the same time, a diet rich in sugar even if low in fat has caused a lot of problems to the population up to now.
Dr. Barnard refers to sugar as Carbohydrates. Carbohydrates include a vast list of foods, from whole grain rice to refined cane sugar. The difference between carbohydrates is key, and this was left out of the whole movie and I personally had to sit with all my clients who watched it as well as my own mother to explain those differences between complex and simple carbohydrates and what they mean and what they are.
The way white sugar and other simple carbohydrates react in the body and the reaction of the pancreas to release insulin to manage the amount of sugar in the body and transport it in the cells is very different to the complex carbohydrates in vegetables, fruit and whole grains. That is very important to know because telling people not to eat dairy but then telling them “Twizzlers” are OK as they are “only” sugar, is very misleading.
I personally believe that the right kind of fats are essential to a healthy system, but in moderation. We do not need animals in our diets and can build healthy plant based ways to live, but I also believe that just because something is vegan does not automatically mean it’s healthy. And sugar packed foods, that are low fat, are not the way forward either!
If we lived in a society where sugar was something we added in our tea if we wanted it and the rest of our food was not made in labs, I might have agreed sugar alone would not be the problem. But we have to take into consideration that in a “fast food” society relying on pre-packaged foods a lot more—whether they say healthy or not— the grams of sugar count! (And yes, the likes of coconut sugar or Agave nectar count too.)
I really think Dr Barnard needs to start differentiating between carbohydrates and directing people to understand that “a carbohydrate is not a carbohydrate.” or that “sugar is not sugar” They do come with their metabolic differences.
Frankly this is the only thing in this documentary I personally disagreed with.
I felt the addiction to sugar I used to have—including high fructose products—and the deterring effects on my health, combined with my meat consumption. Even now that I am vegan I am very sensitive if I eat too much sugar, even if it happens occasionally. Sure, I am one person and everyone is different, but I spent a lot of time reading the research of Dr. Robert Lustig and other professors who looked into the effects of sugar, and they all conclude it poorly affects out health.
In his research Dr. Lustig called out all sorts of sugars (including aliases like HCFS), the results showed that simple sugars are not ideal for our health. Also, he does not endorse any diet other than eating real foods.
I have personally expressed my views on sugar since the beginning of my career, as it is my obligation as a health coach to share. I’ve also noted that even vegans who eat processed foods will lack health and the outcome will be as devastating as eating animal products daily. I know that some vegans follow the lifestyle driven by their compassion for animals, but we ought to care for ourselves as well. Cutting back our consumption of processed and sugar packed foods and understanding what carbohydrates are kinder to the body is key. This is a point I wish Dr. Barnard would have emphasised in What The Health and one that I hope he stresses in the future.