I’d been hearing about the Netflix documentary What the Health for weeks, and everyone I knew who’d seen it warned me of the same thing: If I watched it, I might never be able to enjoy a burger again. Or pizza. Or ice cream. Or pretty much any animal-based product, for that matter.
But as much as I tried to heed their advice, the doc kept popping up in my Facebook feed, with everyone talking about how important it was to watch. And every time I loaded Netflix, there it was again: Staring at me from the “You Might Also Like … ” section.
In case you’re unfamiliar, the film came out earlier this year and delves into the complex and oftentimes alarming ways that meat and dairy products affect the human body — often leading to chronic illness and even death. The premise is fairly simple, following filmmaker Kip Andersen while he talks to medical professionals everywhere about the strong role that diet plays in preventing or promoting illnesses such as diabetes, cancer, and hypertension. And let me tell you, the doc throws around some pretty shocking statistics without batting an eye.
For instance, Anderson casually mentions how eating just one egg per day is as detrimental to your health as smoking five cigarettes a day (when it comes to your life expectancy). Say WHAT? Oh, and those processed turkey slices I’ve been feeding my kids? They’re apparently a class 1 carcinogen, which means they sit next to asbestos and plutonium (you know, that radioactive chemical they use to make nuclear weapons)!
Making it all the way through isn’t exactly easy. Case in point: About 20 minutes into the doc, my 9-year-old decided to exit the room, loudly declaring, “You can’t ruin chicken for me, Mom! You just can’t!” I then watched the rest of the documentary by myself, as all other members of my family abandoned ship one by one. And as I did, I knew with a sinking feeling that I could never un-see what I’d just witnessed.
By the film’s end, I’d made up my mind: I was going vegan. Or, at least giving it a serious try. I mean, it couldn’t be that hard, right? There are so many alternatives now that we may not even miss real cheese!
Let me just cut to the chase here: I was so, SO wrong about that one.
I began the week with a trip to Whole Foods, thinking that if I bought all the interesting meat substitutes I always ignore, maybe I could ease my family into an unnoticed transition of sorts. I’ll be the first to admit I got full-blown carried away and bought a LOT of produce and meat alternatives, which meant my total at the end was … well, not cheap.
My advice: If you’re going to go this route, don’t start on an empty stomach like I did, and don’t do it with the idea that you’ll wander around the store and buy without a plan. I quickly learned that this way of living needs a little bit of research and practice before you get the hang of it. But if you want to jump in head-first, you can be like me and drop close to $300 on vegan groceries and hope for the best! (Not recommended.)
I started the week off optimistically enough, but my tyrant of a 4-year-old refused his oatmeal with almond milk, wouldn’t eat the coconut milk yogurt, and wasn’t having the avocado toast for lunch, either. So in lieu of letting my youngest kid to wallow away in starvation, I had to make the executive decision to kick him out of our vegan week. For the record, we all stared at him angrily the first night, as he ate his yummy meatballs with the appetite of a famished carnivore — and the rest of us diligently ate our lentil soup and eggplant with feeble enthusiasm.
Days 2 and 3 got even tougher, as I quickly ran out of excitement for cooking new vegan dishes and my 9-year-old fell off the wagon while visiting Grandma’s. (It involved a cheese pizza.) But it was right around the halfway mark that my eagerness to embrace the vegan lifestyle really took a nosedive. I started reasoning with myself that quality meat “wasn’t so bad” and “everything in moderation” should work, right? Still, I wouldn’t quit. Every time I found myself faltering, I reminded myself of the many staggering statistics I’d heard in What the Health to muster up my motivation.
Things like …
- Eating processed meat daily increases risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent.
- Dementia is caused by brain arteries clogging up, which has been linked to the animal products we consume.
- Most of the world is actually lactose intolerant — almost 95 percent of Asians, 70 percent of Native Americans, 53 percent of Hispanics, and 73 percent of African Americans.
- Milk doesn’t actually make our bones stronger, which means a lot of what we believe about its benefits are really just great marketing myths. In fact, countries with the highest dairy consumption rates also have the highest osteoporosis rates.
- Pharmaceutical companies sell 80 percent of the antibiotics they produce to agricultural animals — which we consume.
So with that, I toughened up and tried not to wince as I ate my Tofurky. I had already decided there was no way I was going to be able to transition to a vegan lifestyle quite so abruptly, but I at least had to stick it out for a week. I just wasn’t ready yet for the long-term commitments of cooking every single meal, scouring every single menu, or giving up every single one of my beloved dishes. (It sounds way easier than it is, people!)
But once I allowed myself that little out, it was inevitable that I would fall off the wagon. And I promptly did, on the fifth day. That’s right — I failed my 7-day experiment on Day 5. So little left to go, and yet the end felt so far …
I will say, this though: I felt really proud for getting as far as I did. And I have every intention of working some of what I’ve learned into our daily meals going forward. I may not have turned full-vegan in a week, but What the Health remains a great eye-opener of a documentary, one that takes a much-needed look into what we consume and how it affects our body and the environment we live in.
Here are some of the biggest take-aways I had from my brief dalliance into veganism …
1. There are delicious alternatives to dairy out there — you just have to find the ones you like best.
2. The American diet contains way too many animal sources and not nearly enough plants.
I mean, it was shocking to realize that an egg for breakfast, turkey sandwich for lunch, and roasted chicken for dinner was the norm for my family on a daily basis — and to consider just what that might be doing to our bodies as a result.
3. The first day or two of going vegan will cause migraines, especially if you’re susceptible (like me).
But then the energy surge will come (I promise). Along with lots of bowel movements.
4. There’s no way to go vegan without embracing the reality that you’ll have to cook some of your meals every.single.day.
Listen, it’s a big deal to go vegan — if I’ve learned nothing else, it’s that. This isn’t the same as vegetarianism, which is SO much easier to follow (because: CHEESE!). For every vegan option I could find at the grocery store, there were 10 vegetarian ones. The decision to go vegan has to be a very deliberate and well-planned one.
But most of all, one of the things that stuck with me the most came in the opening scene, when a quote from Hippocrates flashed across the screen: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
If that’s not a gentle reminder to pause and reflect before eating — and truly know that it is we’re putting into our mouths — then I’m not sure what is.