H.O.P.E. stands for Healing Of Planet Earth. The movie H.O.P.E. – What You Eat Matters is a slick propaganda film produced by Nina Messenger. It argues that all humans should stop eating meat, dairy, and eggs, because animal-based foods contribute to starvation, global warming, environmental degradation, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. But its biggest objection seems to be that animal-based foods involve cruelty to animals. It didn’t achieve its goal of converting me to veganism. In my opinion, instead of being titled H.O.P.E. it might better have been titled H.Y.P.E. for Hyperbole Yoked to Persuasion through Emotion.

It features several talking heads:

  • Jane Goodall, famous for her chimpanzee research, who says how we treat animals is as important as how we treat each other.
  • Caldwell Esselstyn, MD, who claims heart disease is caused by food and can be cured and prevented by his version of a vegan diet. I have written about how his claims are misleading and based on skimpy evidence.
  • Colin Campbell, PhD, co-author of The China Study. The movie presents that study as conclusive evidence for a diet devoid of animal protein. It is not; Robert Carroll’s article in the Skeptic’s Dictionary explains why.
  • Vandana Shiva, PhD (in philosophy), is an activist who is vehemently opposed to GMOs and globalization. Her controversial views were criticized by Michael Spector in a New Yorker article.

There isn’t even a token attempt at balance. There are no interviews with anyone who disagrees with their overall premise or their specific scientific claims; they don’t even acknowledge that anyone might possibly have reasons to disagree with them about any of their claims. The movie relies on biased proclamations by people with an agenda, on anecdotes, and on emotional appeals.

Milk

I’ll just provide one out of many possible examples of how the movie’s information is unreliable: they demonize milk. Campbell claims his research shows that casein (a protein in milk) is one of the strongest promoters of cancer. He says he could turn cancer on and off in the lab by varying the amount of casein in the diet. But this research was in mice, not humans. And milk is a complex mixture, not just casein. There’s little evidence that his research applies to milk consumption by humans. In fact, a 2016 meta-analysis showed that “higher total dairy, milk, yogurt, butter and skim/low-fat milk intake was not associated with increased cancer mortality risk.” They did find an association with the highest intake of whole milk and prostate cancer.

They repeat the myth that milk causes osteoporosis, based on population studies that failed to look at vitamin D intake. Most experts agree that milk is a good source of calcium and can help prevent osteoporosis, but it must be accompanied by adequate vitamin D, which is why most milk is now fortified with vitamin D. The National Osteoporosis Society says there is no good evidence that dairy is bad for bones. And this review, while it is from a commercial site, is a reliable report of the evidence from scientific studies that “debunk the milk and osteoporosis myth.”

Studies have generally agreed that a high protein diet is associated with cancer. But they are talking about totalprotein; they don’t single out milk protein. Milk is a nutritious food that provides “complete protein” with a full mix of amino acids and is an excellent and convenient source of many other essential nutrients. Eliminating it might very well result in poorer nutrition for some people.

Anecdotal evidence

The movie’s patient testimonials are not convincing.

  • A patient with major coronary artery blockages turned down surgery and used food as her medicine. After 4 weeks, her pain went away, and eventually she was able to run a marathon. Was it the diet, or the fact that she lost weight, exercised, and developed collateral circulation?
  • A patient had recurrent coronary artery blockages after multiple stent procedures. After 30 days of Esselstyn’s diet, his angina and facial numbness(?) were gone. In 5 months, his diabetes was gone. His eyesight improved so that he only needed glasses for reading. Was it the diet? Was it the considerable amount of weight he lost? Had nutritional deficiencies on his old diet been impairing his visual acuity?
  • A cancer patient in Germany had advanced lung cancer. He had surgery to excise cancer and metastases; he refused chemo. After 12 years on a diet of “pesticide-free plants that haven’t been heated,” he says he is cancer-free. Is he really cancer-free? If so, isn’t it possible it was the surgery that cured him?
  • Campbell’s wife had melanoma, refused chemo and surgery. Got strict about her diet. 9 years later, no problem. No details are given. What did the biopsy show? Was a biopsy even done? What did her doctors have to say about this? Even if the story is accurate, there are many reports of spontaneous regression of melanoma. Was it the diet? No way to know.
  • One of the speakers “knows a lot of people” who get migraines, and “when you stop dairy they go away.”
  • Will Tuttle says he and his vegetarian friends feel great and have lots of energy.

Without proper documentation and comparison to control groups, anecdotes like these are meaningless.

Environmental arguments

They say meat consumption accelerates global climate change and species extinction. It damages soil, water, and air. It spurs global starvation. They quote Gandhi, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not every man’s greed.” They say animal foods won’t be able to support our increasing population. A former meat producer says that in 20 years there won’t be enough food. Animals are being fed while humans are starving. Only 10% of U.S. corn production goes to food; most goes to “tortured animals.” And corn “doesn’t suit their digestive system.” Europe has to import animal feed from South America, where the rain forest is being destroyed to produce grain and raise livestock.

Producing a kilogram of beef uses up 15,500 liters of water; 1 kg of eggs uses 3300 liters of water; plants require much less, around 700 liters of water for a kilogram of apples. Animals produce methane, which is much worse than CO2. Excrement pollutes the soil: it releases ammonia which causes long-term damage to soil and threatens our drinking water. “Forcing meat on people is a crime for the environment and for our bodies.”

Emotional appeal
This movie is a perfect example of the fallacy of emotional appeal: a type of argument that attempts to arouse the emotions of its audience in order to gain acceptance of its conclusion. It pulls at the heartstrings. It shows emaciated African toddlers covered with flies. It shows squealing piglets having their tails docked and their testicles “ripped off” without painkillers. It shows horrifying scenes of animal abuse in factory farms and slaughterhouses. A former slaughterhouse worker says, “I was a contract killer,” a mercenary for all the people who want to eat meat. It shows animals screaming in pain. It contrasts the misery of animals confined in narrow cages to pigs happily playing outdoors and rolling in mud. “There is more suffering in a glass of milk than in just about anything;” we are paying people to impregnate cows, kill their babies, and steal their milk. It shows tears falling from a cow’s eye. It says chickens are empathetic and feel the pain of other chickens; a claim that is questionable, to say the least (chickens are more likely to peck a sick chicken to death and eat it than to feel sorry for it). It asks us to individualize animals and say, “Who are we having for dinner,” not “What are we having.”

It shows appealing scenes of people cuddling with adorable farm animals. It shows happy families cooking together and enjoying colorful vegan meals adorned with edible flowers. It even shows cute kittens.

Big farm and big pharma

They emphasize the profit motive that drives sellers of meat, dairy, and eggs. They say that, in contrast, no one is financially motivated to keep people healthy. Medical and pharmaceutical industries make money by treating sick people. Big farm and big pharma have infiltrated the academic community and the government.

Other ways of thinking

The movie presents an extremist, absolutist point of view; it brooks no dissension. There are more moderate views. A vegan diet can be a healthy diet, but so can various other diets, especially those that emphasize plant-based foods. Humans can thrive on a wide variety of diets. I agree that we should eat less meat and more plant-based foods. I agree that the typical American diet is not healthy. But the poison is in the dose. I have seen no evidence that including modest amounts of animal products as part of a varied diet causes any measurable harm to human health.

I abhor animal cruelty as much as anyone; but rather than ban meat, why not find ways of raising livestock humanely? Temple Grandin has done outstanding research in reducing stress for food animals and in monitoring animal welfare at slaughter plants.

We mustn’t forget the Law of Unintended Consequences. A kneejerk prohibition on all animal foods might actually be worse for the environment. Some common vegetables use more resources per calorie than meats. Lettuce produces three times as much greenhouse gas emissions as bacon. Many foods are imported and transported long distances; their transportation has environmental consequences that could be lessened by eating locally grown foods.

Conclusion: Moderation makes more sense than elimination

Humans evolved as omnivores. We like the taste of animal products. The movie wants everyone to subsist only on plants. I don’t see that as either necessary or as practically achievable. I don’t see any reason we can’t enjoy meat in moderation while also minimizing harm to the environment and treating animals humanely.

H.O.P.E. is one of those pseudo-documentary movies that tell a one-sided story and promote their agenda by manipulating the viewer with appeals to emotion. Our decisions should be made on the basis of rational thought and a balanced assessment of all the scientific evidence, not on the basis of emotion.

Posted by Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall, MD also known as The SkepDoc, is a retired family physician who writes about pseudoscience and questionable medical practices. She received her BA and MD from the University of Washington, did her internship in the Air Force (the second female ever to do so),  and was the first female graduate of the Air Force family practice residency at Eglin Air Force Base. During a long career as an Air Force physician, she held various positions from flight surgeon to DBMS (Director of Base Medical Services) and did everything from delivering babies to taking the controls of a B-52. She retired with the rank of Colonel.  In 2008 she published her memoirs, Women Aren't Supposed to Fly.