Everything wrong with RTE’s “What Are You Eating?” Vegan Episode
The following heavily requested post is a critical analysis of the claims made in a recent episode of RTE's "What Are You Eating?", which sparked debate online within the Irish Vegan & Plant-Based Community. The episode featured presenter Phillip Boucher-Hayes as he followed a vegan diet for 28 days. The end result was Boucher-Hayes stating that he was "depressed", feeling "low energy", and generally believed his health was under serious risk while following this diet. The medical examinations he went through both at the beginning at end of the 28 days showed a loss in both muscle and bone mass which as correctly pointed out is not a healthy or desirable result for any individual in either the short or long term.
The body of this post will specifically analyze the nutritional reasons for his negative health situation from following this diet. Unfortunately, despite the title "What are You Eating?" the show focused more on the cultural, ethical and societal aspects of veganism and contained only sporadic, general references to the nutrition element and what the presenter was actually eating for the 28-day experiment, on what he referred to as a "Fad Diet". The wider context of the episode will then be discussed, before concluding.
It should be noted that the term "wrong" used in the title of this blog post refers to the scientific inaccuracies referred to in the television show. While I directly avoid clickbait style headlines for these posts, it is not unreasonable to avoid the title "Everything Scientifically Inaccurate contained within RTE's "What Are You Eating?" Vegan Episode". I am also working within search engine dictated character limits.
The following 3 points detail the likely reasons as to why Phillip Boucher-Hayes experienced negative health effects on his 28-day vegan diet. Again, specific nutritional details of what comprised his diet are not known, so several reasonable assumptions are made. In the interest of objectivity and transparency, these are explicitly stated and referenced to avoid confusion:
1. Failure to Differentiate Veganism from Plant-Based Eating
As discussed in a previous post, veganism and plant-based eating are two very different concepts. Veganism denotes an ideology, whereas plant-based eating outlines specifics of an eating plan: i.e. a diet based on plants. In the dietary realm, veganism means the exclusion of all animal-derived products; this does not by default make it a healthy diet to follow. Vegan pizza, vegan ice cream, vegan burgers all omit animal derived ingredients - but they are still pizza, ice cream, and burgers. The true benefits of this style of eating lie in the elimination of harmful animal ingredients and the inclusion of fresh whole fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes nuts and seeds as the majority of food consumed.
What Are You Eating did make a brief reference to this point, with the dietician Aveen Bannon sitting down with Phillip Boucher-Hayes. She indirectly refers to choosing plants over processed vegan food, with the conversation repeatedly directed to the needless concern on protein in the diet. However, the explicit vegan vs. plant based point was not made, either to stick with the narrative of the episode or sheer lack of awareness on the part of the subjects. In his opening monologue, Boucher Hayes asks if the popularity of veganism is due to the internet, environmental concerns or animal welfare. He frames the conversation around these and fails to even reference the massive body of evidence which promotes plant-based eating as the optimal human diet.
2. Failure to consume Adequate Calories
The World Health Organisation, the Largest non-commercial health entity in existence, states that below a minimum daily intake of 2100 calories per day for men (1800 for women), the body enters starvation mode. The body will break down its own muscle and bone mass to supply nutrients to the organs via the bloodstream, as it is not obtaining adequate amounts from food intake. In What Are We Eating?, Boucher Hayes discovers at the end of the episode that he was eating 600 calories less than usual, and has lost muscle and bone density. As no exact details were given, let us assume that Boucher-Hayes ate the Irish average of 2,300 calories per day pre-vegan diet. Eating 600 calories less, so 1,700 calories, in this case, will result in the body entering starvation mode, where muscle & bone loss is expected. The only way to avoid this was if he was eating a minimum of 2,700 calories pre-vegan diet.
3. Refraining from Supplements & Nutritional deficiencies
There are a number of nutritional concerns on a plant-based diet, which must be addressed with supplements. Each possible deficiency is outlined and discussed extensively in a previous post. To summarise: The standard western diet is nutritionally incomplete, to begin with: 97% of the US population is deficient in the nutrient fibre. 2% of Americans meet the minimum daily requirement for potassium, and 75% of US adults are also chronically dehydrated. It also recommended that all adults over 50 take a B12 supplement, regardless of diet. Those following a plant-based diet are recommended to supplement iodine, iron, B12, calcium, zinc and Omega 3's. This is due to the low nutritional content of plants farmed on an industrial scale, with a steadily depreciating soil nutrient content and a loss of biodiversity worldwide.
What are You Eating? references Boucher-Hayes' nutritional deficiencies at the end of the episode, but fail to explicitly explore the reasons for this. His choice to avoid supplements on the diet is to either ignore the above information or simply highlight his lack of awareness of the complex subject of nutrition.
The Bigger Picture
The vegan episode of What Are You Eating was the first episode in the third series or season of the program. One must understand that Boucher-Hayes and RTE did not set out to educate the Irish public on health & wellbeing by challenging existing cultural norms and delivering the most up to date nutritional information available, regardless of the direct contradiction to the public mindset. Boucher-Hayes set out to make a television program: an entertaining, provocative 25-minute piece centered around a topical subject, in this case, veganism, but crucially, speak to and confirm the existing beliefs of the majority of viewers.
To do the opposite, i.e. present veganism or more accurately plant-based eating as the optimal human diet (which all nutritional research points to) would A. Render all previous and future episodes of What are you Eating? irrelevant and obsolete; B. Cause viewers to simply switch off, as the information challenged their existing value system and viewpoints; and C. Likey anger advertisers who paid large sums of money to market meat, dairy, fish, eggs and processed foods on RTE. This indirectly places pressure on RTE to broadcast content which re-affirms the common values and interest of the majority of viewers in Ireland, keeping viewing figures high and enables higher rates for advertising with the company. It must be explicitly stated that RTE is not "evil" or setting out to mislead the public. They are simply an entity striving to survive in a capitalistic system, and regular income is the only method by which to achieve this.
The "What Are You Eating" Vegan episode was both nutritionally inaccurate, and deliberately crafted to be antagonistic towards vegans. The narrative focused on the ideology as a whole and included scenes of a duck being sliced open and cooked for no apparent dietary reason, other than to anger those vegan viewers who had tuned in. Those who were angered should note that the episode was created for the purpose of creating controversy, and therefore publicity for a piece of content as part of an upcoming series. The content was aired on a media in sharp decline, and struggling to stay relevant as broadcasting falls victim to the progress of narrowcasting in an online world.
If you are an existing or aspiring plant-based eater, visit our resource guide to arm yourself with the knowledge necessary to achieve long-term success on this lifestyle, and pay little attention to any content that does not extend your knowledge, in this or any other topic of interest.
If it's happening to me, it's happening to anybody else who tries to take on this diet
Posted by Philip Boucher-Hayes
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