When “The Game Changers” was released on Netflix it started a wave of discussion on plant-based diets. Every week since, a client has come into my office more confused about nutrition and questioning if they should give up animal products all together.
The first mistake that The Game Changers makes is not defining what ‘plant-based’. Plant-based and vegan are not the same thing. I want to start off with a disclaimer by saying I support veganism and work with clients every day to achieve optimal health with this dietary preference. I will also share how my own diet has evolved over the years. In the past, I’ve followed a vegan diet and I’ve also experimented with the keto/paleo diet. I now eat predominantly plant-based which for me includes fish at least 2-3 times a week, chicken 2-3 times a week, and red meat on special occasions. And I’m sure my diet will continue to evolve as my body and life do.
I don’t tell you this to say that I have found the optimal diet for optimal health. I have found the optimal diet for my health, which is not simply a result of my masters level degree In nutrition alone, but from trial and tuning into my body. Replicating someone’s diet will not bring you health, you need to learn about your body and about nutrition.
Executive produced by James Cameron, an award-winning director, who is famous for “The Terminator”, “Titanic”, and “Avatar”, Cameron knows how to tell, even sell, a story which is demonstrated in the alluring narratives and scientific studies presented in the film. “The Game Changers” was also executive produced by a slew of famous celebrities and athletes, like: Lewis Hamilton, Novak Djokovic, Chris Paul, Jackie Chan, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
This film utilizes famous athletes to advance their position of plant-based diets since athletes are known for their craft and therefore, their bodies. Seeing these famous athletes adapt to this diet is very convincing for viewers encouraging the notion that by following their plant-based diet you can “transform” your body to look and perform like theirs.
A large part of this documentary is about challenging conventional “wisdom” about protein. For decades the USDA “fed” us the view that meat and dairy products were essential nutrients. Game Changers seeks to explode this view as myth, as marketing, unsupported by science. Many of the “studies” referenced in this film are observational studies, meaning researchers observe what people eat/ate and relate it to what disease or health issue they get/have. Methods of food reporting in these studies include single day dietary recall interview, food frequency questionnaires, and 7 day dietary recall interviews. People often forget, under estimate, or consciously leave out what they eat – take it from someone who has clients do 24 hour recalls and 3 day food records on a daily basis. Gathering information in this type of way cannot be reliably confirmed or refuted.
The film presents a study on the roman gladiators that “proves” that they in fact did not eat meat, but ate plants. The data they presented is jarring, but the data never detailed what the gladiator’s diet actually consisted of. Were they completely plant-based, or were they omnivores, thereby eating plants and animals? I dug deeper and actually read the study to find this quote;
“Compared to the average inhabitant of Ephesus, gladiators ate more plants and very little animal protein. The vegetarian diet had nothing to do with poverty or animal rights. Gladiators, it seems, were fat. Consuming a lot of simple carbohydrates, such as barley, and legumes, like beans, was designed for survival in the arena. Packing in the carbs also packed on the pounds.”
He simply demonstrated that plants were a large part of their diet and served a purpose for the particular sporting event.
Male sexual health
Another alarming portion of the film was when three (don’t ever draw a conclusion from a study with a sample size of 3) male collegiate athletes had their sleeping erections measured after eating a meat-based meal and then a plant- based meal. The results made for a huge case against meat as the participants had many more erections that lasted-longer after their plant-based meal. The caveat to these findings is that the ‘study’ never showed the real findings, just used eye-catching graphs and percentages. This study presents another jaw-dropping conclusion that leaves viewers reeling at the thought of ever eating meat again, for what man wants to have their “manhood” performing at a sub-optimal level? This study also ended with its leading doctor, Dr. Aaron Spitz, stating that it is “not a scientifically validated study”, but it is producing exciting results. This is a huge red flag, especially since in research results need to be replicable to demonstrate their validity.
The idea that protein serves as fuel for exercise was debunked a long time ago, so I’m not sure why this was even brought up. But if were are talking science, protein can be converted to glucose via gluconeogenesis, hence why the ketogenic diet is not a high protein diet. Athletes use protein to enhance lean body mass and recovery. Endurance athletes may benefit from a greater ratio of carbohydrate to protein, but to maximize lean body mass adequate protein (1.6-1.8g/kg for endurance athletes) is essential. A vegan diet can contain more than enough protein, even for athletes.
The discussion of the Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz MMA fight made me laugh. McGregor must have lost because he eats meat, not because of the fact Diaz runs triathlons, is in excellent cardiovascular shape, and is a master of Brazilian jiu jitsu. McGregor went up 2 weight classes to make this fight. And what about all the other people that have beaten Diaz (11 to be exact); were they all just better vegans than him?
Showing athletes performing at high levels in attempt to convince you that veganism is some king of magic elixir for athletic performance is an example of bias confirmation. Seek out evidence that supports your bias, and you will find it.
All protein comes from plants so we don’t need animal protein
There are several reasons why plant protein may be inferior to animal protein. Plant proteins are far less bioavailable than animal protein. If you eat enough total protein from plant sources you certainly can make up for these limitations, but you will need more total protein and you will need to be strategic about the types of plant proteins you are consuming. Do we need animal protein? No. Is it a superior source of essential amino acids that are required in the human diet? Certainly.
Blood plasma levels after animal-based meals
What about the scene where the three NFL players were either an animal-based meal vs a plant-based meal? Having fat in our blood after a fatty meal is completely normal. How else would it make its way to our organs? Also important to note, the citation flashed during this scene was a study done by the Hass Avocado Board. Need I say more?
Overall, the film presented a lot of sweeping statements and one-sided research that made very impressive and convincing health claims. “The Game Changers” included all the essential elements of a box-office hit, not sound research, in this documentary: personal narratives, health-scares, and “ah-ha” moments. Additionally, in their effort to advance their case for plant-based diets, the film often used fear-based tactics instead of encouraging a well-balanced, enjoyable diet.
A real documentary presents the evidence and lets the viewer formulate an opinion. Presenting accurate scientific information isn’t sexy. It’s sexier to scare people and fear monger to get views.
Yes, eating plants is wonderful for your health, but the optimal human diet can also include organic, wild-caught, and/or free-range animal products. If you chose to go plant-based and need help navigating how to do it correctly while preventing deficiencies, work with an expert in the field of nutrition, such as myself. If you have any questions, thoughts, or anything you would like to discuss with me; please, sign up for a counseling session.
In great health,
“Protein – Which is Best? – NCBI.” 1 Sep. 2004, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3905294/. Accessed 4 Nov. 2019.
The Game Changers References:
The Gladiator Diet
Nutrient Profiles of Vegetarian and Non-Vegetarian Dietary Patterns
These are the studies cited with regards to vegetarian diets for athletes:
Plant Based Guide for Physicians