25th November 2019
I've a sense of deja vu. Another food film documentary proclaiming a 'plant-based' diet as the answer to all our nutritional short comings. But this time it's gone beyond your average Joe dying from disease – they've put athletic performance at the fore front of their argument. 'The Game Changers' has had a lot of hype, with some big hitters involved across the fields of sports and entertainment. It's easy to see why people are talking about it - it became itunes most downloaded film ever after it's first week.
A quick preface
Being a nutrition coach you have to stay objective with dietary approaches. No two people are the same, as is the case with their diets. Study the research diligently, make it applicable to peoples life’s, and observe the outcomes – be open minded and understand there are many ways in approaching human nutrition.
I’ve found a way of eating that works for me over the years which is pescatarian.
This piece is in no way, shape or form an attack on ‘plant-based’ eating – I’m making an honest analysis with the knowledge I have.
Vegans and those looking towards becoming so on ethical grounds I have nothing but admiration for you. For those moving towards veganism in the belief that it’s better for your health I’d ask you to do some research and experiment a little first to figure out what works for you. Some people can be healthy and thrive on plants alone – some people can’t!
We’re all unique, needing to approach our diets slightly differently. There is no one “best diet” that will work for all.
Honesty is the best policy
I’ve watched the film, looked into the research they use (and others they haven’t), dug a little deeper with the athletes they feature, and understand there are vested interests.
There’s a few things we need to be clear about from the off;
- They use the phrase ‘plant-based’ very loosely.
- The studies they cite are weak and misleading.
- They cherry pick data.
- They use some theatrical experiments to dazzle viewers.
- They use relative risk numbers that are not appropriate to the general public.
Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote the encyclopaedia on body building, carving out a physique that won him Mr. Olympia no fewer than seven times, all whilst eating copious amounts of animal foods. His diet today is almost fully ‘plant-based‘.
He recently told Men’s Health ‘Gym & Fridge’ series,
“I stay away more from the meats and more from animal products, and animal proteins, because there was this misconception that that’s the only way you get big and strong, so now I back off that and I feel much better,”
He then goes on to throw a whole egg in his morning smoothie and talks about how he likes to cook steak when friends come round.
James Cameron is an executive producer on the film who’s fully ‘plant-based’, and well-known for directing The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day. He’s also active in spreading ecological awareness. Him and his wife Suzy Amis Cameron – also an executive producer on the film – are founders of Verdient Foods, which they created to ‘address the current and future global sustainable plant-based protein food demand’.
Two of the biggest names in the film industry, along with Oscar winning director Louie Psihoyos (The cove), have produced a rather compelling spectacle…
Cleverly put together with celebrities, athletes and doctors – some of whom have books, courses, supplements, and institutes on ‘plant-based’ eating – talking of their own transformations, reciting research with some hard hitting numbers and jargon wrapped up in jazzy graphics.
It does what it suppose to…entice you in!
For those who don’t have the time to pick apart what’s being said I’m going to do a little bit of it for you know. I’m only scratching the surface here. Many others go the whole nine yards.
When you’re presented with something that is stated as the “truth” you must question it. Only when we’ve examined the evidence for ourselves can we start establishing fact from fiction.
As much as I’d like to trust everyone in what they say we all have a tendency some times to speak our truth as if it was a universal truth. Whether their doing it from a place of loving and understanding is for us to decide.
Time for some facts, fictions and (dis)honest representations…
The plant v animal protein debate
‘plant-based proteins generally exhibit lower digestibility, lower leucine content and deficiencies in certain essential amino acids such as lysine and methionine, which compromise the availability of a complete amino acid profile required for muscle protein synthesis. Based on currently available scientific evidence, animal-derived proteins may be considered more anabolic than plant-based protein sources’
One argument the film leans on is that plant proteins are superior to animal sources. They claim that animals are ‘just the middlemen’ for protein as they get there’s from plants. We’d do well to skip the animals and go straight to plant sources apparently.
It’s not that simple. Animals like cows have a digestive system design to munch and digest grass all day extracting the nutrients they need. We humans don’t have that same capability.
Yes, we can get proteins directly from plants, but they lack an abundance of essential amino acids to make them a complete protein. You’d need to do your research and combined foods together to get enough to fulfil your needs. You’d also have to eat more volume. All animal proteins are complete.
Typically from a steak you’d get one gram of protein per 6 calories. Lentils it’s around 11 calories per gram of protein (referenced from todaysdietian.com). Further more lentils are low on two essential amino acids – methionine and cystine. You’d have to pair them with brown rice to make a complete protein.
Lentils and steak have the same protein
One of the most startling claims that really made me sit up was when the narrator James Wilks stated that a cup of lentils and a peanut butter sandwich has the same amount of protein as a 3oz steak and 3 eggs…hmm, really??
Let’s look at the numbers.
One cup of cooked lentils gives you 18 grams of protein, assuming your body absorbs them all (more on this shortly). A tiny 3 oz steak gives you 26 grams of complete proteins. Remember, the proteins from the lentils aren’t complete.
The three eggs will give you around 18 grams of protein. To get the same in a peanut butter sandwich you’d need to eat roughly an extra 270 calories. And again you’d have to factor in the quality of those proteins. (numbers from todaysdietian.com and nutritiondata.self.com)
This where things get more interesting. The Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score is a method used to evaluate the quality of protein (in reference to a human bodies requirements) and our ability to digest it. Their overall quality is measured from 1 – the highest quality available – down to 0 at the lowest. Eggs score at a 1. Peanuts on the other hand come in at 0.52. Wheat is even lower at 0.42.
So not only do you need to eat over twice as many calories to get the equivalent protein, the overall quality is below half that of the egg proteins.
They’ve either not done their research properly, or their trying to pull a fast one. I’ll let you decide.
Your gut and anti-nutrients
Another thing they forget to mention is that we all assimilate foods differently depending on our genetics and gut bacteria. Whether it’s through nutritional naivety, or a case of not wanting to divulge the full story, it’s plain stupid.
I’ve tried being a 100% ‘plant-based’ – it wasn’t pretty! For six months I tired various grains, beans, pulses and legumes. Even after proper preparation my gut didn’t agree with most of them, especially lentils, kidney beans and quinoa. As much I enjoyed eating them you wouldn’t of wanted to of been within 30 feet of me afterwards!
I didn’t grow up eating lentils or quinoa so they’re a foreign substance to my gut. Yes, your microbiome changes over time, but after six months things only got worse.
Also plants contain anti-nutrients which prevents their full absorption into your body,
“Antioxidants like phytates or polyphenols can bind with certain micronutrients in the gastrointestinal tract and prevent absorption into the body. Phytates are found in the outer layer of plants and can bind with minerals like zinc, calcium or iron, which prevents their absorption in the intestines. Polyphenols are a compound found in plants that can also interfere with mineral absorption in the intestines”
I developed IBS, had low energy levels, felt extremely weak, and had no libido what so ever – I’m clearly not designed to be fully ‘plant-based’. I feel far healthier with some animal fats and proteins in my diet.
Some people do struggle digesting meat (there are people with meat allergies, but there rare), and in truth a lot of the meat we consume today is toxic. Pumped with antibiotics and fed on substandard feed, the meat produced by industrialised farming is of poor quality, tasteless and ethically immoral.
Protein as energy
I wasn’t sure where to start but this one made me chuckle. I’ve never heard a single soul say they eat protein for energy. I was like “no shit Sherlock!”
During this segment they show a video clip of some large males – I’m guessing American footballers – stacking their plates with meat, presumably for the proteins needed to aid their protein turnover requirements.
Amino acids are the building blocks of life. The human body requires 20 amino acids to construct not just muscle tissues, but your skin, teeth, eyes, hair, nails, bones, hormones, neurotransmitters – basically everything!
The body can use protein as an energy source, but always as a last resort. Your body prefers to use sugars from carbohydrates in the form of glucose. It’s secondary option is using fat in the form of ketone bodies. Only when the body has ran out of both will it then start breaking down proteins to make glucose through gluconeogenesis. This isn’t good!
Animal proteins increase the risk of chronic diseases
Another thing they highlight is that all animal proteins cause inflammation increasing your chances of an early grave.
One study they cite uses the Mediterranean Diet as it’s bench mark. A Mediterranean diet – which contains animal proteins in moderation – in the study is associated with reduced all-causes of mortality risk, concluding it decrease inflammation.
Moving swiftly on…
Another study they use indicates an increase in the potential for inflammation when red and processed meats are eaten. This is an observational study where participants were given questionnaires every two years and asked to recall their diet. How accurate those questionnaires where is anyone’s guess. Can you recall what you’ve eaten over the past two years?
There’s too many confounding variables in observational studies meaning you have to take them for what they are – a good way of identifying possible causes of disease. Only randomised controlled trials where the participants lifestyles are tightly monitored can truly yelled hard evidence. Only thing is there expensive to undertake, and how many people would submit to having their lifestyles controlled for an extended period of time?
One study I found on whether plant and animal proteins effect cardiovascular disease risk differently suggested that the limited and inconsistent evidence of any differential effects was inconclusive. It highlighted the more likely factor of increased risk coming from the quality of the protein and how it’s prepared.
One thing doesn’t necessarily lead to another
It’s pretty hard to isolate one thing as a cause for another – the human body is far to complex. And correlation doesn’t equal causation. Okay, maybe smoking will hugely increase your chances of throat or lung cancer, but with nutrition we don’t just eat one food. Further more other lifestyle factors contribute to overall mortality risk.
But one thing is clear;
Being overweight can significantly increase your risks of chronic disease.
One of the major reasons why vegans on the whole tend to be healthier is due to the fact they consume 600 calories less a day than omnivores.
Plants power superior performance
The corner stone of the film is centred on ‘plant-based’ nutrition optimises performance. To put their point across they feature athletes from different disciplines to share their stories of competing on plant-power.
Many are now retired and some are reportedly no longer fully ‘plant-based’.
Of the top elite performers associated with the film there is little to no mention of them in them film.
The six-time Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton has a brief cameo appearance (he clocks up 110,000 air miles per season so he might feel a little hypocritical about it all). ‘Plant-based’ since 2017, he has recently launched a ‘plant-based’ burger restaurant called Neat Burgers.
Novak Djokovic – winner of 16 tennis grand slams – isn’t featured at all in the film. I found that a bit odd. One of the greatest tennis players of all-time isn’t used to express the wonders of ‘plant-based‘ eating for performance when it’s widely reported it’s the reason his at the top of his game.
Maybe because he isn’t 100% ‘plant-based’. Apparently he’s ‘forced to eat fish’ to aid muscle recovery.
James Wilks (the narrator) is a former mixed martial artist who turned ‘plant-based’ after (he says) spending more than a 1000 hours researching nutrition whilst recovering from serious knee injuries in a quest to find a diet that was optimal for recovery.
Six weeks into his ‘plant-based’ diet he tested his endurance on the battle ropes – a brutal piece of kit often used my grapplers – finding he had boundless energy, claiming he went on for over an hour (the scene in the film is an re-enactment, or does he just not sweat?). His previous record was 8 minutes.
Sticking with mixed martial arts they use the UFC fight between Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz as a testament to plants nutritional superiority over animals. In a brutal fight Diaz – the ‘plant-based’ athlete – choked out McGregor on the floor.
Leading up to the fight McGregor was feasting often on steak. They twist this as the reason he lost. Maybe he was eating too much steak and not enough carbs to fuel his performance…who knows!
McGregor is a world-class fighter. His striking is brutal, but he’s beatable, especially on the floor. Diaz has a chin of steel, seemingly taking punches all day for fun. He’s also a Brazilian Jiu-jitsu master, so don’t roll with him on the floor.
At the end of the day it was just one fight (Diaz had lost 11 fights previous, I’m sure most of his victors ate animal produce), and in their rematch McGregor went on to win whilst still eating steak. There is no mention of this.
Born to run
Ultramarathon running is some gnarly stuff, pushing the body and mind to it’s limits. Scott Jurek is featured through out whilst trying to break the time record for running the Appalachian trail – some 2,189 miles of rugged terrain – in 46 days.
He’s a freak of nature who clearly loves to run. He credits the ability to do so via his 100% ‘plant-based’ diet which he says power’s his body and aids it’s recovery.
Endurance sports require a lot of energy that is readily available. Sugars from carbohydrates are the bodies preferred fuel for powering physical activity, and it’s also the most efficient source. Sugars are mainly found in fruits and vegetables, so I’d tend to agree with his diet optimising his performance.
As strong as an Ox
Patrik Baboumian is a German strongman. In all my years of watching worlds strongest man I’d never heard of him up until a few years ago only through his vegan activism.
He says he gained 25 kilos when he switched to a fully ‘plant-based‘ diet – that’s a lot of bulk! But he just doesn’t eat plants. He supplements heavily – as most strongmen do – consuming 260 grams of protein a day via shakes alone.
He doesn’t hold the world record for the most weight carried by a human as claimed. It has been bettered by both Brain Shaw and Hafthor Bjornsson by over 300lb’s (albeit their 60 + kilos heavier).
Don’t get me wrong, he’s damn strong. But they’ve warped the reality of his feats a little.
Wheels of steel
Winning a Olympic silver medal in no mean feat. Doing it at the age of 39 is pretty incredible. The female cyclist Dotsie Bausch did so at the London 2012 Olympic games as part of the USA women’s team pursuit.
Three years previous she turned ‘plant-based’, saying she felt the benefits almost immediately. Her times around the track improved, as did her recovery between training sessions.
Breaking the mould
Americans seemingly have a love of meat and football (the stop/start commercial intrusion must be appealing, I’m guessing filled with burger ads).
Derrick Morgan played for the Tennessee Titans, transitioning to a fully ‘plant-based’ diet early in 2017. That year he went on to have one of his best seasons as a footballer. But in 2018 his form dipped and he ended up missing several games through injury. Soon afterwards he retired.
In 2017 they reached the play-offs for the first time in 10 seasons with a reported 11 players being ‘plant-based’. Was it the plants that made the difference, or did they happen to put together a team of crack commando players with improved coaching?
One thing that isn’t clear is what did their diets look like of before they went ‘plant-based’? A few others featured mention fried chicken was a staple of their diet.
Numbers that shock
The vast majority of us are not elite athletes. We’d prefer to know the ins and outs of our daily habits impacting on our health through robust research and honest numbers.
There’s some figures quoted through out that make your ears prick up.
The most hard hitting coming from Dean Ornish when he says,
“people who eat a diet that’s high in animal protein have a 75% increased risk of premature death from all causes, and a four to five hundred percent increased risk of death from most forms of cancer, prostate, breast colon cancer, as well as type 2 diabetes.”
This is the relative risk of one group compared to another. These numbers are not related to your risk.
The infographic below clearly shows relative vs absolute risk.
Big bold claims that when you peel the layers back don’t stack up.
Things can be presented by the media to spark controversy, spread fear and sell their story.
All of this back and forth about this causing cancer and that shortens your life by 10 years with out sound scientific evidence is leaving most in a sea of confusion, and it’s seriously undermining nutritional science.
The only real valid point of the whole film is the environmental impact of mass industrialised farming. At present livestock production uses 83% of the worlds farmland and an insane amount of water to produce piss poor meat.
Yes, we need to eat less meat with the real issue being that the planet’s ecosystem is collapsing due to deforestation for crops to feed cattle, water shortages in places, and chemicals from fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides contaminating water supplies.
If your a meat eater you’d do well to eat less but make it better quality. Find a local butcher or supplier who sources their meats from a trusted farm that uses pasture management systems and encourages biodiversity, keeping soils fertile and the water supply clean.
And that’s that folks…
I could go on but I feel there’s no point.
There’s talk of plant eating gladiators, beetroot juice making you stronger (It doesn’t – it improves your endurance as the research they site highlights), and bean burritos making males morning glory more prominent. Theatre of the highest order.
What did I conclude from it all;
- Plants are really good for your health. Most people would do well to eat more of them. But being a 100% ‘plant-based’ probably isn’t going to work for most people.
- People who are 100% ‘plant-based’ can show signs of better health, largely (I feel) because on average they consume 600 less calories a day.
- Athlete’s can perform at the highest level being 100% ‘plant-based’.
- So to can omnivores. The fastest man ever Usain Bolt nailed 100 chicken nuggets a day at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, breaking thee world records in the process.
- It was clearly aimed at males, because we all know ‘men eat meat‘ and you’ll develop erectile dysfunction if you don’t stop.
- It could hoodwink those with little nutritional knowledge.
- We’re divided over nutrition when we shouldn’t be.
- I’m getting bored of ‘food films/documentaries/propaganda ‘
I look forward to the day when someone puts together a documentary free from bias highlighting more pressing issues that we need to address quickly for both the health of ourselves and the planet;
- Our current mass methods of producing foods aren’t sustainable.
- We waste one third of all food produced.
- With all that waste we still on the whole eat too much.
- And a lot of the “foods” we consume are crap, both animal and plant-based a like.
One day perhaps, one day…
Yours in love and health.