There’s a new nutrition documentary making waves on the Netflix scene. Called The Game Changers, it’s the personal story of James Wilks, former UFC fighter who began following a vegan diet in an attempt to recover faster from a serious injury he sustained during training. While learning more about the best diet that would help his body recover and repair, he had his mind absolutely blown by the fact that eating plants are actually good for you (it should be noted here that clearly many athletes receive little to no nutrition education as part of their training programs). So much so, that he made a whole movie about it, highlighting other athletes who claim to have found performance advantages by trading in their steaks for tofu.
Of course in the past few weeks the discussion surrounding this documentary has been blowing up my social media feeds and DMs, so I had to check it out.
Nutrition documentaries on Netflix are starting to become a dime a dozen. This isn’t even the first pro-vegan documentary I’ve seen on there in the past 12 months. Cowspiracy, Forks over Knives, What the Health, OMG GMO, Food Inc, etc are just some of the titles meant to persuade you to re-think what foods you put on your plate. The angle that The Game Changers has taken in that it’s specifically geared toward an athletic population. As a Dietitian who is passionate about sports nutrition (and have a fair share of vegan eaters in my client load), I figured I should give it a watch.
Others have dove deep into the specific scientific claims made in the documentary, and done a great job of it, so instead I’ve elected to share my view not from a literature perspective but from the bigger picture as a performance-focused Dietitian. This documentary also didn’t touch on any ethical/environmental reasons for a person choosing a vegan diet it simply focused on health and performance alone, so I won’t be getting into that here either.
So, the main claims made by The Game Changers are:
1. All animal foods are harmful to our health, cause disease, and impair performance. Any evidence to the contrary is paid for by the meat/dairy/egg industry and cannot be trusted.
2. Switching to a 100% plant based (ie- vegan) diet is the best way to optimize performance and prevent injury and disease.
3. A plant-based diet gives you more and better erections (yes, you read that right). Things took a strange and unexpected turn around minute 53.
Now, the trouble with these types of shows is that they make their mark by creating hype and presenting only one side of an issue. I mean, we’re all on here talking about it right? So while it’s completely fair to say eating excessive amounts of animal foods (such that our diet is lacking plant foods as a result) is probably bad for our health, that does not in any way shape or form prove that we must exclude 100% of all animal foods from our diet in order to be a healthy person. I would go so far as to say that most people would do very well to increase their consumption of plant foods day to day, but it doesn’t need to be at the expense of all meat, eggs, and dairy products. Nutrition really isn’t that black and white. It’s also unfair to pin 100% of these athlete’s success on their nutrition choices, considering the importance of other factors in athletic performance such as their training programs, genetics, and rest/recovery strategies.
During the documentary, a few ‘tests’ were done to show the harmful effects of even a SINGLE meat-containing meal. They had 3 professional athletes consume either a meat-containing or vegan meal, taking blood samples 2 hours later to look at the difference. What was shown would absolutely shock many viewers:
I mean, clearly looking at the difference between black beans and chicken we can see that meat is just clogging up our arteries right? A heart attack literally waiting to happen.
Well, not quite. In reality that cloudiness we see in the blood sample after consuming a higher-fat meal is relatively normal. In fact, if we actually compared say, eating a similar amount of plant fats (from nuts, avocado, or olive oil) we would see the same effect in the blood after eating. Our bloodstream is the body’s transportation system, it’s how we move nutrients around the body from one cell or organ to another. After eating, food is broken down into very small components in the digestive system, then transported through the blood to our cells where its used or stored. The exact same thing happens when we consume a meal that contains carbohydrates- shortly after eating our blood sugar rises for a brief time as we transport the sugar to our cells. After that our blood sugar levels return to normal. It’s a healthy and normal part of human metabolism. What isn’t normal however, is for us to have chronically excessive levels of fats or sugars in our blood. This is why we generally do bloodwork “fasting” when we go to the doctor so these types of things aren’t skewing our test results.
The commentary during this part of the documentary mentions eating bacon and eggs for breakfast, a burger for lunch, and a steak for dinner as a typical meat-eater’s diet. While I don’t disagree that this is some people’s norm, it certainly isn’t what most athletes should be eating each day for optimal performance!
Now, to be fair near the end of the show I did manage to catch Arnold Schwarzenegger making a similar statement to what I have here in regard to a 100% vegan diet not being completely necessary – just that any shift a person can make toward eating more plants is a positive thing, and I agree. Many people, especially in North America, athletes and the general population alike eat far too few fruits and vegetables, consume way more refined grains vs whole ones, and rely on processed convenience foods for too many of our meals. We sometimes call this the “Standard American Diet”, or SAD diet. Simply getting folks to eat more high-fibre plant foods and reduce consumption of high-fat meats/ultra-processed foods is a huge step in the right direction, vegan or not.
Documentaries at their very core are meant to connect with us on an emotional level, and to persuade us to change based on the sharing of personal stories vs a scientific lecture on a topic. Nutrition documentaries in particular excel at this because we all have an extremely personal relationship with food, our health, and our bodies. Men also seem to have an extremely emotional relationship with their penises, as was suggested by the selection of the demonstration around minute 53. That’s definitely going to get some guys thinking.
The other thing I found frustrating about The Game Changers was the complete misrepresentation of Dietitians. Only one RD was shown throughout the entire 1 hour and 25 minute documentary and she was portrayed as one of the “bad guys” working for the meat industry. A real shame since there is truly no one better to talk about the ins and outs of plant-based eating for athletes than a Dietitian.
While we’re on the subject, let’s talk a little about vegan diets for athletes and whether or not I think they’re good or bad.
A vegan diet could certainly support performance for some athletes, honestly perhaps even better than some other popular diets of the moment like low-carb. Vegan diets tend to contain a higher percentage of calories from carbohydrates, which for most athletes is a big benefit since carbohydrates are our body’s main fuel source. A well-planned vegan diet also would contain plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts/seeds, and plant proteins which would help meet micronutrient requirements, some of which the needs for athletes are higher than the general population.
The challenge some athletes may face when going plant-based however, is meeting nutrient targets for the vitamins and minerals we typically don’t get from plants. Examples being calcium, iron, omega-3 fats, vitamin D, choline, zinc, and vitamin B12. Protein may also need to be supplemented since most plant protein sources also contain plenty of fats and/or carbohydrates. While plant proteins are super easy to find on a vegan diet, athletes with increased protein needs may require a little extra effort to hit their goal. You will probably find yourself eating a lot of tofu!
Unfortunately the documentary really glossed over the importance of a well-balanced and well-planned vegan diet. Oreos, potato chips, and white bread are all vegan, but if you try and perform on a diet based on those foods you’re probably going to fall short of your goals. So, if you’re a vegan athlete, here is my advice:
1. Get your blood levels of iron and vitamin B12 checked with your doctor. You may also want to check other levels like vitamin D or zinc if those tests are available to you.
2. Track your calorie, protein, and vitamin/mineral intake to make sure you’re consistently hitting your targets. Work with a sport Dietitian to make sure you’re not missing any key nutrients that can inhibit performance. Take supplements as needed/recommended by your RD to avoid nutrient deficiencies.
3. Avoid highly processed vegan foods that are low in vitamins, minerals, protein, or fibre. If we fill up on those foods we may not have enough room in our diet left for the nutritious stuff.
3. Don’t be afraid to include some animal foods in your diet if you feel like they make your life easier, or improve your relationship with food and your quality of life. Remember, nutrition should never be an all-or-nothing thing, and if we are too rigid and set in our ways we may really miss out on true optimal performance.
So, should The Game Changers change your nutrition game? Well, if you’re currently eating for performance but your diet looks more like the SAD diet, yea it probably would do you a heck of a lot of good to cook more at home, choose unprocessed ingredients, and increase your intake of high-fibre and nutritionally diverse plant foods. But, if you’re already doing those things and your diet happens to include some meat, eggs, fish, and dairy products, cutting those things out in favour of exclusively plants may not give you the advantage the documentary claims it will. It’s all about the right balance.
About the Author:
Stephanie Hnatiuk is a Registered Dietitian and Personal Trainer based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She believes good health doesn’t need to be complicated, and that you don’t need to be afraid have your cake and eat it too.