The Game Changers is a new film touting the benefits of veganism, narrated by James Wilks, a former winner of The Ultimate Fighter and elite special forces trainer.
In this documentary, James interviews several elite athletes that have gone the vegan route, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Scott Jurek, and world-record-holding strongman Patrik Baboumian.
Hidden behind the guise of groundbreaking science on human performance, Wilks and his team perpetuate some outdated myths regarding diet and protein consumption, plus the alleged pitfalls of animal products.
Read on for the science (or lack thereof) behind some of the claims in the film and decide what’s best for you when it comes to meat, protein consumption, and performance.
If you’re reading a research study, you probably like to take a look at who funded it first. For some reason, however, when it comes to the entertainment industry, we don’t always pay as much attention to where the money is coming from.
In general, it’s not really necessary to know who’s backing the latest rom-com. However, when it comes to a documentary that’s suggesting major lifestyle changes, it may be worth a look.
With this in mind, before we dive into the film itself, let’s take a look at the driving forces behind The Game Changers.
The Driving Forces
The films executive producers include Jackie Chan, Louie Psihoyos, and James Cameron and his wife Suzy Amis Cameron. James Cameron is an Academy Award winning filmmaker known for movies like The Titanic and Avatar.
What most people don’t know about this Oscar-winning producer and his wife, however, is that they’re also the founders of Verdiant Foods, an organic pea protein company[*].
But this isn’t just some dinky plant-based protein start-up. As a press release from 2017 states; “Cameron has the goal to become the largest organic pea protein fractionation facility in North America”[*]. He’s also partnered with Ingredion, one of the leading global ingredient suppliers, racking up an investment of $140 million[*]. So he definitely has no skin in the game, right?
But the plant-based bias doesn’t end there. The film interviews several healthcare and fitness professionals for insights into their expertise — with the caveat that they’re all selling the vegan lifestyle.
Dr. Dean Ornish — Author of several books including, “Undo It!” Which is a guide to reverse chronic disease with a plant-based diet. In addition, he hosts retreats and offers online programs for plant-based lifestyle approaches.
Dr. Aaron Spitz — Author of “The Penis Book,” which highlights the importance of a plant-based diet for optimal penile function.
Dr. Robert Vogel — A cardiologist and author of “The Pritikin Edge,” which focuses heavily on plant-based eating.
Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn — Sells books DVDs, ad programs for reversing heart disease through a plant-based diet.
Of course you want vegan “experts” to talk about veganism. But any balanced film on nutrition for athletic performance would interview an array of nutrition experts; not just the ones making money off a vegan agenda.
Now that you have a better understanding of the voices behind this film let’s dig into some of the talking points.
#1 Diet As The Only Path To Fitness
Does diet play a role in fitness? Of course.
Is diet the only contributor to fitness? Absolutely not.
This documentary does a fantastic job highlighting a select few athletes and also happen to eat a vegan diet. While these anecdotal stories are interesting to watch, the laser focus view on diet alone leaves a lot of questions unanswered.
For instance, is it possible that genetics plays a role in one’s athletic prowess? What about sleep quality? Training program? Stress levels?
The reductionist view of fitness as a result of diet alone that’s portrayed in this film is short-sighted at best — deceptive at worst.
Not to mention the fact that you’re looking at some of the world’s most fit athletes. These aren’t your average Joe’s working a nine to five trying to keep their heart health and weight in check. These people live, eat, sleep, and breathe fitness. So yes, they perform at insanely high levels.
And as for the parade of vegans winning the olympics, it begs the question — how many meat eaters have also won the olympics? Just sayin’.
#2 Vegan Diet Vs. Not Eating Junk Food
Interestingly, there was very little talk about what these athletes ate before they switched to a vegan diet. Sure, we know they ate meat — but what quality of meat? And what was the quality of the food they ate pre-vegan in general?
In one insight into pre-vegan dieting, Bryant Jennings (a heavy-weight boxer) explains how he grew up on popeyes, KFC, and fried chicken. He goes on to mention that he didn’t even know about half of the vegetables out there until he gave up meat in 2012.
Well yes, it makes sense then that switching from a diet made up of mostly low-quality fast food to a diet full of whole foods would make you feel better — regardless of whether you’re vegan, vegetarian,paleo, or keto.
You can’t fairly assert that switching from a fast-food diet to a vegan diet is going to make you feel better solely because you’re eating more plants. What about all the preservatives, sugar, processed ingredients, and additives that this person is also no longer consuming?
Once again, with their reductionist point of view, It seems a bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater to point the finger solely at animal protein.
#3 The Early Humans Diet — We Are Omnivores
The filmmakers try to get the point across that we, as human beings, are not meant to eat meat. They claim that our digestive tract is too long, and our teeth aren’t strong or sharp enough to break down animal protein.
They also bring in some mind-shattering evidence that early human beings did, in fact, eat plants. Was anyone arguing this?
One of the scientists even goes on to state that plants are high in vitamin C, and since our bodies can’t make vitamin C, it’s clear that we are meant to eat plants.
Well, yes, but does that mean we should only eat plants? Is there a world where people can eat both plants and animal protein?
Research on the early human diet says yes.
About 10,000 years ago, around 8,000 B.C., the development of agriculture and the domestication of animals began. This was a time where human beings started to get strategic about their meal planning. For the 2 million years preceding agriculture, humans played the hunter-gatherer game.
And they weren’t hunting berries; they were hunting animals.
Where’s the evidence for this? Cave paintings, carvings, and the remains of food animals found by archeologists[*].
Now, this is not to say that we should only eat meat, forgoing the benefits of plant foods. But instead, we should eat a balance of both. In other words, humans are omnivores.
The filmmakers finish this segment by mentioning that glucose is our primary fuel source, and we are clearly meant to eat only plants since they are the best source of fuel. It sounds like these guys haven’t heard about ketones.
#4 Complete and Quality Protein
The filmmakers argue that plant foods are quality sources of protein and are, in fact, better sources of protein than animal based foods. To unpack this one, we need to dive into the concepts of a “complete protein,” and “protein quality” first.
As defined by the FDA, a complete protein contains all of the essential amino acids in adequate amounts. Incomplete proteins do not have sufficient amounts of one or more of the essential amino acids[*]. Or, they’re missing amino acids altogether.
Animal protein sources come naturally packed with all of the essential amino acids in amounts that your body needs to function. Plant proteins, on the other hand, do not. While they may contain some of the essential amino acids in adequate amounts, with the exception of soy — you’ll have to combine plants to get a complete protein.
This may not sound like that big of a deal, but when it comes down to your actual diet, the question becomes; how much rice and beans do you need to eat to make the same amount of complete protein in a 4oz piece of chicken?
Now let’s take a look at protein quality. Here, we’re no longer talking about the quality as in “grass-fed and organic,” but rather the quality of the protein as it pertains to bioavailability and digestibility.
For this, researchers have come up with something called the PDCAAS (protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score) score. The PDCAAS measures the quality of a protein for human consumption. It takes into account the amino acid composition, the digestibility of amino acids, and the bioavailability of the amino acids[*].
A PDCAAS rating of 1.0 is a perfect score, with eggs, milk, and whey protein scoring a perfect 1.0, and beef coming in right behind with .92. If you look at vegetarian sources of protein, you get kidney beans coming in at .54 ,red lentils at .53, and peanuts .52[*][*].
It doesn’t take a scientist to see that animal sources of protein blow plant sources out of the water when it comes to amino acid content, digestibility, and bioavailability.
What’s more, some anti-nutrient compounds found only in plants can disrupt the absorption of amino acids. Even though the PDCAAS score accounts for digestibility, it doesn’t account for amino acids lost in the ilium (a section of your colon), where most anti-nutrient absorption takes place.
In an animal study, researchers found that anti-nutrients in peas, fava beans, chickpeas. and lupin inhibited the absorption of some of the amino acids present in these plant foods[*].
How does this translate into benefits for human health?
- Low intake of protein from dairy and meat sources during late pregnancy is associated with low birth weights[*]
- Consumption of a meat-containing diet contributes to greater gains in skeletal muscle mass than a vegetarian diet in older men[*].
- A diet high in fatty fish like salmon and mackerel improves inflammatory conditions like heart disease[*].
Notice that these studies aren’t focused on elite athletes with perfect health, but members of society that require more attention when it comes to nutrition.
#5 The Peanut Butter Sandwich
This one goes along with #4 above, but deserves its own subheading due to its sheer level of nonsense.
The filmmakers state that a peanut butter sandwich has as much protein as 3oz beef or three large eggs. That’s about five tablespoons of peanut butter, coming in at 500 calories (not including the bread)[*][*].
But calories aside, who uses five tablespoons of peanut butter to make a peanut butter sandwich? That’s over ¼ cup of peanut butter.
Come on guys, try harder.
#6 Animal Protein and Heart Disease
The heart disease debate is always a fan favorite among vegans when talking about meat consumption. Typically, they rely heavily on the cholesterol-lowering aspects of a plant-based diet.
While you can indeed find plenty of research to support the cholesterol-lowering effects of eating plants, the link to heart disease is still heavily up for debate. And in fact, more recent research is uncovering that it’s the size of the LDL particle, not its mere presence that should be of concern[*].
Interestingly, the ketogenic diet has a positive influence on the size of LDL particles, producing fluffier, less atherogenic (dangerous) particles[*].
What’s not up for debate, however, is the link between obesity and heart disease. High blood lipids, high blood pressure, and impaired glucose tolerance are all associated with obesity and heart disease[*].
So the question then becomes: what caused the obesity epidemic in the United States? Spoiler alert — it wasn’t an absence of vegans.
In fact, the rise of the obesity epidemic correlates closely with the rise of low-fat dieting[*].
And what about saturated fat? Isn’t saturated-fat packed red meat the cause of heart disease? Again, the evidence doesn’t hold up[*].
Taking a look at modern hunter-gatherer communities, researchers have found both low blood pressure and low cholesterol values. Could food quality be the driving force behind these omnivores and their superior heart health[*]?
#7 Animal Protein and Diabetes Risk
Dean Ornish states, ”People who eat a diet high in animal protein have a 4-500% increase risk of dying from various forms of cancer and type 2 diabetes.”
Impressive number, would love to know where that came from.
Researching support a plant-based diet for diabetes goes beyond protein sources to also include the type of carbohydrates and fat that should be consumed as well.
One study describing a plant-based approach for diabetes highlights the importance of unrefined carbohydrates (as opposed to refined), and mono and poly-unsaturated fats (as opposed to saturated)[*]. In other words, a whole foods diet that’s low in sugar and high in fiber that includes a variety of fat.
Another study states, “ the most important aspect of any of these types of diets is emphasizing whole grains, fruits and vegetables, legumes, and nuts and reducing saturated and trans fats.” Here again, this is a whole foods diet that omits refined flours[*].
And what about carbs?
A study published in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism found that when diabetic volunteers ate a low carb diet (20% of calories) vs. a low glycemic diet (55% of calories from carbs) they saw better glycemic control and more participants in this group were able to come off their medications[*].
The vegan diet may be many things, but it certainly is not low-carb.
And as for animal protein and diabetes, protein-rich dairy products have been consistently shown to reduce the risk of developing diabetes. What’s more, the dairy proteins whey and casein have even been shown to assist in insulin secretion for those who already have type 2 diabetes[*].
Could it be that a diet that avoids processed grains and focuses on real, high-quality foods is the answer to diabetes?
#8 Endothelial Function Test
This non-clinically validated portion of the film may have been one of the best smoke and mirrors pieces of all.
In this segment, they tested the blood of three Miami Dolphins players to assess endothelial function. Endothelial dysfunction can be helpful in predicting stroke and heart attacks due to the inability of arteries to fully dilate. Therefore, poor endothelial function is seen as a potential predictor of heart disease[*].
One of the players was vegan, while the other two admitted to eating fried chicken from Popeyes during away games — a stark difference in diet quality.
They then go on to compare blood cells from the Popeye eating team members and a vegan team member. To everyone’s shock and surprise, the vegan team member who does not indulge in fast food showed superior endothelial function. The concept of food quality is never mentioned.
Next, they cite a study that showed a single hamburger could impair blood flow and increase levels of inflammation by up to 70%. Here, once again, no mention of food quality.
While the filmmakers would lead you to believe that consuming animal protein is the cause of endothelial dysfunction, research says otherwise.
In fact, one study showed that dietary protein improved endothelial dysfunction after four weeks of supplementation. And before you ask if they supplemented with vegan protein — it was milk, pea, and egg white protein. That’s right, two sources of animal protein[*].
#9 Animal Eaters and Testosterone Levels
Testosterone is a sex hormone that also acts as an anabolic steroid. The athletes in this documentary vary in their muscle mass from the trim and fit runner, to the muscle bulging weight-lifter.
The filmmakers claim that contrary to popular belief, vegan dieters actually have higher levels of testosterone than meat-eaters.
The research supports this claim, with one essential caveat — usable testosterone is the same. In a study assessing the testosterone levels of meat and non-meat eaters, the researchers found that levels of testosterone were higher in the vegan group.
However, this elevated level of testosterone was accompanied by an elevation in sex hormone-binding globulin(SHBG). SHBG’s job is to bind to sex hormones, resulting in equal amounts of free testosterone in each group[*].
In other words, although it appeared that vegans had more testosterone, the amount of usable testosterone was not different than that in meat-eaters — a little detail they left out.
To eat plant-based or not?
This documentary walks you through the story of James Wilks, former UFC champion, and his quest for health. While the feel of the film is going for a real-time discovery of the benefits of a plant-based diet, this sentiment feels contrived at best.
By framing his interviewees as some of the toughest athletes in professional sports, Wilks makes a strong one-sided argument for the benefits of the vegan diet. Strategically omitting any evidence that you can be a high performer and eat meat.
And here’s another problem; while people like tennis player Novak Djokovic, and two-time Australian 400M champion Morgan Mitchell have impressive track records to say the least — this is not a representation of the general public. You know, people who don’t have entire teams of trainers and practitioners dedicated to their physical performance.
Interviewing special ops soldiers and elite athletes is interesting, but how is the general public supposed to compare?
In their cinematic stories of struggle athletes like Dotsie Bausch and five-time formula one world champion Lewis Hamilton talk about the incredible gains they’ve achieved through plant-based dieting.
With a backdrop of visionary scientists, the producers make their case for an explosive rise of plant-based eating.
If only the research supported their claims.
But hey — with a team of box office film executives backing the movie it’s no surprise it won at the Sundance Film Festival.
Do you due diligence and choose a diet that works for your body. Yes, we sell keto products here at Perfect Keto, but that doesn’t mean strict ketosis is for everyone. Although a documentary on the keto diet might be an interesting one …