Over the past few weeks, I’ve had many of you get in touch asking for my thoughts on the recent documentary “Gamechangers”, a 2018 Netflix documentary about the benefits of a plant based diet for elite athletes. I’ve just finished watching it and as someone with a deep knowledge of nutrition, find myself angry and frustrated to see movies like these touted as yet another “new diet” in the public domain. [edited] Angry, not because it is promotes the benefits of a plant based diet…I’ve been banging this drum for years, but angry because it presents incorrect nutritional facts, cherry picked research and theatrical experiments that prove nothing.
Worse still, I’m receiving many texts from clients and friends announcing they’ve watched it and “going vegan” tomorrow, without the correct knowledge and understanding of how to approach this transition safely to ensure their health.
PLEASE READ THIS FIRST
Firstly, I’m not vegan and indeed eat everything. However, I’m a huge advocate of a mainly plant based diet and many who have worked with me will know that my advice will often focus on aiming to eat 10 portions of vegetables and fruits each day. That’s a lot and way more than, not only the advised 5-a-day that the government message advocates, but also way…way more than many actually consume.
Gamechangers, The Movie
This programme focuses on the research and findings of an injured elite sportsman, who initially delved into the world of nutrition to see if he could speed up the healing process following ligament damage to both knees, before entering into a plant based world that was, seemingly, a complete revelation.
On the surface, I can see how this documentary can be compelling, particularly to those who have never considered the impact of our diet on the way we feel and behave. That is to say, the impact of the food that we choose to eat and the way our body works and performs as a result.
Amazing isn’t it? There are many who have swept along in the haze of confusion surrounding the nutrition world, that is fuelled by enormous budgets and marketing campaigns by those who stand to gain the most…food manufacturers and retailers.
I admit it’s very cleverly produced, edited and presented. A quick glance at the credits at the beginning of the programme will reveal a stellar production team…with years of movie making behind them.
If don’ read any further (but please do), My anger and frustration are down to the following:
- It’s a film designed to engage, amuse and provoke suspense and drama in pursuit of a life-changing revelation
- The case studies are not in any way representative of the general public and yet it is the general public who are watching this and making radical changes as a result
- The research experiments conducted during the film do not show robust scientific evidence; they’re designed, with full dramatic effect, to fit in with the outcome the films intends
- The evidence provided has, quite simply, been cherry picked to back up the outcome the film intends
I have taken some of the key points but there were many more in the programme; too many to discuss in one post.
Please feel free to continue this discussion in the comments below.
The Gamechangers Case Studies
The case studies used in this programme were all elite professional athletes, who aim for peak condition both physically and mentally. It’s their job and they take it very seriously. They were also previous heavy meat eaters, with numerous references to burgers, fried chicken and steaks, prior to their transformation to a plant based diet (plus a serious supplement programme perhaps?). This transformation also coincided with propulsion into new zones of physical achievement.
They were surprised. I wasn’t.
Quite simply….if they’ve been led to believe that the only way to be strong, build muscle and ensure peak physical fitness is to train hard and build endurance all on a diet of first class protein; it is likely the foods they ate, in between the gruelling training sessions will be exactly that; meat, fish, chicken and eggs, with little time and space for any other foods. The programme suggested that this simply translated into “eat steaks” for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And then, enlightened to the fact that a plant based diet may help them reach even higher performance peaks, they consequently switch to a vegan diet.
Can you imagine how incredibly grateful their bodies will be to suddenly receive a deluge of vitamins and minerals that it has been craving (and lacking) during those heavy meat eating years?
How the Body Works?
The body systems work as a series of chemical processes, each of which needs specific vitamins and minerals. Without each and everyone, the body cannot perform each process with full efficiency; it will do a reasonable job because our bodies are incredible and will find a way of manufacturing what we lack. But there is a limit and it cannot make each nutrient.
Suddenly, with a sudden increase in plants, the body finds itself awash with all it needs and hey presto, it starts firing on all cylinders and works like it’s never worked before, with incredible efficiency and power. Guess what happens then….you fell incredible (as confirmed by many of the case studies), and your performance is better than ever (again confirmed by all).
So how about Animal Protein Specifically
Apparently, according to the film, animals; cows, pigs and chickens are just the middlemen and all protein originates from plants (?!). I can assure you that if you were to go out and forage for grass and wildflowers you would not be able to sustain your protein requirements but thankfully, these middlemen are capable of converting them for us.
The programme focused on the misconception that you must eat animal protein to get “big and strong”
This is based on an underlying truth; it is important to eat good quality protein in good amounts to ensure strength and bulk.
Proteins are made up of smaller building blocks called amino acids of which there are 8 essential amino acids. In nutrition, the word “essential” means it must come from the diet. In other words, your body cannot make these 8 amino acids, so you have to eat them. Once it has these 8 essential building blocks, it can then go ahead and make up to 22 amino acids in total, ensuring your body’s complete protein needs.
Animal protein sources contain all 8 essential amino acids whereas plant based sources contain some, but NOT all, contrary to what the documentary told us. Therefore you will need to combine plant based proteins, by eating varied protein foods to ensure a full array of amino acids. For example, a vegan red kidney bean chilli with brown rice or dhal with added vegetables such as mushrooms. If you don’t eat the 8 essential building blocks in sufficient quantities, your body will not be able to satisfy its protein building requirements and your health will suffer as a result.
Thus, as a vegan, it is crucial that you eat varied protein sources. Done properly, it is perfectly possible to satisfy the body’s protein requirements.
The Blood Draws!
Gamechangers made my blood boil here (pun intended!). I was livid to see the section that showed the cloudy serum of the blood drawn 2 hours after eating a meat-based burrito compared with the clear serum after a plant-based protein. Then implying that this fat content (that has cased the cloudiness) has a knock-on effect on endothelial function, that controls how open your arteries are for optimal blood flow. Really? It is perfectly normal to see a rise in blood lipids (fats) and blood glucose (sugar) after a meal that contains significant carbohydrates and fats, so soon after a meal. The body will then use these according to its needs; they will be absorbed by the cells that need it for energy, in the case of glucose and fats for cell membrane synthesis for example.
Interestingly, one athlete had consumed avocado as part of the plant-based burrito but was told that this wouldn’t have caused cloudiness. Why not? Avocado is high in saturated fat, the same fat found in meat.
Fasted blood draws would have been a more appropriate basis for comparison.
However, the concept that the composition and therefore the health of your blood at any time is solely due to your last meal, without taking into account your long term diet and lifestyle is ludicrous.
and then this…!
Bizarrely, to demonstrate “endothelial action” even more graphically, experiments even extended (excuse the pun) to demonstrating the immediate positive effects of a plant based meal on penis girth, hardness and number of erections per night …on 3 American footballers, all in their 20s! Say no more! Once the giggling analysis had subdued, there was an admission that this was not a scientifically validated study but the results are “exciting”. Oh really?!
Aside from all of the above, these conclusions were based on 3 young elite athlete case studies only, eating burritos made up ad hoc on camera! Hardly a gold standard, large randomised controlled trial; no discussion of a mechanism of action and no meta analysis comparison with other research studies. Instead, the programme has cherry picked the research to suit its conclusions alongside simple observational, even anecdotal evidence of a few athletes who happen to eat plant based diet. No discussion of any other foods or otherwise ingested…for clarity, I’m talking supplements here. That’s not conclusive, by any means.
That’s not to say it wouldn’t warrant further robust scientific research.
Plant Based Diets and Reduced Health Markers
The programme highlighted the results of their case studies who took part in the 7 day Firefighters challenge, who reported feeling energised after a meal rather than lethargic and tired as they usually did. Blood tests also showed lowered cholesterol, reduced blood pressure and weight loss after following the plant based diet for 7 days.
Does this surprise me? Of course not!
A plant based diet made up of whole foods will include far more vegetables and less burgers and fried chicken that were identified as the mainstay of many of their diets. Therefore the new whole food diet, even in the short term, will:
- increase fibre intake, this will reduce blood cholesterol and therefore blood pressure
- Increase satiety and therefore reduce the size of meals and carb cravings
- Avoid junk food (these are not whole foods!), therefore lower calorie intake (plus plants tend to be lower in calories) and therefore encourage weight loss if there is no change in their activity levels.
- You do not need to switch to being a complete vegan to increase your fibre intake
- You do not need to switch to being a complete vegan to ensure 10-a-day
- You do not need to switch to being a complete vegan to consume fewer calories
- You do not need to switch to being a complete vegan to consume less saturated fat
- You do not need to switch to being a complete vegan to ensure enough glucose (and therefore carbohydrates) to feed the brain
- There are some nutrients that are more easily derived from animal foods such as Vitamins D & B12
- Some nutrients from animal sources are more bio-available and in a form that the body can use immediately. With some plant based sources, compounds like oxalates and phytates can bind to minerals such as iron and calcium, meaning the body has to process them before it can absorb them.
So is Gamechangers Accurate?
In part yes…the message that eating more plants and less meat is better for the environment is accurate. Meat, dairy, egg & fish farming produce huge amounts of waste, pollute waters and contribute significantly to global manmade agricultural emissions in terms of animal water consumption, pollution and depletion. Growing animal feed requires vast amounts of land and water; meat places a disproportionately large role in causing these water shortages. Globally, there is a consequent cost of biodiversity with many of the world’s species becoming endangered and reducing this burden of livestock production will ease this significantly in time.
So yes, agriculture is part of the problem and also part of the solution. For environmental reasons, shifting away from an animal based diet towards plant based will ease the pressure off our ecosystems and species in terms of public health, the health benefits are enormous.
HOWEVER…. is Gamechangers accurate,
the remaining part…a big No! The findings are based on research that is flakey, cherry picked, theatrical and sensationalised.
What scares me is that many will watch a documentary like this, understand the aim of initiating a dietary change to a plant based diet and completely convinced, go vegan immediately, without actually considering how they will ensure adequate nutrients. This is crucial.
Plant protein sources are not as high quality as animal proteins and being vegan may present problems ensuring you are truly nourishing yourself. However, as a vegan, there is no reason why you cannot ensure adequate protein, vitamins and minerals to ensure a healthy diet that allows you to thrive both physically and mentally and this varies from individual to individual according to their health goals, lifestyles, genetics, health history, health symptoms etc etc.
Are you Considering Going Vegan following Gamechangers?
It is fair to say that going vegan is very popular and not without reason. Eating more plants and less meat can certainly provide health benefits; significantly increasing the amount of fibre, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals as well as presenting an effective solution to protect animals, the environment and ultimately save our planet.
In a Nutshell
You need to eat a varied balanced diet, that is mainly plant based to ensure adequate fibre, as well as an array of anti-inflammatory antioxidants, vitamins and minerals whilst reducing (but not entirely eliminating) the amount of meat and animal protein in favour of plant based protein foods such as beans, pulses, nuts and seeds.
As a vegan, you cannot eat haphazardly; you must consider your food choices with knowledge and understanding of your nutritional requirements, rather than choices fuelled by fads, scare-mongering or even compelling “factual” Gamechangers documentaries.
Going Vegan? Here’s 5 things NOT to do
If you’re a convert, I’m delighted that you will eating more plants and therefore improving your health. However, before you start; here are 5 pitfalls to avoid.
READ MORE: Going Vegan? Here’s 5 things NOT to do
WATCH THE GAMECHANGERS MOVIE:
READ MORE: Do weight loss and a vegan diet go hand in hand?
READ MORE: Do you eat enough protein?
At last! a reasoned, considered and expert counter to the very compelling evidence that emerges from this movie. It is VERY hard to watch The Gamechangers and NOT want to cut out meat and dairy products, but it is very useful to see your words of reason, May. It is clear there's no point going from a balanced 'healthy diet' to an artificial vegan diet of manufactured ready meals and Frankenfoods. Maybe better to up your intake of plants and cut right back on meat and dairy and call it a 'plant based diet' instead?
You were pretty much 90% vegan anyway, weren't you? Has this enticed you to up your vegan game a little more?
As I know the importance of eating a significant amount of vegetables on a daily basis, plant based foods definitely feature highly in all my meal choices; my meal planning starts with the vegetables. I do not like to label myself as vegan, plant based or a meat eater - I don't see the need for this. I know what makes me feel good and eat accordingly. i would struggle to say I'm 90% vegan as I do eat fish, eggs, milk and cheese regularly but these tend to be in smaller quantities and alongside a huge amount of veggies! One thing I know is that I don't tend to include meat in my shopping basket these days, but I may choose meat occasionally at a restaurant - if I feel like it.
Just wanted to let you know that that I enjoyed reading your latest newsletter about the Gamechangers. It was really well written and so useful. Thank you. My husband recently watched it and was asking me loads of questions so your info was really useful.
Thanks so much Alma, this feedback is really appreciated. The programme seems to have captured a new wave of people who are interested in eating more plant based, which is a good thing. I intend to take it forward to help people transition towards a more plant based diet safely and ensuring optimal health.