Can a plant-based diet transform you into a rockstar elite athlete? Gamechangers, the latest pro- plant-based health documentary, says yes. Carnivores call the movie bogus vegan propaganda. The answer is somewhere in between. Can we keep the keep the baby while tossing the bathwater? Yes!
What Is The Gamechangers?
It’s a 2019 documentary that showcases the health benefits of a plant-based diet by following James Wilks, a UFC fighter and special forces combat trainer, on his journey. Viewers meet an inspiring lineup of elite plant-based athletes as well as several physicians and scientists.
The movie is backed by a long lineup of heavy-hitting plant-based celebrities, such as James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger and features many notable plant-based physicians, though it sprinkles in a few omnivores (see Team).
How Credible Is It?
Many people automatically dismiss the movie, simply because it was backed by advocates of a plant-based diet. On one hand, I don’t blame them. The credibility of the vegan community has been repeatedly damaged by advocates who paint an exaggerated, black-and-white picture. On the other hand, I believe that being plant-based need not disqualify you from being a rigorous scientist. Yes, we must always bear our storyteller’s biases in mind, but we should still hear them out, especially when they are at least trying to back up their claims with science.
What The Gamechangers Movie Got Right.
1) Plants contain ample protein to support growth and performance.
3) It’s not true that manliness means eating meat and shunning tofu.
1) Not enough focus on “dialing up” the plants, and on choosing high quality, nutrient-dense foods.
The movie focused much more on convincing you that meat and dairy are bad than on telling you that plants are good. Yet, the latter is perhaps the only widely accepted fundamental drivers of a healthy diet.
The Bottom Line
The typical Western diet can leave us overfed yet undernourished. A plant-based diet can offer a fabulous health upgrade – if you do it well. Load up on a diversity of whole plants; limit sugary drinks and nutrient-poor foods; don’t overeat.
- Heavy reliance on anecdotes. I have more energy on a vegan diet.. you will too!
- Inappropriate use of small pilot studies. “Beet juice can increase bench press by 19%”. Based on a single sample size of seven?
- Exaggeration. The movie equates eating meat and smoking. While red meat consumption has been linked to cancer, the risk factors and the scientific case are not comparable.
- Twisted framing. The movie repeatedly equates eating more plants with eating less meat. For example: “Research has shown that people who replace animal foods with high carbohydrate plant foods experience an average drop in cortisol levels of 27%”. The actual study has nothing to do with animal vs plant foods. It’s just about macronutrient ratio. Yes, it’s true that meat doesn’t have carbs and plants do…but I still consider this a case of scientific misrepresentation.
- Cherry picking. Watching this movie was like going to a U-pick cherry farm. So many cherries you feel a bit ill. By this, I mean selective highlighting of studies that support your point while ignoring those that don’t. Consider dairy and health. Even if you are mindful of dairy industry biases, it’s clearly not as simple as “all dairy is toxic to all people at all doses”. This nuance is unsurprising given that “dairy” is a very broad term that encompasses many foods. Taking cardiovascular risk for example, this 2017 meta-analysis find mostly neutral associations with dairy intake, with a few positive associations. This is unsurprising, as we know from the saturated fat debaucle, that the health outcome removing a health “villain” depends a lot on what you replace it with. When it comes to cardiovascular risk, replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats is a good thing, but replacing them with (vegan!) sugars is not (see Harvard Health Summary).
- Inappropriate use of epidemiological studies. Epidemiological studies are observational studies that look for links between dietary intake and health outcomes. Though they are notoriously easy to misconstrue, they are a necessary evil of human nutritional research – it’s often impossible to conduct the gold-standard studies that truly give us “proof” – double-blinded, placebo-controlled, randomized, studies of a single variable. They can be useful for generating and pressure-testing theories, but their many limitations must always be recognized, and they must always be viewed in the context of the fuller picture (e.g. strength of underlying mechanism). While there are tons of epidemiological studies showing that vegetarians have a lower risk of many chronic diseases, we don’t know how much of this is due to less meat and dairy, versus more fruits, veggies, and whole grains, or whether other dietary differences are also at play. While we can use statistics to help control for the “healthy user” bias – the fact that vegetarians and vegans tend to be more health conscious, and this permeates all aspects of their lives – this is impossible to do perfectly (this effect is known as “residual confounding”).