Being a Clinical Nutritionist and Naturopath means seeing many clients with a variety of health conditions and helping them to improve their health by reducing symptoms and enabling healing. In almost every case, there needs to be some improvements to their food intake in order to get the successful results that the client is looking for.
To help clients achieve their goals requires a lot of knowledge of the anatomy and physiology of all body systems, biochemistry, metabolic pathways, pathophysiology of many diseases, and all the interactions between these. I am very evidence-based as a practitioner, in order to make good recommendations of nutrients and/or products and advice to help the client. There is also an amount of anecdotal evidence being in practice too, which is evidence from personal observations as a practitioner and from the patient. While this is not considered as "scientific evidence" it is still very important, as not everyone is the same or has the same experiences with the same treatments, which is often not reflected in scientific studies.
I am fully aware of the seemingly conflicting advice and recommendations about foods and diets - which diet is best, or whether coffee, chocolate, red wine, dairy, butter, soy or grains are good for you this week or not! Then next week they are bad again... Hence I like to keep on top of the nutritional advice which is given to the public. Which is why I frequently review food-related news stories, articles and documentaries to see what recommendations they say, and whether they are in fact, evidence based.
This review is for the new "plant-based" documentary called "The Game Changers". The documentary is produced by James Cameron (also the producer of Titanic, and Avatar movies and others), Arnold Schwartzenegger, Jackie Chan (actor, martial artist), Lewis Hamilton (F1 driver), and mostly hosted by James Wilks, a UFC martial arts fighter. The trailer for the documentary showed short snippets of several sporting stars and athletes allegedly improving their performance on a "plant-based" (read as "vegan") diet. Even bodybuilder Arnold Schwartzenegger is in favour, despite him not actually being a vegan at the time of his greatest successes! He achieved that on a very high animal protein diet with a side of anabolic steroids! Arnold said in the trailer and in the movie: "the marketing at the time was that real men ate meat, and lots of it", and "but that was marketing. It's not based on reality".
The very same could be said about this documentary - it's not based on reality, certainly not a scientific reality!
By the way, the word "vegan" or description of a vegan diet recommended in this documentary is never used! It's as if the producers know that the word "vegan" has such negative perceptions that they deliberately didn't use this word because they were embarrassed to do so! And there's many good reasons why the word "vegan" has deserved negative perceptions, not least of which is the tendency of the cult-like followers to suspend logic and science in their arguments.
Instead of the word "vegan", they repeat the term "plant-based" on and on and on. If the producers and contributors to the film are so pro-vegan, they should use the term, and not hide behind the confusion of whatever "plant-based" really means. This confusion will grow, particularly as some commonly promoted diets which prevent or improve health issues are "plant-based" but they contain meat and animal products, such as the Mediterranean diet! (Lăcătus, Grigorescu, Floria, Onofriescu & Mihai, 2019). Make no mistake, this documentary is NOT about a moderate "plant-based" diet with some animal products. It is talking about and promoting a VEGAN diet!
The main concept of the documentary is about protein, and that animal protein is not necessary for athletes to perform at the highest level. And that plant-based protein can not only help athletes, but reverse heart disease and diabetes. Or does it?!
As with my other food-related documentary reviews, this is a bit long. Very long, really! Sorry! But it needs to be, but will be very informative, scientific, with a more balanced point of view, and pointing out the errors or holes in their arguments with referenced articles and published studies!
The film quoted wisdom from the martial artist Bruce Lee:
- "Research your own experience
- Absorb what is useful
- Reject what is useless
- Add what is essentially your own."
Yet the aim of the documentary is the opposite - to get everyone to be the same.
This review might sound at this point to be anti-vegan. No it isn't! I am happy for people to look into this way of life and use it themselves, but what is missing in the documentary is balance! Or science. The documentary is extreme in its beliefs and information, and in many parts is completely lacking in good science on human physiology, metabolism, biochemistry and their effect on diseases. The purpose of this review is to perhaps fill in the holes or correct many aspects of science which were lacking in the documentary, and provide more balance, all fully referenced with published scientific studies.
The documentary followed James Wilks and his journey to recovery after tearing ligaments in both knees after a sporting injury. In his search to finding ways to heal more quickly, he came across a book about the Roman Gladiators that found they had mostly a "plant-based" diet, which greatly surprised him. Researchers have found that the gladiators were referred to as hordearii or "barley men", because of their diet. Yet researchers analysed their bones and found them to be fairly strong, and seemed to recover from injuries quickly. So he set about looking into this more for a quicker recovery from his injuries.
My comments - Gladiators were slaves. They had short lives and were not fed well by their owners. They had very nutrient deficient diets, lacking in calcium that is needed for strong bones. Historical accounts showed that the gladiators downed vile brews of charred wood or bone ash or similar, to keep their bones strong. Gladiators were fed a lot of barley, because it made them fat! And they needed subcutaneous fat to protect them from cut wounds that would otherwise damage nerves and blood vessels! A skinny gladiator was "dead meat", and would not have made for a good show. So their plant-based and very high carb diet was done deliberately to make them fat (Curry, 2008). We know this today, that a high carb diet becomes blood sugar, which then gets turned into triglycerides or fat. A major point ignored in this film.
Protein for energy
A big assumption or belief throughout the documentary is the belief that we need protein for energy, and if you decide to go "meat free" as many athletes in the documentary have done, then people will ask "where will they get their energy from if they don't eat meat?!". And if one can get protein from plants, then we don't need meat!
My comments - Our bodies can use the macronutrients of carbohydrates, proteins and fats for fuel for energy. Depending on your typical food intake, the priority of which macronutrients get used first can differ. If you eat a typical Western diet or predominantly vegetarian or vegan diet that is high in carbs, then you will use these macronutrients in this order (Patton & Thibodeau, 2013):
- Carbs -> glucose
- Fats -> ketone bodies and glycerol
- Protein -> amino acids.
- Fats -> ketone bodies and glycerol
- Carbs -> glucose
- Protein -> amino acids.
It is important to note that protein is always last in the order of preference for energy metabolism! This is important to note, as proteins have many more important functions, being used to make thousands of other proteins in the body, for repair of tissues and organs, and many other metabolic functions. Proteins are very important for your body, and your body doesn't want to "waste" protein to make energy, unless it has to. However, your body will use stored protein if you do not get enough protein in your diet. If you don't eat enough protein where will your body get protein from?
Muscle tissue will be broken down to provide your body with the protein it desperately needs. You do not want this to happen. Especially if you are an athlete. Hence protein for energy is irrelevant. You need it for repair and recovery afterwards.
(see the PDF file link at the bottom of this article to read the full review content!)
Other issues with vegan diets
Due to the vegan bias in this documentary, there were no negatives of a vegan diet mentioned, so here is a little more balance to the reality:
- Plant foods are high in "anti-nutrients" like TIs, oxalates and phytates, which bind to a lot of vitamins and minerals and other nutrients in the same meal, and prevent the body from being able to absorb and use those nutrients. Hence these plant anti-nutrients reduce the bioavailability of other nutrients, or in other words, the antinutrients can cause nutrient deficiencies
- Many plant-based foods actually INCREASE inflammation in the body. Plant based foods such as sugar in sugary foods and drinks, processed foods, vegetable/seed oils (especially when heated), and grain products (and they chemicals they are sprayed with) all cause inflammation (de Punder & Pruimboom, 2013). As inflammation reduces the function of the immune system, and is the main driver of chronic disease conditions like arthritis, dementia, diabetes, heart disease and cancer, inflammation-causing foods should be avoided or reduced
- Many people have undiagnosed or unknown intolerances or sensitivities to different foods. While this is not restricted to just plant foods, some of the biggest culprits include wheat, gluten in wheat, rye and barley, lectins in legumes, soy, and corn, although an individual can be intolerant to any food
- Sadly, modern plant agriculture and farming relies on toxic agricultural chemicals, which often cover the plant foods exposed to them, and which doesn't come out in the processing of those foods, so you end up eating them and having these chemicals affect your health. Genetically modified (GMO) corn actually produces its own toxins in the plant (from a toxin-producing bacterial genes being spliced into the corn genes). So you end up eating these toxins and they have a terrible effect on your digestive system, microbiome and your health
- There is a belief that all humans of all cultures and ethnicities are all the same. We are not. We do not have the same genetics, and hence there is no one diet which is ideal for each and every one of us.
Follow the money
As the old Russian proverb says, "When money speaks, the truth keeps silent". Or the more modern catchphrase "follow the money" to find the truth.
James Cameron, one of the directors and contributors to the film, wants you to buy into a plant-based protein eating plan because... he and his wife own many plant-based food industry companies, from which they want to make even more money from gullible people who believe what they see in this documentary, without really checking the scientific facts. The Camerons founded Verdient Foods, a US-based company, and have other similar plant-based food companies and joint ventures with other plant-based companies around the world. His opinion in this film is extremely biased as a result of his financial interests in these food industry companies (Bloomberg, 2019).
Dr David Katz is a medical doctor in the USA, and author of several books and many peer-reviewed studies, mainly on the topic of nutrition (Sboros, 2018). He was a contributor and interviewee in the film, possibly as he is well known as an outspoken voice on nutrition science in the USA. Yet he has faced controversy in his beliefs and articles, and even faced being sacked from some publications due to undeclared conflicts of interest. He was being paid by various companies and appearing to write articles on favour of those companies, and not disclosing his financial benefits from those companies, which would rightly be seen as a conflict of interest (Sboros, 2018).
Dr Katz has been caught out many times in previous publications with similar conflicts of interest, writing favourable reviews but not declaring a financial interest, biased writing, defending manufacturers of unhealthy or junk foods, or even writing favourable product reviews using a pseudonym. He has ties to many producers of sugary foods and drinks, and he promotes or defends their products, for a fee of course. He has denied these conflicts of interest (Sboros, 2018; Greene, 2019).
Other contributors to the documentary include:
- Dr Walter Willet - a Harvard University scientist, who has a long list of affiliations and conflicts of interest with vegetarian and vegan groups (The Nutrition Coalition, 2019)
- Dr Micael Greger - a medical doctor specialising in nutrition, but vegan nutrition only. He promotes veganism with a religious fervour and will cherry-pick studies promoting the benefits on plant-based diets while never saying anything positive about animal foods (Schwarcz, 2017).
The overall message of the documentary was good, that for athletes to get the best personal or team results, they must do more than just train and practice, but focus on eating healthy meals which provide all of the nutrients that their bodies need to:
1) provide energy for training and in events
2) provide nutrients for repair and recovery
3) provide the right nutrients needed for many metabolic processes
4) have a good digestive system function to digest, absorb and assimiliate the nutrients (this was actually completely missed in this documentary!)
The vegan bias of this documentary was particularly evident, with deliberately withheld information, incorrect assumptions or beliefs, misinformation, selective blaming of animal propducts when plant products cause the same issues, and in some cases, outright lies with regard to human physiology or biochemistry in favour of a plant-based approach vs. a healthy balanced animal and plant based diet! In particular is the completely wrong message in the film that protein is used for energy, when protein metabolism is the last resort for energy production!
Again, everyone is different! SOME people can do fairly well on a vegan diet (perhaps only in the beginning of a vegan diet, as mentioned above), while I see many (as clients) who do not do well at all due to the many inherent nutrient deficiencies of this approach. Athletes need to be very, very careful on a vegan diet to make sure they are getting even more of the nutrients they need. I would highly recommend that anyone considering a vegan diet to working with an experienced Nutritionist to make sure your nutrient needs are being met! As a practitioner, I have never suggested to a vegan to start eating animal products again to rectify any deficiencies which may be causing their health issues. I respect their decisions to be vegan, and I help them address their issues.
There is a lot of blind faith, word of mouth or perception that a vegan diet is healthier, when scientific studies show that some vegans can be healthy (if their diet is done well), and omnivores can be healthy too! But conversely, there are a lot of vegans and omnivores who are not healthy. The problem is not which diet someone is following, but how that diet affects the individual! As we are not the same in our genetics, there is no one diet which is good for all of us. Find what works for you, and seek professional help from experienced nutritional medicine practitioners if any symptoms arise from any change of diet, as it means there is something not right. Having a blind faith in a vegan diet as being perfect for you isn't scientific, but is akin to following a new religion because it's trendy.
Similar to other vegan documentaries I've reviewed in the past, if the producers really want people to follow their way of life or see the health benefits that they claim, then they should at least tell the truth or the full story, and not repeat common misbeliefs based on poor quality science or old science to "prove" their arguments. None of the producers of the documentary have any scientific or nutritional background to completely understand the information they obtained in the making of this, nor were they able to look at the many health consequences of what they are trying to promote. But I guess that was their plan.
The documentary concluded with a disclaimer, "the information in this film is not intended to be medical advice". Yep, they got that right. Sadly too many will buy into the biased and incorrect information in this film, and not see this disclaimer at the end.
Even as a Clinical Nutritionist, and an evidence-based one at that, I have determined that being vegan is not for me. Not because I perceive it as being too difficult, but simply as I know my body better than anyone else. I know what it needs, how it reacts to various foods, and how it works. I am very aware of many quality published studies showing that a vegan diet is deficient in many nutrients, and the health consequences of these. And I'd rather just eat real food and not rely on supplements to get my daily requirements! If being vegan worked, no supplements should be needed, and I shouldn't see any vegans as clients, but sadly that is not the reality.
This more balanced look at this documentary should show that BOTH animal foods and plant foods are needed for a healthy body and healthy life! Too much of one or the other can cause health consequences. However of equal importance to the quanty of nutrients being needed, the quality of those nutrient sources is also as important, as well as other factors such as your own genetics and uniqueness, digestive system function, how foods are cooked, and more.
Wishing you the best of health!