Do the documentaries popularizing veganism hold up? Not this one. Here's what you really need to know.
The Knockout Argument... Or Not.
The metaphor was perfect. The scene? A fight between Nate Diaz and Conor McGregor. Vegan against meat eater. Plants battling meat for dietary supremacy.
It was a powerful image that quickly struck a chord in the lay public. Plant-based diets are for the powerful; meat needs to be defeated. And plants won!
But here's the problem: Diaz lost the rematch to McGregor. Was it because McGregor also become vegan? Nope. Was Diaz fed a porterhouse against his will? Was he injected cow hemoglobin instead of electrolytes during his rehydration IV? Nay.
The result of the rematch, like the initial bout, had nothing to do with the dietary preference of the fighters involved. And while we're at it, besides losing to McGregor in their second fight, Diaz also lost to ten other fighters... who aren't vegan.
What "The Game Changers" did is called cherry-picking. You select the events, images, or facts that support your stance and disregard those that go against it. And that's something that the movie (I can't call it a documentary) does for about 90 minutes.
I must admit that they're persuasive, which isn't surprising coming from a genius storyteller like James Cameron. But this film is, at best, misleading and, at worst, propaganda.
The REAL Game Changers... Or Not
Trivia time. Name two things that Georges St-Pierre (MMA), Usain Bolt (track and field), Mat Fraser (CrossFit), Michael Phelps (swimming) and Wayne Gretzky (hockey) have in common?
- They've been the very best in their sport.
- They were fast-food addicts.
Michael Phelps's daily dose of McDonald's is well documented. Usain Bolt loves his McNuggets and KFC, which he ate daily during the Beijing Olympics. I personally witnessed Mat Fraser eat a Big Mac and fries 30 minutes before the last event at the 2016 Northeast regionals. I was in the warm-up room with an athlete I was training, and Mat was a few meters away, chowing down the meaty burger before kicking everyone's ass.
As for GSP, I've spent some time with him in Vegas when he was sponsored by Biotest, I trained his coach, and know many who've worked with him. Gretzky was like pretty much every Canadian hockey player – raised on arena food (burgers and hot dogs).
I think it's clear that the real key to athletic success is eating fast food since more than 80% of all pro athletes eat fast food.
It must be that the saturated fat helps increase testosterone, which has a positive impact on muscle growth, strength, and competitiveness. Furthermore, the high sodium content of the food will help prevent dehydration and optimize muscle contraction. Fast food is very effective at preventing hyponatremia (sodium depletion), a severe condition that leads to a loss of energy, irritability, confusion, cramps, and even seizures.
There are at least 1,000 times more athletes who consume fast food regularly than there are successful vegan athletes. So clearly, fast food is the best way to go.
See how easy this argument is? Of course, it's a load of crap. Fast food isn't optimal for athletes (or anybody).
I should do a documentary called, "The REAL Game Changers" and show how fast food is superior for athletic performance. I wouldn't have any problems finding a sponsor!
Of course, trying to convince you that fast food is not only acceptable, but recommended for athletes, is idiotic. But that's what cherry-picking does. It allows you to, very convincingly, present an option as superior.
Think of every possible dietary option: keto, The Zone, carnivore, vegetarian, intermittent fasting, keto-veganism, IIFYM, the standard American diet, etc. You'll find successful athletes in all of these categories. And if you tailor the facts just right, you can come up with something just as convincing as The Game Changers flick.
The truth is, I've seen the diets of those I've trained (athletes from 28 different sports) and more often than not, those athletes are great despite their diet, not because of it.
I don't care if you're vegan or want to become one. You can do what you want with your life. Also, I don't mind if you don't agree with me and present valid scientific information (not pseudo-science and intellectual shortcuts) to argue with me. I'll keep an open mind as long as you do the same.
What I'm against is propaganda – playing on the layperson's ignorance to make a buck or promote an agenda.
Three Strong Examples of Dishonest Imagery
The first problem with the film is that it uses powerful images and intellectual shortcuts to prove their point. There are three major places where they do this. Let's cover each one:
1. The Strongman Example
They show that strongman competitor, Patrik Baboumian, is powered by plants. Patrick seems awesome, definitely charismatic, and an excellent image for veganism. But we have the same problem as with the Diaz thing.
Baboumian is for sure very strong, but tons of strongmen are much better than him. I'm friends with the two strongest men in Canada (Jean-Francois Caron, who finished fourth at the World's Strongest Man, and Jimmy Paquet) and can attest that, like most other top strongmen, they eat an inhumane amount of meat and eggs daily.
Baboumian is the exception. And like everything in life, unless you are yourself exceptional, you should follow what works for the highest number of people, not the one exception that goes against the grain.
2. The Blood Test Example
They have two people eat either plant food or a steak. Then they take a blood sample and, surprise, the meat eater's blood is thicker and darker. That's a powerful image; you can almost feel your arteries clogging just by watching the screen.
But of course the blood will be thicker! The same thing would've happened if they had eaten avocadoes and almonds, which are obviously vegan. When you eat, once the nutrients are digested, they enter the bloodstream to be sent to the storage facilities (muscles, liver, adipocytes) or to be used for fuel by the muscles and brain. Test the blood once the nutrients are stored and it will be back to normal.
Fatty acids are thicker than both glucose (carbs) and amino acids. It's not surprising that the blood appears thicker after a steak because you need to send the fatty acids to the storage capacities. That has been going on in every human body which consumes fat, and yet we're still here as a species.
If I wanted to do to veganism what The Game Changers did to meat-eating, I'd do the same type of blood test after ingesting a meal of grapes and rice versus chicken. But instead of looking at the thickness, I'd test blood sugar levels.
If tested at the right time (for my agenda), the blood sugar level in the vegan meal would be very high, bordering hyperglycemia. The chicken meal, on the other hand, would show normal blood sugar levels. I'd then go on to claim that a vegan diet is conducive to the development of diabetes because of the high blood sugar levels it causes.
It would, of course, be a manipulation of facts and an intellectual shortcut... just like the blood test done in The Game Changers.
It's well documented that the body needs fatty acids for optimal function. First, for the maintenance of the brain and nervous system. Also, the production of several vital hormones (including testosterone and estrogen) requires cholesterol. And don't forget that several vitamins need fat to be absorbed.
If you need to eat some fat to be optimized, you're bound to have the "thick blood" they show in the film because when you ingest fat (even from plants) until that fat is stored or used, it'll be in your bloodstream.
3. The Gladiator Example
Another powerful argument used in the film is when they claim that gladiators were vegan and had excellent bone density. And of course, when we think of gladiators, we think big muscles and very manly dudes.
I do believe that gladiators were fed a plant-based diet. They were slaves trained to die. Why would they be fed the more expensive meat, fish, or eggs?
But here's the intellectual shortcut: the life expectancy of a gladiator wasn't very long. That has nothing to with being vegan and all to do with the potential hazards of their job, like a sharp spear coming your way or a lion running after you.
However, what it means is that they were not on a vegan diet for long. Most gladiators were soldiers captured after a military defeat. Most of them ate a diet that included meat and other animal products (along with fruits and veggies) for the vast majority of their lives.
If you eat an omnivore diet containing meat, fish, eggs, and cheese for 25 years, then are captured after losing a battle and spend the next 18 months as a gladiator, fed a vegan diet, before being killed in the arena...what do you think had the most significant impact on bone density and muscle mass? The way you ate for the previous 25 years, not one year.
Fixing the Optics of a Suboptimal Diet
Meat-eating is often subconsciously associated with strength. By extension, vegans are often imagined to be weaker. That's why they put so much emphasis on trying to show how effective a vegan diet is for strength.
That's why they mention Patrick Baboumian and also get into the effect of beet juice on bench pressing. The film claims that a single dose of beet juice could increase bench press strength by 19 percent. Anybody who has any experience with serious training knows how stupid that sounds.
Hell, take steroids for three weeks and you're unlikely to boost your bench press by 19 percent. But ONE single dose of beet juice can do it? Wow, amazing. We know that it's a misinterpretation of science. But for the average, non-training person, that's very seductive.
And even if it were true, beets and beet juice are not limited to vegans. I know that it may sound unimaginable, but you can eat beets AND be a person who consumes beef or chicken. Shocking, right?
That's a common theme for the whole film – they pit plants against meat. But except for a small minority of people (carnivore eaters), most of us meat eaters also get plenty of veggies, fruits, legumes and other plant products in our diets. You don't have to exclude plants if you eat meat.
All the benefits of plants mentioned in the film can be present in an omnivore diet.
The Dental Argument
So this one's not related to muscle, strength, or athletics, but in The Game Changers film they claim that our ancestors were vegans. That's just plain wrong. Look at your own teeth.
We have 20 flat molars and premolars to crush. We have four canines used to tear apart food and eight incisors to cut foods. This is the dentition of an omnivore, even if we don't have the Dracula-like fangs.
It's well-documented that we evolved as omnivores. We were hunter-gatherers, and have been that way for at least 150,000 years. While it's true that some humans evolved without eating much meat, the opposite (evolving without eating veggies) can also be found (Eskimos, for example).
One of the reasons why humans survived all these years and evolved to be the dominant species in the world is their capacity to adapt. And that comes with the ability to adapt to various sources of nutrition, including meat.
Diet and Hormones
You're passionate about training and changing your body. You read T Nation, so you are likely smarter than the average training bear. You very likely understand the importance of several hormones on muscle growth and fat loss.
If you've been reading my work, in particular, the Best Damn Workout for Natural Lifters series, you're well aware of the importance of controlling cortisol if you want to maximize your gains, especially as someone who doesn't use steroids.
The Games Changers movie hasn't forgotten you! They do mention that plants decrease cortisol levels, but even THAT is a distortion of the facts. The more appropriate sentence would be, "carbohydrates reduce cortisol levels."
And that's correct. One of the main functions of cortisol is the maintenance of healthy blood sugar levels. When it dips down too low, cortisol will increase blood sugar levels via the mobilization of stored glycogen.
If you ingest carbs in any form, you'll increase blood sugar levels. If blood sugar levels are normal or high, there's less of a need to release cortisol.
The problem isn't in saying that carbohydrates lower cortisol; it's implying that only vegans eat carbs. Pretty much all the valid science in the film applies to anybody who eats plants – not just vegans.
And when the documentary says that a plant-based diet will lower cortisol and increase testosterone that's also a misappropriation of the science.
If someone consumes a very low amount of carbs, cortisol will be higher (to maintain blood sugar levels). And over time, the excess in cortisol production can decrease testosterone levels. Why? Because both are made from the same mother hormone: pregnenolone. The more cortisol you produce, the more pregnenolone you use and the less there will be left to produce testosterone.
I agree that a low-carb diet can elevate cortisol levels. That's why I don't recommend a very low carbohydrate diet to people who live a stressful life and already have a very high cortisol level.
The study they use has shown that increased carbohydrate intake will decrease cortisol and increase testosterone. This is true. Again, because more carbs lead to a higher blood sugar level and more readily available energy, so there's less need to release cortisol to mobilize stored glycogen. However, the study doesn't use a vegan diet. It merely looks at the effect of an increase in carb intake on hormone levels.
- It's not: A plant-based diet will increase testosterone and decrease cortisol.
- It's: Adding carbs to a low-carb diet will decrease cortisol and increase testosterone.
Let's say I'm eating an omnivorous diet. If I increase my carb intake from 50 grams per day to 250 grams per day while still eating animal foods, I will ALSO get the hormonal effects.
You can probably see a pattern here. The film either uses emotions, powerful images, or intellectual shortcuts to make their point. And when they mention sound science, it's not directly related to a vegan diet, but only to carb or plant consumption in general. The benefits will be the same if you add these plant-based foods to a diet containing animal protein.
What The Film DOESN'T Say... Conveniently
When you present your opinion, it's always more compelling to talk about potential drawbacks of your stance than it is to make people believe that your approach is perfect. Acknowledge the shortcomings of your position, but also alleviate the fears of those you're trying to persuade. That's powerful.
But The Game Changers film doesn't do that. Not suitable for business, I guess.
The truth is, there are major drawbacks of veganism. The most obvious and well-documented one is a B12 deficiency. This deficiency can lead to problems such as tiredness, weakness, dizziness, lack of energy, and vision problems.
It can also negatively impact the methylation cycle, which uses the B vitamins to produce methyl donors. If your methylation cycle is ineffective, it can lead to severe problems like depression, anxiety, fatigue.
Not surprisingly, more and more studies are showing that vegans are at a greater risk of depression and anxiety (for example Matta, J.; Czernichow, S.; Kesse-Guyot, E.; Hoertel, N.; Limosin, F.; Goldberg, M.; Zins, M.; Lemogne, C. Depressive Symptoms and Vegetarian Diets: Results from the Constances Cohort. Nutrients 2018, 10, 1695.). Vitamin B12, especially its impact on the methylation cycle, is the main reason behind that.
Another big issue with veganism is the lack of choline in the diet. Choline is vital for the production of acetylcholine – a key neurotransmitter involved in creativity, memory, coordination, and learning. A diet deficient in choline will lead to lower levels of acetylcholine.
The main sources of choline are all animal byproducts. Here are some high-choline foods and the amount they contain per 100 grams:
- Liver: 431 milligrams
- Eggs: 226 milligrams
- Steak: 104 milligrams
- Salmon: 90.4 milligrams
Among non-animal foods, only almonds contain a moderate amount of choline, but still ten times less than liver with 52.5 milligrams per 100 grams. Most plant foods don't provide a significant amount of choline. Broccoli is one of the few plants with some choline with 40 milligrams per 100 grams.
There is also a real possibility of having an EPA and DHA deficiency in a vegan diet because vegetable omega-3 sources need to be converted to EPA and DHA, and the body doesn't have a large amount of the enzymes responsible for that conversion.
The argument against these three possible deficiencies is that you can always supplement B12, choline (which is in Power Drive®, for example) or EPA and DHA (which is in Flameout®, for example). However, for the latter, many vegans are actually against fish oil because it's an animal source.
But if a diet needs supplements in order to prevent deficiency, can it ever be optimal?
Oddly enough, the film doesn't mention any of the vegan influencers who had to stop being vegan because they started to have severe health issues. Yovana Mendoza, a YouTube and Instagram star (with over a million followers), is the most famous example.
She had to start introducing animal foods into her diet to save her health. The same thing happened to other huge vegan influencers like Alyse Parker, Bonnie Rebecca, and many others. It's not all sunshine and rainbows.
But It's Not ALL Bad Either
The film is to nutrition what CrossFit is to weight training. While CrossFit is pushed to an extreme that can lead to problems, its popularity led to many good things. It made squatting, deadlifting, and the Olympic lifts more popular than ever. It also made it trendy to be in shape.
Perhaps The Game Changers could have some similarly positive effect. It might lead to people eating more veggies and other plant foods. While I believe that cutting out all meat products is a mistake, eating more plants is certainly a good idea.
It could also make people take up more interest in learning about nutrition. A lot of people start with CrossFit and eventually move on to powerlifting, Olympic lifting, or even bodybuilding. A similar thing could happen with foods.
But despite those positive impacts, the whole message and mostly the strategy of The Game Changers makes it little more than a propaganda tool.
If you want to be vegan for ethical reasons (like the welfare of animals), I respect your choice. But if you're going to do it to optimize your health, think twice. Eating "real food" which means more plants but still keeping some animal foods in there is the healthiest solution.
To quote Charles Poliquin, "The best diet is eating like a vegan, but with meat."