As you're probably already aware, the Netflix documentary 'The Game Changers' has recently made a big splash in the health and fitness space. I have already received a few questions from clients about it, so I've written this article to have something I can direct people to for my thoughts on the film.
There are a few things I'd like to make clear before I proceed, as people tend to interpret things in a 'black and white' or 'good and 'bad' paradigm.
1. The purpose of this article is not to dissuade people from following a vegan diet. I think there are understandable ethical arguments for being a vegan and I admire anyone who is willing to sacrifice for their beliefs.
2. There is no debate about whether it's possible to gain muscle on a vegan diet. It requires significantly more effort and planning, but it can be done.
3. The scientific community is very much united in the opinion that a plant-based diet is very important for optimal health. They are not however united in the belief that this means animal products are bad.
My gripe with this documentary is the same as every other Netflix nutrition doc to date: lying.
I would be just as eager to dismantle a carnivore diet documentary as this one if it misrepresented the science. I'm not pro - meat, I'm pro-science.
Now without further ado..
James Cameron and Pea Protein
Though he is portrayed as the brains behind the film, James Wilks is merely a narrator. Many people seem to have forgotten that this film was directed by none other than James Cameron.
Perhaps the biggest irony of the entire documentary is when the discussion moves to bias in science, highlighting how much of nutrition research is funded by meat and dairy corporations. Supposedly this makes the results of said studies questionable (a fair observation).
Here's the juicy part: in 2018, (while this film was being made) James Cameron made a $140 million investment in pea protein. I'll let you make up your own mind about what that implies about the agenda of Cameron's film, but you'll soon see that this is one of many hypocrisies within the documentary.
Gladiators Were Vegetarian?
One of the opening points that the documentary makes is how bone mineral records suggests that the gladiators may have been vegetarians.
For me, this is kind of a 'so what?' point. It's not entirely clear why this would matter, if it is indeed true. Alexander the Great commanded one of the greatest army of warriors ever, and they weren't vegetarian. The same is true of Genghis Khan's Mongols.
Additionally, I have seen some comments from people more knowledgable than I, calling into question the validity of evidence used to prove the gladiators were vegetarians. Either way I think this anecdote does little to build the case for the vegan diet.
Anecdotes are Poor Evidence
The film is choc full of athletes recounting how much their performance improved after going vegan. This isn't entirely useless information, but it's very far down the evidence hierarchy. Why? Because its' not a controlled experiment. There are so many factors that go into a person's performance increasing.
It's also funny that this documentary relies so heavily on anecdotal evidence, while conveniently ignoring the sea of anecdotal evidence that doesn't suit their argument.
A great example of this is the vegan strongman they interview, Patrik Baboumian. It seems heavily implied that Patrik is evidence that you don't need to eat meat to be super strong. While certainly strong, Patrik is by no means the best in his sport. He has never competed at World's Strongest Man (the most elite Strongman event of the year), of which every winner that I'm aware of has been an omnivore.
There are countless examples of other elite athletes in various sports who are omnivores.
I'm not saying this is proof that eating meat is better, it just doesn't make sense to rely on only the anecdotes that agree with you.
People are Not Cows, or Gorillas
A huge logical fallacy that this film leans on is that strong herbivorous animals are proof that meat is not essential. It amazes me that I have to spell this out but, YOU ARE NOT A COW. Cows have multiple stomachs for processing vegetation to extract nutrients from it.
One of the most outrageous claims made is about the effect of beetroot juice on performance. It's claimed that in a study, beet juice improved bench press strength by 19%. Yes, you read that right, NINETEEN. If you think that is in anyway plausible, you have never trained the bench press past the first couple months. This is such an outrageous fib, it's almost unbelievable they'd have the balls to include it.
As is turns out, I found the study they were referring to, a 2016 one by Mosher et al (1). It turns out that the 19% increase was not relating to weight lifted, but rather the endurance in a high rep set. Now, I'm not dismissing that 19% is still a big increase in total reps, but in the world of science it's a really bad idea to put too much stock in a single study, and I certainly wouldn't go using it as a tool of persuasion to go vegan.
The Blood Test
Perhaps the most disingenuous part of the whole film is the blood test scene. Two groups of athletes eat a plant-based burrito or a meat one. Afterwards the doctor draws blood and reveals that the plant-based group's blood is clear, while the meat group one is cloudy.
What the doctor fails to mention is that this a common phenomenon called postprandial lipemia. This is covered in excellent detail in a recent article from Dietetically Speaking writer Zachary Wenger:
"It is physiologically normal to see a rise in triglyceride rich lipoproteins in the blood post-consumption of dietary fat...
If we tested these athletes fasted, their serum would all look identical. Hence — why the film decided not to take fasted samples. It wouldn’t have fit their agenda...
Olive oil, which is vegan, had the same postprandial rise in triglycerides as cheesecake and hamburger/fries!"
What Research Says
As we can already see in the image above, the highest quality scientific evidence is the systematic review / meta-analysis. These are reviews that compile all the well-designed studies in an area, to see what the consensus results show.
The flaw in the majority of research presented in Game Changers (and many nutrition documentaries) is that it does not control for key lifestyle variables. For example, people who go vegan tend to be 1) female and 2) more health conscious in general. Both of these things are a recipe for a longer life with less disease. On the flip side, people who eat a lot of meat may be more likely to indulge in other things like smoking, drinking, inactivity, etc.
This viewpoint is supported by the research. When systematic reviews compare non-meat eaters to meat-eaters, but also control for things like fitness level and smoking and drinking habits, they find no difference in health outcomes.
Netflix is not research
It pains me to have to spell this out for people, but Netflix is entertainment. You do not have to undergo the peer review process to publish a documentary. In fact there are a host of interesting films categories under 'documentaries' that can be found on the site, which includes evidence-based greats such as 'Ancient Aliens'.
Alien mocumentaries are a bit of fun, but over the past decade, a huge upsurge of health and nutrition documentaries that also manipulate facts to suit their agenda have cropped up.
Though the subject matter may vary, all of these documentaries tend to follow the exact same formula:
1. Present the narrator as someone the viewer can relate to
2. Scare the living bejaysus out of the viewer with cherry-picked science
3. Interview experts who agree with the documentaries point of view
4. Show lots of anecdotal evidence
5. Provide a completely oversimplified and flawed dietary solution
Now let's look at how Game Changers does this:
1. The presenter is an ex-athlete who has been suffering with recovering from an injury
2. The film provides many correlational statistics about the risks associated with eating meat, and the benefits of eating a plant based diet
3. The film interviews vegan scientists who agree with their interpretation of the evidence
4. Several high level vegan athletes are interviewed, who claim that much of their recent success is due to going plant-based.
5. Film concludes that plant based is the only way to go.
This is actually a very effective form of propaganda, particularly when used on people who aren't educated in the science of an issue. Take a highly complex problem (e.g. immigration, heart disease, climate change) and provide a magic bullet solution. This means that YOU don't have to think anymore, the documentary has done it for you! Hooray.
Conclusion - Use Your Head
So, what is more likely? :
1) The athletes in this documentary felt better because they began eating more fruits and vegetables
2) The vegan diet is magic and all the champion athletes who eat animal products are massively reducing their performance and health
I'll let you make your own mind up here.