I am all about health information being accessible to the public, and the idea of a nutrition-based documentary thrills me. However, I am not all about scare tactics, twisting information, and black and white claims. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen clients so overwhelmed by black and white approaches that they eventually throw their hands up in the air and do nothing. So while I was excited about the possibility of Game Changers, I was disappointed in the execution. (By the way, in 2017, I wrote about What the Health?, and my Game Changers review is quite similar).
My Main Thoughts About Game Changers
- I hope it gets people to eat more plants. I believe vegetables are the healthiest (and most underconsumed) foods on the planet. I personally eat 10 servings of vegetables per day, and my energy, athletic performance, digestion, and overall health are all improved because of this. (I also eat meat and have no intention of giving it up, but more on that later).
- It is riddled with false claims and twisted information. Like What the Health?, Game Changers cherry-picks through study results, making conclusions that, in many cases, are not in line with what the full study results actually suggest. The film shocks the audience with seemingly straightforward statistics, but when we dig into those statistics (as I did for you!), we see the manipulation that took place in order to come to these conclusions. This makes sense, as many of those invested in the film have vegan agendas. James Cameron, the film’s Executive Producer, owns Verdient Foods, which is undergoing a “$140 million drive to accelerate the growth of the vegan protein market”. I’m not saying he’s a bad person because he’s pushing his agenda; I’m just saying that he has an agenda.
- It pushes the black and white mentality, which I detest. I couldn’t help but think while watching this movie that it could be so powerful and change so many people’s behavior and health if it just suggested eating more vegetables. As you’ll see below, the health benefits come from the addition of vegetables, not necessarily the subtraction of meat. Yet, the film is very much “all or nothing:” vegan or all-meat-all-the-time seem to be the only possibilities. There is a huge gray area in between, and for most people, the healthiest place is somewhere in that zone! Here’s my issue with using the word “plant-based” instead of “vegan,” as well. I consider my diet to be plant-based, since the vast majority of what I consume is vegetables (and some fruits). But when the movie says “plant-based,” they mean vegan. For the sake of clarity, I’m going to use vegan from here on out.
- It uses scare tactics. There is already enough conflicting information on the market. People are already scared enough about their health and chronic disease risk. We don’t need to be scared more, we need positivity and hope.
- If you are vegan or vegetarian for religious, ethical, environmental, or other reason, or if you have specific medical conditions that make you ill-suited to consume meat, then keep on doing what you’re doing! I think it is 100% possible to be a healthy vegetarian or vegan. However, I think it is very difficult, and requires the intense planning and care that elite athletes put into their food planning. Some vegetarians end up eating pasta and bread all day, rather than things like big salads with hemp seeds, avocado, lentils, and olive oil. The latter will contribute to your health; the former will not. Many of my clients are vegan or vegetarian, and they’re doing great, because they know how to create a healthy and balanced diet.
OK, now that you have the overview, let’s assess three of the claims the movie makes: plants are good, meat is bad, and we should all be vegan.
Claim 1: Plants are Good
I’m sure you can guess my overwhelming reaction to this claim. It’s me, dancing on the rooftops, shouting as loud as I possibly can about the life-giving benefits of eating more vegetables. Could not agree with this more! As the movie states, plants are packaged with antioxidants, phytochemicals, minerals, and vitamins that reduce inflammation, optimize our microbiome, improve heart health, support athletic performance, and more.
The film claims that since our bodies can’t make vitamin C, it’s clear that we are meant to eat plants. My reaction to that is, “of course!!!” Yes, we are absolutely meant to eat plants. That does not mean, though, that we are meant to eat only plants. The film claims that we used to think that meat gave you energy, but know we know that it’s actually only plants that give you energy. I firmly believe we can become more energetic people as we eat more vegetables (it certainly happens for me!), but the way they state it in a black-and-white way makes this claim simply false. Calories, in their simplest form, are units of energy. Both plants and animal foods have calories, so we can get energy from either plants or animal foods. This is very basic nutrition.
The film states that plant food, on average, has 64 times higher antioxidant content than animal food. This means, they claim, that switching to a vegan diet reduces inflammation. First, I think it’s a bit silly to take an average of all plant or animal foods (because even within the two, quality matters a lot), but I’ll go with it for a minute. Ignoring that, I think this is likely true! When people switch from the Standard American Diet (which, sadly, is full of burgers, fries, soda, and ice cream) to a vegan diet, they tend to be more health-minded and careful about the quality of food they consume. So, it’s not only the increase in plants with their antioxidant capacity, but also the elimination of junk food that reduces inflammation. I have seen (in myself and my clients) inflammation levels be extremely low (that’s good) in person who consumes meat, so long as they consume a ton of vegetables and take care of their bodies. Here’s more on inflammation, if you’re curious.
So, plants reduce inflammation, which is a very critical component of health. But if we just compare antioxidant capacity of foods, we’re missing out on so much more! The movie states, “Even iceberg lettuce has more antioxidants than salmon or eggs,” which completely misses the comparison of omega-3 fatty acids, protein, choline, and so much more. As this article says, “They may as well have said that a carrot has more fiber than a meatball.”
My final issue with the way the movie argues that “plants are good” is the comparison of a peanut butter sandwich with eggs. They state that you can easily get as much protein from a peanut butter sandwich or a cub of lentils as you can from 3 eggs or 3 ounces of steak. However, they miss the fact that the peanut butter sandwich comes with a lot of other carbohydrates and fat (plus a glycemic response to bread that’s through the roof). Here’s a basic comparison:
- PB sandwich: 510 calories, 20g protein, 34g fat, and 39g carbs
- 1 cup lentils: 230 calories, 18g protein, 1g fat, 39 carbs
- 3 oz beef: 135 calories, 20g protein, 6g fat, 0 carbs
- 3 eggs: 210 calories, 19g protein, 15g fat, 0g carbs
If your goal is to get more calories or carbs, then yes, the peanut butter sandwich and lentils win. But for many people, that’s not the goal. I definitely include lentils as a healthy, plant-based protein source, and I have no problem with them in this comparison. But encouraging people to eat refined carbohydrates like bread, and saying that this is a healthier option than a whole food, is just wrong.
Claim 2: Meat is Bad
In many different ways, the film aims to convince us that meat causes health problems. And I agree – in part. Eating the Standard American Diet, full of too much processed, low-quality meat, and complemented with fried foods, sugar, refined carbohydrates, etc., definitely causes health problems. In fact, this blog post that I wrote in 2014 explains that there is research linking meat consumption to increased risk of total, cardiovascular, and cancer-related mortality, as well as diabetes and heart disease. However, that post also shows that the studies did not control for quality of meat, relied upon often-inaccurate dietary recalls, and shows more of a correlation than a causation. Because our bodies are so complex, it is literally impossible to do a sizeable, scientifically-valid study that isolates every contributing factor (pollution we breathe, stress levels, sleep quality, sugar consumption, genetics, etc.). So I don’t think there will ever be a scientifically-proven, “one perfect diet” for every person. What I do know is that plants lower health risk, and an excess of low-quality meat increases health risk.
It is also worth noting that the “scary” statistics are a bit less scary once you understand them. Eating one serving of processed meat (like a hot dog) per day increases the risk of developing colorectal cancer by 16%. However, the initial risk is around 5%, so a 17% increase in risk means that if you eat one hot dog per day, your risk of colorectal cancer is around 6% instead of 5%. Of course, any increased risk of cancer is a bad thing (and is certainly enough reason for me to not eat a hot dog per day!), but it’s not as bad as the scare tactics make it seem.
There seems to be a confluence of effects when it comes to disease risk. This study, for example, shows that those who consumed a high meat intake, low fiber and legume intake, and were overweight had a threefold elevation in risk of colon cancer. It still doesn’t isolate for the quality of meat, but it provides enough evidence to show that if you’re going to eat meat, it’s best to do it in conjunction with a high fiber diet, and to not be overweight.
As for risk for heart disease, here’s another example of the film’s producers twisting research. They cite this study to say that meat causes heart disease. However, the study very explicitly says otherwise in its conclusion: “We found no association between quintiles of percentage of energy from total, animal, or vegetable protein and risk of IHD across the range of intakes.” What it did find is that risk of fatal heart disease (as opposed to total heart disease, including the non-fatal diagnoses) was lowered if the subject ate more total vegetable protein. So again, we see that plants are good (I agree!), but we do not necessarily see that meat is bad.
The film gives many examples of people who improved lab test results after switching to a vegan diet. One example is Bryant Jennings, a heavy-weight boxer, who says he felt far better after going vegan. However, he also says that his previous diet was built on fried chicken, KFC, and Popeye’s, and that he hadn’t even heard of many vegetables until he went vegan in 2012. There is absolutely no doubt that going from a fast food Standard American Diet to a carefully controlled vegan diet will be better for your health, so if those are your two choices, I highly encourage you to choose the latter. (But, those are not your only two choices!)
I am stepping out of my comfort zone here a bit, but if I were a man, the case that Game Changers makes for a vegan diet may have been more compelling when it came to my testosterone levels and all of the … corresponding benefits … of having high testosterone. I’m not an expert here, but I’ll give you three things to consider. First, there is compelling evidence that plant intake, particularly flavonoids, which are found in citrus, berries, tea, and legumes, increases blood flow in the, ahem, appropriate area. Second, this article pokes some holes in many of the Game Changers’ testosterone claims. Third, I looked into one of the studies Game Changers cited. The film said that meat reduces testosterone, but the study concludes that “a vegan diet causes a substantial increase in SHBG but has little effect on total or free T or on E2.” That means that the vegan diet doesn’t impact testosterone, but does increase sex-hormone binding globulin (SHBG), which binds to testosterone and makes it unusable. So, by my read, the opposite of what they were trying to say?
THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART! All of the increased risk of disease that comes from eating meat of any kind can be nullified by … you guessed it … eating vegetables with the meat! One of the mechanisms that Game Changers cites for how meat causes disease are heterocyclic amines (HCAs). But you can “virtually eliminate your risk,” cutting HCAs by 99%, when you consume meat with vegetables, according to Brian St. Pierre, Director of Performance Nutrition at Precision Nutrition. The movie cites a study that shows vasoconstriction (narrowing of blood vessels … a bad thing) when eating a hamburger patty alone. But the vasoconstriction that happened when people ate the burger alone “did not occur” when avocado was consumed with the burger. So, please, don’t just eat a plate of meat … eat a big plate of veggies, and if there’s a small portion of meat on there, you’re all good!
Claim 3: We Should Be Vegan
By this point, you probably get a sense for my feelings about this whole thing. Veggies are amazing for your health. An abundance of low-quality meat in the absence of veggies is bad for your health. But an abundance of veggies with some high-quality meat in moderation? Now that might be the best recipe for success in the book.
I have many client examples of people who felt great as vegans for a few months, or even a few years, and then ultimately crashed and felt their bodies needed meat to thrive (I don’t share client examples publicly, but here are a few people I haven’t worked with who have made their stories public: Dr. Will Cole, Yovana Mendoza, these 8 normal people, and yes, even Bill Clinton. This is because many of the nutrients (like B12, for example) that are lacking in a vegan diet can be stored in your system for up to a few years. So, when you first stop consuming them, you’re running off of storage and feeling fine. But when the stores run out, you feel like you crash. Is it possible to get around this with a carefully planned vegan diet and supplementation? Absolutely! But the “carefully planned” is key. If you’re eating no animal products at all, be sure you’re getting adequate nutrients by combining your plant foods and supplementing where you are deficient. Even Morgan Mitchell, the 400m sprinter featured in the movie who says her “iron and B12 levels are fantastic” achieves those levels via supplementation. (And by the way, not only vegans need B12 or other supplements! I take a B complex daily, among other things.
If you want to be your healthiest self, it comes down to more than just whether or not you eat animal protein. One of the studies that Game Changers claims to be “the only diet that has ever been shown to reduce risk of heart disease” is The Lifestyle Heart Trial. They are right: the vegetarian diet the subjects were placed on did reduce heart disease. But a) it is most certainly not the only one (here’s one of many) and b) the subjects also removed the processed food found in the normal Standard American Diet, started exercising, stopped smoking, and got stress management training. Sounds like more than just meat, right? Similarly, the movie claims that a vegan diet leads to lower risk of diabetes than the Standard American Diet, which is true. But they fail to mention that a low-carb diet leads to even better outcomes still. In this case, it’s about reducing the sugar and refined carbohydrates in our diet, which can be done on a vegan or animal-protein-containing diet.
A Few Final Notes
If you’re reading this far, you’re either really bored at work, or super invested in your health. Thanks for investing the time. To close it out, I have 3 more thoughts:
- The claim that “genes are not your fate” is absolutely true. Your genes may carry increased risk for a number of chronic diseases, but you have the power to control the outcome in the vast majority of cases. I encourage you to start by eating more plants. Can you eat one more serving of vegetables per day this week? Maybe increase it to two next week? You can do this!
- I am not an environmental expert, and cannot comment in good conscience about the environmental impact. While the move was convincing on this topic, I would also direct you to articles like this and this that may suggest otherwise.
- One more reminder that YOU know your body best. There is no one perfect diet for everyone on the planet. If you feel amazing, regardless of what label you put on your diet, I encourage you to keep going. If you don’t, I’d love to help you find what’s right for you.
Now it’s your turn … Have you seen “Game Changers”? What did you think: what’s your Game Changers review? Are you vegan, vegetarian, plant-based, omnivorous, or carnivorous?