Netflix's Doc The Game Changers is Trending: A Nutrition Expert Challenges the Science

Claudia Canavan
Photo credit: Quorn

From Women's Health

It was at the pub last weekend, after England's Rugby World Cup hopes had been shredded as thoroughly as MI5 documents detailing their latest piece of espionage, that I understood how dramatic the impact of The Game Changers has been.

Sitting with consolatory drinks, a friend – who I know as downing pints of semi-skimmed before bed and nailing chicken breast four times a week – told me he was going vegan. Why? He'd seen the film and had been converted.

What is The Game Changers?

Quick recap: the 2018 documentary's narrative follows British-born former MMA fighter and US military trainer, James Wilks. After incurring an injury that puts him out of the game for six months, he investigates the best way to eat for recovery.

The conclusion is that the green way is the one – which the film supports via interviews with plant-based doctors and hyper successful vegan athletes. Strongman Patrik Baboumian, F1 superstar Lewis Hamilton and Olympic cycling medallist, Dotsie Bausch all feature.

The film became iTunes' best-selling documentary ever within a week of landing on the platform, and dropped on Netflix last month, where it's lapped up a fresh audience in their millions.

As to the secret sauce seasoning its success? The Game Changers has taken the plant-based message and calcified it with a shell of testosterone. If the previous comms hadn't hit (animal agriculture is now been touted as playing a bigger role in the climate crisis than power generation; factory farming is needlessly cruel; people who go hard on greens often glow like fireflies) then this is the slice that was missing.

Namely, that you can sashay away from steak, eggs and salmon, and still be a tanked-up bro with sinew-studded muscles who is strong enough to throw over cars.

Photo credit: Michael Kovac - Getty Images

Disclosure: I do not eat meat. But I was struck by some of the claims made in the doc – some of which felt... spurious. To get clarity, I called up Dr. Mayur Ranchordas, Reader in Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism at Sheffield Hallam University.and Sport Nutrition Consultant.

Here's what he has to say.

WH: Why do you think that vegan documentaries like The Game Changers and What the Health? have landed so well?

MR: They are very well produced, aren’t they? And when you have the likes of Lewis Hamilton who just won his sixth world championship and Arnold Schwazernager endorsing and featuring, you can’t not watch it.

And people like controversy. If something was really safe and boring, and the advice was 'eat seven portions of vegetables a day, do some exercise and eat a balanced diet,'... it's not exciting.

But to say to people, 'you need to go vegan, and these are the reason why' – it's headline-grabbing.

WH: So, what might be an issue?

MR: You’ve got to see who produced it. James Cameron [of Titanic and Avatar fame] and Suzy Amis Cameron, who are executive producers on the film, for example, own Verdient Foods: a plant protein company based in Canada. [Note: of course it makes sense that people who follow a plant-based diet would want to make this film, but it's the lack of declaration of this in the film which Dr Ranchordas finds troubling.]

WH: It struck me that there wasn't much of a balanced argument presented...

MR: Look, everybody can benefit from having more plant-based foods in their diet, and I do not want to discourage people from taking up plant-based diets, if they want to.

But I do think that some of the comparisons presented in the film don't hold up. For example, a segment in which three athletes are given either a bean burrito, a chicken burrito or a red meat burrito and then have their blood analysed for endothelial function. [Science: the endothelium lines the inside of your blood vessels and helps to regulate your immune function and blood clotting. Impairment is a precursor to heart disease, per Diabetes UK.]

The athlete who ate the bean burrito's blood is seen to have better endothelial function – it appears to be more clear.

But endothelial function is affected by exercise, regular intake of polyphenol and antioxidant-rich foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables of all colours, olive oil, tea and small amounts of red wine. Feeding of one meal is a poor illustration of how endothelial function can change.

In randomised controlled trials, you don’t just measure one outcome, but a series. So you'd look at what's happening in the blood, what’s then happening with your hormones, what effect is it having on your lifestyle, what effect is it having on your mood, what effect is it having on your sleep quality.

This costs a lot of money. If you delve into the literature, there isn’t actually that much comparing vegan versus omnivore diets, because, a) they are very difficult to do, and b) because vegan nutrition just hasn’t received the attention that it deserves. That is changing, now.

But cherry picking little things that are going to be quite dramatic means that you’re only telling a very short chapter of a big story.

WH: Cherry-picking feels like a bit of an issue, throughout...

MR: Any film takes viewers on a journey – there’s a beginning, a middle and end. If you want to be biased and just select the bits of the story you want to tell, you can. Here, that's: meat is bad for your blood, it’s bad for your health. If you go vegan, it can enhance your sex life, muscles, performance, recovery.

But then people could miss you out how, if you go vegan and you don’t plan your diet properly, you could actually be deficient in Vitamin B12, iron, iodine and zinc very quickly. With a vegan diet, proper calculation and planning is required.

Going vegan has its positives, but it also has its challenges.

WH: How should people watch these films with a critical eye?

MR: If a message is being pushed very hard, with no balance, you have to question it. If this was such a big revelation, and if going vegan was like a miracle, then surely the medical professionals and the scientists and the sports nutritionists and the sports scientists would have been doing this years ago.

WH: So, what is the information you think people need, for a healthy life?

MR: It isn’t exciting, unfortunately. But it is evidence-based. Do some form of exercise – a balance of aerobic exercise and gym work, like strength training; the more muscle you carry, the higher your metabolic rate.

Eat a balanced diet. Most of us would benefit from an increase in the plant-based foods that we have, because most of us don’t even get anywhere near the five-a-day.

If you want to reduce your carbon emissions and are worried about the welfare of animals are treated and want to go vegan, that makes sense.

But do plan your diet carefully to make sure you are getting enough protein via a range of plant-based foods and you will need to consider supplementing with Vitamin B12, iron, zinc and possibly plant-based protein supplements depending on your training volume and intensity.

WH: Any final words?

MR: Just to be conscious of the fact that it's important to check out what is motivating experts and academics who are pushing one thing really hard in nutrition.

There are cases of people being paid a lot of money by companies to push an agenda, on every side. So do be critical and ask questions.

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