‘The Game Changers’ documentary attempts to scare people into being vegan with false health and performance claims. That’s not cool. This article addresses those claims.
(If you are looking for vegan nutritional advice, I’ve written an article for you here.)
Netflix has dropped a giant turd on my industry again.
Another piece of content designed to get people in a flap and drive up their subscriber numbers.
I’m talking about the very pro-vegetarian/vegan documentary, The Game Changers, which was released on Netflix recently.
I’ve had a lot of questions about it, which I’ll address in this article, suffice to say that I consider this to be just the latest fecal incident in a long list of outrageous claims you may recognize as headlines from recent years. Claims such as:
- High-fat (keto) diets will help you burn more fat / cure cancer / make you live longer
- Sugar is as addictive as cocaine
- The carnivore (meat only) diet will cure depression and disease
- Connor McGregor lost to Nate Diaz because he ate meat.
(The last one is what they allude to at the start of this documentary.)
Netflix makes money from people subscribing. People care a lot about food. Celebrity endorsement = believably in most people’s minds, and this purposefully has famous people in it. Netflix’s incentive is to create things that are inflammatory because it gets people talking and drives up subscriber numbers.
Sadly, this has filled the heads of millions of people with bad info, including some of my friends and readers, so I feel the need to write this.
Here’s how I’ll proceed:
- Recommendations for vegetarians and vegans interested in getting jacked.
- Calling out the bad science and questionable BS in The Game Changers.
- My viewpoint on vegetarian and vegan diets.
1) Recommendations for vegetarians and vegans looking to get jacked.
Q) I’m a vegetarian, do I need to make any modifications to your standard recommendations?
(This is from the site’s FAQ. Because nothing here has changed.)
Yes. Generally speaking, you’d need to consume approximately 20% more high-quality plant protein (i.e., pea & soy) to be on par with animal protein in terms of amino acid profile quality.
Regarding vegans specifically:
- All vegans will need to supplement with vitamin B12 because you won’t be able to get enough from your diet. 1,000 mcg (1mg) per day.
- Most vegans are at a high risk of vitamin D (unless you get daily sun exposure without sunscreen) and iodine deficiency (unless you eat a lot of sea vegetables). So consider taking 2,000 I.U.s of vitamin D and 90 micrograms of iodine per day, respectively.
- Some vegans will fall short on their calcium needs. Consider 1,000 mg daily.
2) Calling out the bad science in The Game Changers
Helpfully, just as I was writing this today, my two super-smart friends Greg Nuckols and Eric Trexler decided to cover it on the Stronger by Science podcast. (Listen here, skip to the 27-minute mark.)
They nailed it, and this is my summary of what they said.
The documentary treats diet choices as a false dichotomy between a vegan diet and the worst interpretation of a western diet (super-high fat, lots of processed meat, with a ton of sugars and starches). Nobody reading this is likely to eat like that, and nobody is questioning that the former will be healthier than the latter, for most people.
Debunking some claims:
Claim: If you eat a vegan diet, you will live longer.
If you compare vegans to any random omnivore — sure, vegans are generally healthier. But this doesn’t account for other health behaviors. Vegans are less likely to smoke, drink, and more likely to exercise. When comparing vegans who made the decision for health-related reasons to health-conscious omnivores, those differences in lifespan and chronic disease risk essentially disappear.
Claim: Gladiators had a high bone density and only ate plants.
Sure! Most retired American footballers have high bone mineral density. But they are large athletic people, who had been loading the hell out of their skeleton for decades and ate enough. This is not down to their individual diets.
Claim: Nate Diaz beat Connor McGregor in a fight because eating meat products makes you worse at fighting.
There is absolutely no basis for this claim. It also conveniently ignores the fact that Diaz fought a weight class higher than McGregor, and then McGregor beat him in the rematch.
Claim: Cows have more muscle than a human, but cows don’t eat meat. How do you explain that one?
Their digestive systems are different. They have four stomachs (kinda), which allow them to derive a lot more protein from the plants they consume. By this logic, you could argue that circadian rhythms are not important because raccoons are awake all night.
Claim: Humans are not carnivores. (A jawbone is shown.)
Agreed. We’re omnivores. Again, this is here to set up a false dichotomy with a meat-only diet.
Claim: Protein is not a key energy substrate for high-energy exercise.
Correct. But nobody in the contemporary sports world believes this. It was there to set up another ridiculous dichotomy — you’re going to have a high carb diet, or you’re going to have a diet that includes some amount of animal protein. They suggest that by having protein in your diet you push out room for carbs to fuel your workouts. You would have to have a crazily high protein intake to do that.
1) They disregard the importance of protein quality.
Sure, if you have a diverse diet from several different protein sources and are eating enough, you’re unlikely to be clinically deficient in any particular amino acid and die a horrible death because of it. But they threw out the concept of protein quality, which goes against the weight of the sports nutrition evidence on the performance and recovery benefits.
2) A horrendously performed leg press.
A head touched two knees.
3) A smattering of weird demonstrations presented as if they were rigorous scientific experiments.
No, there’s a whole field dedicated to this that rolled their eyes.
4) They suggested that the addition of any animal protein addition to a meal ruined that meal from a nutrition perspective and became a harmful, unhealthy meal.
This is far from unique to this documentary, but it’s just not accurate.
5) They cherry-pick several athletes who became successful after going vegan, suggesting that this proves something. It does not.
First, this ignores all the VASTLY more numerous counter-examples and the role that random chance can play. But let’s play along — why may an athlete have found a performance benefit from going vegan? Well, if an athlete’s diet was carbohydrate-deficient prior, going vegan would have bumped that.
3) My Viewpoint On Vegetarian / Vegan Diets
The documentary is shit, but I am not saying vegetarian or vegan diets are shit.
It’s absolutely possible to have a vegetarian diet that will support your strength and physique goals. But there is no denying that setting up a vegan diet in a way that will won’t potentially compromise health and performance is more tricky.
(I’m not an RD and don’t work with vegans for this reason, as I don’t know enough to advise. However, here’s an excellent article on Stronger by Science for anyone interested: Plant Gains? Advice to the Vegetarian and Vegan Athlete.)
If you wish to become a vegan for ethical, environmental, moral, religious, or other reasons, please go ahead! But don’t become a vegan because some documentary scared you into it.
And if you are a vegan and wish to persuade people over to your way of thinking, don’t use this documentary to do so. The ends don’t justify the means (deception). Persuasion based on lies will backfire.
So, how should you eat?
The current state of nutritional evidence is the same as it was before the documentary was released — it does not support the claim that a vegetarian or vegan diet is best for our health, nor that plant protein is superior for physique and physical performance.
(For those who would like to dig deeper, Menno Henselmans does a very good job of covering the data around this here.)
There’s scope for flexibility with your dietary choices. This is a great thing!
- Be active — this does a lot of things that a diet simply can’t.
- Maintain your body composition in a relatively healthy state of leanness.
- Eat plenty of vegetables and fiber, preferably from a variety of sources.
- Don’t eat a bunch of charred, burned, fatty, processed meats.
Could we get far more nuanced about nutrition setup and talk about calories, protein, carbohydrate to fat intake ratios, and meal timing? Sure, but the basics above don’t change. (To receive my free book and nutrition email course on that, enter your email address in the box below)
Be thoughtful about what information you consume. The quality of ideas you put in determines the quality of your thinking.