‘The Game Changers’: Checking the science

As a graduate student and dietetic intern, I am constantly asked questions about trends in food and nutrition. This holiday season was no different as friends and family members asked my opinion on “The Game Changers,” a documentary that follows UFC fighter James Wilks as he explores a plant-based diet and its effect on human performance. Since performance nutrition is an interest of mine, I decided to see for myself what all the hype was about.

Plant-based vs. plant-only

One of the first things I noticed was the ambiguous use of the phrase ‘plant-based diet’. By definition, plant-based diets consist mostly of foods derived from plants, with few or no animal products. On the other hand, a plant-only (also known as vegan) diet excludes all animal products and also avoids foods produced by animals, such as eggs and dairy. The film uses these two terms interchangeably to support eliminating meat products from the diet to enhance human performance. However, they are not the same thing. 

The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that appropriately planned vegetarian and vegan diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention of certain diseases. Plant-based diets have been shown to contribute to lower blood cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure levels. However, that is not to say that all meat and animal-based foods must be eliminated from the diet. Meat is a rich source of protein, absorbable (heme) iron, zinc, and vitamin B12. Meat is an important option for those with iron deficiency anemia, during pregnancy, and during periods of rapid growth in infancy. 

Plant vs. animal protein

I agree with the film which demonstrates that it is possible to consume adequate amounts of protein from a plant-based diet. However, it fails to disclose that most Americans are consuming more than the necessary amount of protein, regardless of whether it comes from plant or animal sources. Therefore, it is not the amount of protein that should be investigated but the type of protein. Animal proteins are considered “complete” because they contain all nine essential amino acids which cannot be produced in our body. Plant-based proteins lack or do not contain sufficient amounts of at least one essential amino acid. 

While much of the information provided in “The Game Changers” is true, it fails to provide both sides of information. The film states that animal proteins contain inflammatory products, and plant protein has antioxidants to reduce inflammation. It fails to mention that plant-based protein can also contain inflammatory products and animal protein can also contain antioxidants.

Lentils vs. beef

In “The Game Changers”, they state 1 cup of cooked lentils or a peanut butter sandwich contains as much protein as 3 ounces of beef or three large eggs. I did the math using the USDA FoodData Central nutrient database. Here’s what I found:

Food Item Protein (g) Calories
1 cup lentils, cooked 17.2 220
Peanut Butter Sandwich

Total: 13.3

  • 6.2
  • 7.1
Total: 350

  • 159
  • 191
3 oz boneless, cooked, lean beef steak 24.6 140
3 large eggs, whole 18.8 215

The plant sources contain slightly less protein and more calories compared to the animal sources. It is possible to reach protein needs through plant-based sources, it may just require more calorie consumption. Lentils, peanut butter, and other plant-based food have their own unique set of benefits, including fiber and essential vitamins and minerals. However, it is false to equate the protein quantity of lentils and a peanut butter sandwich to beef and three eggs. 

Theatrical experiments

One of the most talked about moments in the documentary shows three players for the Miami Dolphins eating either animal- or plant-based burritos. Blood samples taken two hours after the meal showed that the plant-based player’s blood plasma was clear, and the two animal-based players’ plasmas were cloudy. The physician in the film concludes that consuming animal products results in cloudy plasma because the endothelium in the blood vessel isn’t functioning well. 

There are several things wrong with this experiment. First, it is physiologically normal to have fat appear in the blood shortly after consuming a fatty meal. Fat is transported through the blood to other organs and provides our body with energy stores. Second, they did not take a blood sample after fasting, and there is no mention of what else these athletes had eaten during the day. Finally, an experiment consisting of three individuals over a period of two hours hardly justifies conclusive evidence. There are multiple experiments in the film conducted on a handful of participants and based conclusions are based off the results. Accurate conclusions should be drawn from multiple evidence-based, peer-reviewed studies demonstrating similar results.

The bottom line

Overall, this documentary shows that it is possible to follow a plant-based or plant-only diet and still be a world class athlete. However, it may only be showing one side of the story, rather than presenting both ideas and letting the viewers draw their own conclusions. Like many food and nutrition related documentaries, “The Game Changers is rooted in testimonials.

A plant-based diet has been shown to have health benefit, but it does not mean that meat and other animal products, such as dairy and eggs, cannot also be included in a healthy diet in moderation. Keep in mind, there are many plant-based meat alternatives that are highly processed and contain additional sodium and fat, making them nutritionally inferior than their animal counterparts. 

Finally, nutrition is an individualized science. There is no one size fits all diet for everyone. Following a vegetarian or vegan diet requires careful planning to ensure adequate nutrient intake. Information and advice about food and nutrition should come from a registered dietitian, not an entertainment documentary.

–Jackie Braun

Jackie Braun holds a B.S. in Dietetics from University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point. She is a dietetic intern here at NIU.

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