There’s (another) documentary film out claiming that a plant-based/vegan lifestyle is better, and that eating animal foods is costing you years off your life, peak athletic performance, and—if you’re a man—even your ability to get a boner. Oh, and it’s also destroying the planet.
Feel stupid and guilty yet? That seems to be the goal of The Game Changers, which is available on iTunes and features former UFC fighter James Wilks, strongman Patrik Baboumian, and even Arnold Schwarzenegger arguing for the superiority of a plant-based diet.
But, just as with What The Health, the last major vegan rally cry that came out in 2017, it’s not hard to deflate most of The Game Changers arguments, one by one.
Is A Plant-Based Diet Better for Health?
The movie references several scientific studies that seem to point to a diet rich in animal foods being dangerous. But the film never gives us the whole story.
It cites a 2010 study that showed that drinking cows’ milk can increase estrogen and lower testosterone in men. But look closer at the findings and you’ll see that the cows that produced the milk were pregnant at the time. It’s probably fair to say that, just as with pregnant humans, their hormone profiles might have been a little off of what is considered normal, but even still, the reduction in testosterone was not below levels that are considered healthy and normal. Furthermore, this testosterone dip was only measured in seven men—hardly a sample size to draw a major conclusion from.
Naturally, Game Changers has to dredge up the old idea that meat and dairy are bad for your heart, impairing circulation to the point that even your erections will suffer. It points to a 2012 study that had men consume either a hamburger patty by itself or with avocado. Hours later, the hamburger-only meal resulted in constriction of the blood vessels while the burger-avocado hybrid didn’t. The researchers blamed the beef for causing inflammation, and declared the avocado to be anti-inflammatory.
Look up the study, and you’ll see right away that it was funded by the Hass Avocado Board. Of course this doesn’t invalidate the findings, but it casts suspicion over them. And equally untrustworthy are the two experiments the movie shows—one where blood is drawn from people who just ate a vegetarian or meat-filled burrito, and another where burritos are consumed and the subjects’ dicks are assessed for erection strength and frequency. Unsurprisingly, the movie shows that both experiments found that the animal-protein meal wreaked havoc and the plant-based one was healthy. But in neither case are other factors considered. Were the subjects stressed, dehydrated, under-recovered? What else had they been eating? Or smoking? Or doing that day? Rather than elaborate, Game Changers wants you to simply accept its truth: meat is bad.
Finally, on the health front, the doc again takes aim at animal foods’ alleged cancer-causing potential, naming a bevy of chemical compounds in them (TMAO, heterocyclic amines) that might hurt you. However, the science to support it just isn’t there. “The studies showing that TMAO is bad are epidemiology studies,” says Paul Saladino, MD, a functional medicine practitioner and author of the upcoming book, The Carnivore Code (carnivoremd.com). “They show that humans who have health problems have higher levels of TMAO. It doesn’t mean that TMAO caused those problems. TMAO is produced in our bodies in response to two very important compounds—carnitine and choline. Carnitine is an antioxidant, and choline is a precursor to a neurotransmitter and is in every cell in the body.” Meanwhile, Saladino says, there’s 40 times more TMAO in fish than in meat, but no one has ever accused fish of causing cancer. “TMAO is also found in plants,” he says, “but [plant-based propaganda] will never tell you this.”
As for heterocyclic amines, potentially-carcinogenic compounds present in charred meat, these can be greatly mitigated by simply not overcooking your food. “There are no heterocyclic amines in raw meat,” says Saladino. “I’m not advocating eating meat raw, but using gentler cooking methods—sous vide, crock pot, or other slow, low-temperature cooking—will result in lower levels of heterocyclic amines. The truth is that cooking any food creates some compounds that are linked to cancer.” Acrylamide, he notes, is in the brownest parts of a piece of toast, a bagel, and roasted coffee, so plant foods carry their own risks. “The best way to prevent cancer is to give the body healthy micronutrients—which meat has plenty of—sleep enough, keep your immune system strong, and live a good life,” says Saladino. Not to toss out your hamburger.
Now let’s look at some of the research that supports the consumption of animal foods.
Animal Foods and Testosterone
So The Game Changers wants you to believe that milk-drinking will make you less of a man, huh? Well, a 2018 review of 80 studies in the European Journal of Endocrinology concluded that you don’t need to shop for a bra for those man boobs just yet. It explains that while some farming methods can result in milk drawn from cows that are well along in pregnancy, and consequently have higher estrogen levels in their milk, “it seems that there is stronger evidence suggesting that amounts of estrogens in cow’s milk are too low to cause health effects in humans.”
If you’re really concerned, buy organic milk from grass-fed cows that are treated humanely. This will greatly reduce the risk of any toxicity in the milk, and the farming practices are better for both the cows and the planet.
It may also interest The Game Changers’ producers to know that diets that are high in fat—including that from animal sources—boost testosterone levels. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that men who followed a high-fat, low-fiber diet for 10 weeks had 13% higher total testosterone than subjects who ate low fat and high fiber. We’re not saying to toss out your vegetables to eliminate fiber from your menu. Only that diets rich in meat are good for being manly.
Animal Foods and Heart Health
We love avocados and fully appreciate their heart-healthy fats. But to cite a study funded by the avocado business and imply that beef on its own puts your arteries in a vise just ain’t right.
First of all, the study didn’t find a statistical difference in blood vessel function between the burger alone and the burger with avocado. The results seem to have been exaggerated for dramatic effect (Game Changers is a movie, after all). Secondly, we don’t know what kind of beef was used in the study, but it’s a safe bet that it was conventional—taken from unhealthy cows raised in a feedlot and featuring a nutrition profile that’s significantly different from what pasture-raised, organic cows would yield. As with dairy, we feel that eating beef that is grass-fed and organic won’t produce the same kind of inflammatory response that a factory-farmed, grain-fed serving would. In fact, it may have the opposite effect, helping to fight inflammation and improve heart health.
A 2010 review from Nutrition Journal demonstrated that grass-fed beef has two to three times higher levels of conjugated-linoleic acid (CLA) than grain-fed beef. CLA is a fatty acid and antioxidant that’s been shown to fight heart disease and cancer.
But organic animal foods aside, it’s difficult to say that meat puts your heart in any peril at all. A 2013 review compared the effects of four different animal-rich diets—Mediterranean, low-carb, low glycemic-index, and high-protein—to other options, including vegetarian and vegan. All four of the animal-based plans were found to be effective in improving various markers of cardiovascular disease risk in people with diabetes. They were also more effective for controlling blood sugar than the plant-based controls, and the low-carb and Mediterranean approaches delivered the greatest weight loss of all. The animal diets improved heart-friendly HDL cholesterol as well.
That same year, the journal Metabolism showed that subjects who ate a high-fat, low-carb diet had lower markers of systemic inflammation after 12 weeks compared to people who followed a low-fat, high-carb diet. The researchers concluded that high-fat eating may be more beneficial to cardiovascular health.
Animal Foods and Cancer
In 2015, PLOS One showed an association between processed meat and colorectal cancer, but acknowledged that there is “little evidence that higher intake of unprocessed red meat [more than two servings a day] substantially increased risk.”
And other research suggests that grass-fed beef is in the clear. A Nutrition Journal review of studies comparing grass-fed beef to the conventional kind spanned more than 30 years, finding that grass-based meat diets raise cancer-fighting antioxidant activity (glutathione and superoxide dismutase) to a greater degree.
“Meat from grass-raised animals has anti-carcinogenic compounds,” says Saladino, “and you get more of them when you eat nose to tail.” That is, eating not just the muscle meats that most of us are used to, but organs and connective tissue. Animal livers, for instance, are rich in riboflavin, a B vitamin that may help to protect against cancer.
The Red Meat Study
Interestingly, about a week after The Game Changers was released, a massive study led by researchers from McMaster and Dalhousie universities appeared. Its findings? That red and even processed meat are not the devils they’ve been made out to be. One review of 12 trials that included 54,000 subjects did not find a statistically significant association between meat consumption and the risk of heart disease, diabetes, or cancer. The Indiana University School of Medicine stated the following: “This [study is] sure to be controversial, but is based on the most comprehensive review of the evidence to date. Because that review is inclusive, those who seek to dispute it will be hard pressed to find appropriate evidence with which to build an argument.”
The researchers also acknowledged that there were no primary external funding sources for the study. In other words, the research wasn’t paid for by the beef industry, Oscar Mayer, or any other corporate entity with a conflicting interest.
Is Plant-Based Better For Performance?
This is where The Game Changers really wants to make its mark, showing what no vegan movie has shown before: that plant-based athletes can be just as big, strong, fast, and durable as those who eat more traditional performance diets. They show us stars such as Patrik Baboumian, a pro strongman, and tennis great Novak Djokovic, who credit plant-based eating for better recovery and performance.
On this point, we’ll agree with them: plant-based athletes probably can perform as well as the rest of us. However, we’re far from convinced that they can perform any better than omnivores, and yet that’s what the movie implies.
Plant-Based Athletes and Protein
The main argument the film makes with respect to building muscle and strength is that, while protein intake is important, the exact source of your protein doesn’t matter. Whether you get 200 grams of protein from beans and rice or steak, chicken, and fish, it’s still 200 grams of protein, so the plant-based approach works just as well. This is more or less true, but it’s also a little misleading.
Game Changers asserts that a peanut butter sandwich packs about as much protein as a three-ounce serving of beef or three large eggs. That’s technically correct, but there are a few drawbacks to consider here. One is that peanut butter, while delicious and healthy, doesn’t offer complete protein. As legumes, peanuts don’t contain all the essential amino acids—the ones your body needs to support muscle—in adequate amounts. Now, combined with bread—assuming one made from whole grains that will offer some complementary nutrition, not some bleached white variety that’s devoid of nutrients—you probably will get all the aminos you need, but there’s still some doubt as to how many complete proteins your body can make from that combination, and how much of it your body will be able to assimilate.
“Animal protein is [generally] more than twice as bioavailable as plant protein,” says Saladino, meaning that your body can’t absorb and make use of plant protein nearly as efficiently. Vegans, however, often make the mistake of thinking that plant foods work as well as animal ones when their protein content matches gram for gram. “When people say they’re getting 60 grams of protein from a plant source,” says Saladino, “I say, ‘No, not really.’ It’s only about 30 grams of usable protein, or less,” in many cases.
When you eat beef or eggs, on the other hand, you can rest assured that you’re getting complete, highly bioavailable protein that your body can utilize. The protein is all from one source, and it’s easy to count.
The other issue with getting your protein from peanut butter sandwiches—or any plant sources, for that matter—is the other macronutrients you’re ingesting along with it. A peanut butter sandwich has a good amount of carbs and fats as well, and packs 200 more calories than three ounces of beef or three eggs. For athletes such as bodybuilders, or physique or figure competitors, who strive to hit certain macro numbers and generally try to keep carbs and/or fats in check, a sandwich just isn’t a good choice. The same applies to fighters and weightlifters who compete in sports where they have to make weight, as well as the public at large that’s just dieting to lose a few pounds. It’s a matter of efficiency. Do you want 20 grams of protein with 430 calories (the peanut butter sandwich), or 20 grams of protein with 210 calories (a serving of beef)? Which one do you think will fit more easily into a diet plan?
And this is why you don’t see ripped people eating peanut butter sandwiches all day.
The movie cites a review of vegetarian athlete studies that says plant-based eating can support training as well as omnivorous diets can. But once again, it doesn’t show the full picture. The researchers go on to say that, “as a group, vegetarians have lower mean muscle creatine concentrations than do omnivores, and this may affect supramaximal exercise performance.” So, they theorize that vegetarians may do better if they supplement with creatine. “I make sure that any vegan or vegetarian athletes I work with take creatine post-workout,” says Shannon Ehrhardt, RD, an EXOS Performance Dietician.
Supplementation does seem to be key for athletes who go totally vegan (that is, it’s even more important than it is for omnivores). That makes sense: if you’re not going to get all the nutrients you need from whole foods, you’ll have to get them from supplements. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with supplementation, but it begs the question, “If a plant-based diet is so great, why does it come up short on so many nutrients?”
A 2017 article in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition concurs, explaining that “veganism creates challenges that need to be accounted for when designing a nutritious diet,” such as getting adequate vitamin B12, iron, zinc, calcium, iodine, and vitamin D, as well as omega-3 fats. “However,” the scientists write, “via the strategic management of food and appropriate supplementation, it is the contention of this article that a nutritive vegan diet can be designed to achieve the dietary needs of most athletes satisfactorily. Further, it was suggested here that creatine and [beta]-alanine supplementation might be of particular use to vegan athletes, owing to vegetarian diets promoting lower muscle creatine and lower muscle carnosine levels in consumers.”
A strict plant-based diet would also forbid the use of whey protein, a supplement that’s been shown to aid both performance and wellness. A 2017 meta-analysis of nine studies showed that whey helped overweight/obese people lose fat and reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease. And if you’re wondering, no, soy protein supplements don’t work as well. A 2014 study found that when subjects drank a whey shake before eating their biggest meal of the day, it promoted better changes in appetite, body composition, body mass, and waist circumference than drinking soy protein did.
Plant-Based Athletes Vs Omnivores
According to an article by the American Council on Exercise, plant-based dieters might have an easier time losing weight than meat-eaters, but a harder time gaining muscle—mainly because a plant diet is generally less calorie-dense (peanut butter sandwiches aside). Vegans may also find they do better at endurance sports than when they try strength sports, since the plant-based diet is rich in carbs and carb stores are thought to be one of the limiting factors for endurance performance. But there’s little research comparing plant-based athletic performance against that of omnivores, so these ideas are only speculative.
It’s worth mentioning that many athletes who try switching over to veganism wind up coming back. One famous example is NFL tight end Tony Gonzalez, who read the book The China Study (which preaches the so-called dangers of animal foods) and cut out animal products in the hope of improving his health and lengthening his career. However, Gonzalez lost weight and strength. Then with the Kansas City Chiefs, Gonzalez consulted the team nutritionist, who recommended he add a few servings of meat and fish to his menu. Ultimately, Gonzalez’s performance improved, and he went on to break the league records for most receptions by a tight end and career receiving yards by a tight end.
Is Plant-Based Better For the Environment?
In addition to all its claims about plant-based eating being superior for health and fitness, The Game Changers naturally plays the environmental card, saying that raising animal foods contributes to pollution while eating plants is sustainable. It’s generally true that factory farming is damaging to the planet, but going vegan won’t immediately absolve you either.
As one article points out, demand for trendy plant foods such as avocado and quinoa has led to shortages in countries that produce them, like Mexico, and rising prices now make them unaffordable to people whose cultures have depended on them for generations. Avocado exports are so lucrative that forest lands have to be clear cut to make way for more avocado trees.
Scientists in the UK have warned that intensive farming practices have depleted the topsoil to the extent that the country may only have 100 harvests left in it. The solution? The Food and Agriculture Organization recommends letting animals graze it, as their poop provides a natural fertilizer that restores the soil.
Vegans love to cite the methane emissions of livestock that contribute to climate change, but in biodiverse pasture areas—used in organic farming—wild plants provide fumaric acid, a compound that has been shown to reduce methane emissions by 70% when added to the diet of lambs. Meanwhile, as The Guardian reported last year, plowing the earth to raise crops releases a tremendous amount of carbon into the atmosphere—70% of that which top soil once contained has gone up into our air since the dawn of the industrial revolution.
Saladino argues the potential for meat production to actually help the environment by pointing to farms that practice regenerative agriculture, such as White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, GA, which not only treats its animals humanely but manages to capture more carbon than it produces. Its cows graze the grass while sheep and goats eat the weeds and chickens eat insects. The result is an eco system unto itself that doesn’t rely on the use of hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides, and produces zero waste annually. In 2017, White Oak’s beef production sequestered 919 tons of carbon in the soil—more than its cows emit in their lifetime. The farm’s total emissions are less than what is released by farming soy beans.
“White Oak has revived destroyed grasslands by grazing animals on them,” says Saladino. “That farm is greenhouse gas-negative. Regenerative agriculture may be the only way we can decrease greenhouse gas in our eco system. We can decrease our emissions, but what else can actually take carbon out of the environment? It’s like, a Tesla car doesn’t emit greenhouse gas, but producing those cars still does. A farm that sequesters more carbon than it produces is actually reversing the damage.”
Finally, there’s the ethical argument. There’s no denying that raising animal foods kills millions of animals each year, and most of them die cruelly (again, organic methods are much more humane). Still, this doesn’t mean that vegans don’t have blood on their hands.
Harvesting crops inadvertently kills rodents, reptiles, and insects that get caught in machines, and the pesticides used to protect plants from predators poison millions of mice. Research on Australian farming practices indicates that “at least 55 sentient animals die to produce 100kg of useable plant protein: 25 times more than for the same amount of rangelands beef… When cattle, kangaroos and other meat animals are harvested they are killed instantly. Mice die a slow and very painful death from poisons.”
But surely a plant-based diet must be more efficient at feeding people worldwide, right? Vegans are always arguing that if everyone “went veggie,” we’d wipe out world hunger. A 2016 study published in Elementa looked into this.
Researchers compared numerous eating styles—vegan, two kinds of vegetarian diets, four omnivorous diets, one low in fat and sugar, and one similar to the modern American diet. They found that the amount of people the vegan diet could sustain based on the resources of the ecosystem was less than that of the two vegetarian diets and two out of the four omnivorous ones. An article on the study on PBS’s website noted that the vegan diet wasted land that could otherwise feed more people. The diets that contained the most meat, by contrast, used all available crop and grazing land. The author wrote: “If modern agriculture in the U.S. were adjusted to the vegan diet, according to the study in Elementa , we’d be able to feed 735 million people—and that’s from a purely land-use perspective. Compare that to the dairy-friendly vegetarian diet, which could feed 807 million people. Even partially omnivorous diets rank above veganism in terms of sustainability; incorporating about 20 to 40% meat in your diet is actually better for the long-term course of humanity than being completely meat-free.”
We don’t mean to bash plant-based diets. If you follow one for your own personal or ethical reasons, kudos to you. Virtually everyone can benefit from adding more plant foods to their diet, and it seems that vegan athletes can perform as well as omnivorous ones if they plan their eating carefully and supplement appropriately.
Just stop feeding us the line that eating meat makes us sick, irresponsible, or unethical. We won’t bite.