Recently a new documentary came out on Netflix, and it’s been taking the world by storm. It’s called “the Game Changers” and it advocates for a plant-based diet as being optimal for health, performance, longevity, and moreover, claiming that eating meat raises inflammation and causes cancer.
There were plenty of research studies cited, but are they valid? In this post I breakdown how misleading the claims are, how they misrepresent science, and explain why and how many can see a benefit in switching to a plant-based diet.
My goal is not to change your mind, or to claim that being an omnivore, plant-based, or a carnivore for that matter is better or worse, I simply want to present both sides of the coin, in order dispel much of the misinformation that the documentary presented.
I also did a podcast episode on this, so feel free to listen if you prefer not to read this article. I also included a philosophical argument, and touched on the ethics, and environmental issues surrounding meat consumption in that episode
What does it mean to be plant-based?
“Plant-based” Is an ambiguous term. Does it mean 50% plants 50% animal foods? Does it mean vegan? Does it mean vegetarian? What about pescatarian? They don’t distinguish in the film, yet the term is sometimes used synonymously with being vegan, and other times it can mean lacto-ovo vegetarian for example.
Now they make a big push for promoting a plant-based diet as optimal for health. But, 70% of the calories consumed in the U.S. are actually already plant based.
Many of these calories come from sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, juice, bread, vegetable oils, french fries…those are all technically plant foods. Think about any grocery store, convenience market, gas station, etc that you walk into. Think about how much added sugar is in the products. Look at the label of any packaged food, more than likely some type of vegetable or seed oil is an ingredient.
This is the standard American diet, and as we know, the rates of diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease are immense.
But we like to blame meat.
Let me ask you this, is an oreo representative of plant foods? What about French fries? What about, dr. pepper?
Because technically those are “plant-based products” flour, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, vegetable oils.
No? Then why is a burger representative of all meat? And by the way if you’re having a burger, that includes the bun, and you may have fries with that, and you may have a soda too or depending on where you are, beer, which is a straight inflammation bomb. Yet beer, bread from the buns, and fries (cooked in vegetable oils) are all plant based foods, and somehow it’s the meat’s fault…
Maintaining Objectivity, and Revealing Conflicts of Interest
(the information below was not revealed in the film)
In quantitative research, objectivity is paramount. This means that you utilize methods to prevent bias from altering results. Part of this is revealing any conflicts of interests, funding, and being transparent with your methods. Although this documentary presented a dizzying array of research that I’ll admit looked convincing, it was anything but scientific. In fact they broke the cardinal rule right off the bat.
James Cameron the producer of the movie is also CEO of Verdiant Foods, which is an organic pea-protein company
Arnold Schwarzenegger, part of owner of Ladder, which sells some vegan products
Dr. Dean Ornish, created the ornish diet, and leads vegan retreats
Dr. Aaron spitz, is the author of the penis book, a plant based book about penile function..
Dr. Robert vogel, has a plant based book out
Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, has a plant based cookbook
Dr. James loomis, was a contributor to a plant based meal planning website
Dr. Kim Williams is a vegan cardiologist
An unbiased approach would have been to interview doctors, dietitians, etc. from a variety of backgrounds, and particularly ones that don’t hold ideologies in line with those of the film.
Types of studies referenced
Again in the documentary a lot of science was presented. At first glance it seems as if they crossed their T’s, and dotted their I’s. The case against meat is certainly closed with all that evidence right? Not so fast. Not all research is created equally. The types of studies cited in this documentary were observational studies, cross-sectional studies, and retrospective studies. These are epidemiological studies, which are problematic in nutrition science, as they often cannot account for confounding variables, which I’ll talk about below. They also are correlational, and not causational. Take a look at the graph below
According to the graph, there is a correlation between the two. Implying that one causes the other though, would be ludicrous.
Methods in these types of studies include asking people to remember what they ate via questionnaires, and interviews. Unfortunately these aren’t very accurate measures as people underestimate, forget or can outright lie about what they ate.
Healthy user bias and Confounding Variables
These get to the crux of why epidemiology is not the best in nutrition science. Depending on what population or demographic is being studied, their behaviors can influence the results. For example, in America, someone who eats a lot of meat, might also not exercise as much. They might smoke and drink alcohol. They might not eat much fresh food. Yet, we only correlate disease with the incidence of eating meat and not the other factors.
Studies using Seventh Day Adventists, correlate eating a plant-based diet with healthier outcomes and increased longevity. Yet this population does not smoke, drink alcohol, they exercise, have a spiritual practice, have strong community ties, and have higher socioeconomic status. Once again, we can’t determine that their health is based solely on eating a plant-based diet.
What the Game Changers DOESN’T want you to know
Not only did they only show you one side to their argument. But they even omitted critical information pertaining to their own argument! Below are studies I found concerning meat intake and incidence of cancer, inflammation, as well as studies comparing the health of vegetarians compared to omnivores, when they actually used healthy populations thus reducing the healthy user bias effect.
Red and processed meat consumption and risk of pancreatic cancer: meta-analysis of prospective studies
Below is an excerpt from the results of the study.
“this meta-analysis showed a statistically significant positive association between processed meat consumption and risk of pancreatic cancer…Our study has some limitations. First, as a meta-analysis of observational studies, we cannot rule out that individual studies may have failed to control for potential confounders, which may introduce bias in an unpredictable direction…Another limitation is that our findings were likely to be affected by imprecise measurement of red and processed meat consumption and potential confounders”
Red and processed meat consumption and risk of stroke: a meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies
“Several limitations should also be acknowledged when interpreting the results from this meta-analysis. First, as a meta-analysis of epidemiological studies, it is not able to solve the problem of confounding that is universal in the included studies. We cannot entirely exclude the possibility of some confounders as a potential explanation for the observed findings. For instance, participants with a higher meat intake tended to be more likely to be smokers, have diabetes and hypertension, and have higher body mass index and higher intakes of alcohol…
A Second limitation is that all studies assessed diet with a food-frequency questionnaire, and three studies of the included studies assessed meat intake only at baseline. Hence, some misclassification of exposure that could lead to an underestimation of the risk estimate is inevitable. Third, the number of hemorrhagic strokes included in this meta-analysis was relatively small, and thus, may limit our ability to detect a modest association between meat intake and hemorrhagic strokes. Finally, given that our meta-analysis was based on published studies, publication bias, which results from a tendency to publish only positive results, also merits consideration. In this meta-analysis, however, we detected little indication of such bias”
“Carrying out controlled trials is, generally, an optimal approach to assess the effect of nutritional intervention on disease outcomes. However, such a trial concerning the adverse effect of red and processed meat is hardly feasible”
So here the authors are admitting that the optimal way to conduct their studies is not possible, and thus the current way is suboptimal.
Another couple study showing a DECREASE in inflammation while eating meat.
Dietary Red and Processed Meat Intake and Markers of Adiposity and Inflammation: The Multiethnic Cohort Study
Isocaloric Diets High in Animal or Plant Protein Reduce Liver Fat and Inflammation in Individuals With Type 2 Diabetes.
Increased Lean Red Meat Intake Does Not Elevate Markers of Oxidative Stress and Inflammation in Humans
Newly Revised Guidelines for Meat Consumption NOT BASED ON EPIDEMIOLOGY
And here are a couple studies comparing health outcomes between omnivores and vegetarians.
Dietary habits and mortality in 11,000 vegetarians and health conscious people: results of a 17 year follow up.
“Found no difference in the mortality rates between health seeking vegetarians and non-vegetarians. This suggests that it is the health seeking behaviors like calorie control and exercise that improve health and protect against disease, not the omission of meat”
The 45 and up study
This was a study done on 250,000 men and women aged 45 and over from the general population of the state of New South Wales, Australia. The goal was to measure health outcomes amongst healthy people with varying diets. Similar results to the previous study were found.
And if that’s not enough, here’s some data showing how people across the world eat, and how the very things we claim to cause disease are eaten liberally in other countries.
Hong Kong and Japan have the longest-lived populations in the world, and they also are the top consumers of meat in the world.
France has the highest saturated fat consumption in the world, and they also have the lowest rates of cardiovascular disease.
Switzerland is runner-up to France in saturated fat consumption, yet they have the lowest rates of cardiovascular disease mortality, and also rank high in longevity.
Risk vs. Relative Risk
They mention that meat intake increases the risk of various cancers by ~20%. This is a relative risk however. If your absolute risk of cancer is 5% and you increase it to 6%, the relative risk increase is 20% (6-5 5 = 20%). In reality, the risk is only increased 1%
Nutrients in Plants vs Meat
Plant foods are great sources of antioxidants and phytochemicals, which fight free radicals which could help fight inflammation
But in terms of nutrients, that’s not their forte.
Plant foods do have many vitamins, but it’s not about how much, it’s about how much can you absorb.
Vitamin K, k2 is the active form and only found in animal foods, while plant foods have k1 which is not easily absorbed since it has to get converted into k2
Vitamin D, the active form is D3 which is only found in animal foods
Vitamin A, the active form is called retinol, and it’s the type our body absorbs, this is found in organ meats, egg yolks, and other animal foods
Beta-carotene is the form you find in plant foods like carrots, yams and other orange foods, but again we must convert this into the active form and the conversion is very low
Omega 3’s, there are two main types our body needs, DHA and EPA, these are crucial. Not only do they fight inflammation, but they also support cognition and brain development. They are only found in animal foods, especially in grass fed meat, with the exception of sea algae. How many of you are eat algae? And how much would you have to eat?
In plant foods there is ALA, which is found in foods like flax seed, and walnuts, and of the two I would only eat walnuts as flax seed has been found to be highly estrogenic. So just eat more walnuts right? Well, AGAIN we must convert ALA to EPA and DHA, this occurs at about a 10% rate.
What about b12? Crucially important for cognition, energy production and tons of other processes, not only that, being deficient for long periods of time ESPECIALLY in youth has been shown to cause irreversible damage to brain function
On top of that, there’s a chemical called homocysteine, which has been shown to be elevated in those deficient in vitamin B12.
This is important because there’s strong evidence indicating that elevated plasma total homocysteine is a contributor to chronic conditions, such as primary cardiovascular disease.
And MANY studies, have shown that vegetarians and vegans are typically deficient in vitamin b12
Protein in plants vs animals
Claims that vegans get more than enough protein is based on the RDA of 0.8g/kg
This is the absolute MINIMUM, not the ideal range
Estimations for maximizing LBM in athletes who resistance train is 1.8g/kg.
Moreover, athletes who energy restrict (aka diet to make weight classes etc) and resistance train may benefit from protein intakes of 2.3-3.1g/kg for optimal LBM
Now again, is it possible to get enough protein on a plant-based diet? Yes absolutely, but equating animal and plant proteins is foolish, you have to eat WAY MORE plant foods to get the same amount of protein.
They also made claims that all protein comes from plants since animals eat plants, and so animals are just middlemen.
Well actually, plants get their protein from bacteria in the soil, so with that reasoning we should all just eat dirt.
Not only that, but cows, pigs, and chicken eat food that humans could not digest, absorb or process. E.g, Corn husks, fermented alfalfa, grass, etc
To exemplify the idiocy in this film, an athlete in the film was quoted saying, “how can you get as strong as an ox without eating meat, and my response was, have you ever seen an ox eating meat?”
Cows, goats, OXEN and other ruminants in particular, are called ruminants because they have special bacteria in their gut, that breaks those foods down into nutrients they can absorb.
Humans don’t have those bacteria.
Cows also have 4 stomachs, and they also graze all day eating pounds of vegetation. Good luck doing that, you might be on the toilet for a while.
The same case can be made for gorillas, they eat 40+ pounds of vegetation/day.
Peanut butter sandwich vs. Steak….
The documentary claims that a peanut butter sandwich contains as much protein as 3 oz of beef or 3 large eggs
3 eggs= 18-27grams of protein, ~15 grams of fat, 0 carbs, ~200 calories
3 oz steak= ~20 grams of protein, ~16 grams of fat, 0 carbs, ~250 calories
Peanut butter sandwich
2 pieces of bread ~130 calories, ~30 carbs, ~2 grams of protein
2 tbsp (1 serving) of Peanut butter ~7 grams of protein, ~17 grams of fat, ~190 calories
You need 3 servings or 6 tablespoons of peanut butter to get the same amount of protein
That’s 570 calories from peanut butter + 130 calories from bread= 700 calories just to get 23 grams of protein. Plus, 51 grams of fat, and 30 grams of carbs.
And again, peanuts are not complete proteins so you would need to eat EVEN MORE of it to get all the amino acids you need.
The movie claims that all plant foods contain all the essential amino acids “in varying proportions”
That’s the key phrase. If the proportions are off, then your muscle protein synthesis is limited.
Most plant proteins are limiting in various essential (meaning we need to get them from the diet) amino acids. Rice protein is deficient in lysine, pea contains about half of the minimum methionine content.
Even Soy which has the highest bioavailability of all plant proteins, is not as effective as Whey protein.
Not only that, most plant proteins are low in leucine, the essential amino acid responsible for stimulating muscle protein synthesis. So you might think, “I don’t want to be a bodybuilder, I don’t need that much muscle.” Well, we know that our metabolism is linked with how much lean muscle we have, and as we age our metabolism drops, BECAUSE we lose muscle as we age. Strength loss and muscle mass loss becomes especially important as we age, and is linked to longevity, so we might need to rethink our approach to limiting protein.
Estrogen and testosterone levels
They claimed that vegans had HIGHER levels of testosterone than meat-eaters, what they didn’t say, was that in those studies, sex hormone-binding globulin BINDS to that free testosterone, which basically nulls the effect of increased testosterone.
In the study showing men who drank cows milk had increases in estrogen, that particular study was purposely using milk from pregnant cows. To the contrary, studies have shown the health benefits of drinking dairy
On top of the “science” they presented, we also have anecdotal success from various athletes who became plant-based and improved their performance. As I’ve stated before, however, any diet that deviates from the standard american diet, will help someone feel better as you’re essentially replacing processed foods with fruits and vegetables. One of the athletes Bryant Jennings for example, stated that he primarily ate fried chicken with collard greens growing up, and that hadn’t even heard of asparagus until recently. Not only that, but being an elite vegan athlete is the exception, not the rule. For every successful plant-based athlete, there are successful omnivorous athletes. The athletes below are some of the ones showcased, but again, the documentary didn’t give us the whole story.
An all-time track & field great. He apparently went vegan and broke many records, but they didn’t mention in the film that he’s been busted for doping. Whoops.
An example of a top weight lifter, but his best placing in the olympics was 8th. Ironically, Ilya Ilyin won Gold in his weight class and is also a vegan athlete. But he was also caught doping and stripped of his medals. Wonder why they didn’t mention him…
Fought Connor Mcgregor and won! Mcgregor was interviewed talking about how he ate steaks for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Plant-based must be superior then right! Well first off, that goes to show you the insight that athletes really have about diet. I love steak, and even I wouldn’t only eat steaks prior to high intensity exercise, although I’m sure Connor did eat more than just meat. Anyway, they also fail to mention, that Mcgregor went UP two weight classes in order to do the fight, and not only that, he WON the rematch!!
He has some official record for a Yoke carry, which is 1216lbs, for 10 meters, in 9.8 seconds
In the Arnold classic (again ironic) the OPENING weight is 1300lbs. The end weight is 1565lbs. I believe the difference is that in the Arnold you just go as far as you can with it, while Baboumian used that specific weight for a specific distance
Again, 1216lbs is still a lot, but for strongman standards it really isn’t. In fact, the Arnold Classic which draws the biggest names in strongman, has about 10 competitors, the TOP 10 in the world. Baboumian didn’t even qualify. He’s not even in the top 10 in the world.
Claim that blood becomes more cloudy and thus evident of endothelial dysfunction.
If you have fat during a meal, yes your blood will become more viscous, because you have fat in your blood stream.
I would like to see what it looked like 4 hours later, or 6 hours later. Also, is cloudy blood innately a bad thing? Not only is blood being “cloudy” subjective, but it is not a valid metric.
Battle ropes experiment with James Wilks
How long you can last at an exercise, is dictated by intensity, so James Wilks lasting an hour on the ropes means nothing if we don’t know his power output, how much work he did, etc.
The Penis “study”
Again, another example of gimmicky fake science. We don’t know what time they went to sleep, we don’t know what the rest of their diet was that day, they’re college athletes so we don’t know if one day they had practice or a game, and if the other day they had a rest day, how stressed they were, did they have school, an exam, etc. They didn’t control for any variable besides ONE meal they had. This is not adequate for any scientific method.
- Claiming that a plant-based diet is superior to all other diets, is misleading and misinformed as it fails to consider the individuality of all humans.
- Claiming animal foods are harmful is irresponsible, again not considering how many people benefit from their nutrient density, especially since many studies have shown the benefits of animal foods.
- Using athletes that are ALREADY elite, overestimates the power of any diet. These athletes can eat pretty much anything and still perform well. That’s why they’re where they are! Joel Embiid eats a burger before games. Lamar Odom and Dwight Howard used to have candy addictions and still played at elite levels. Usain Bolt, one of the all-time track & field greats, was reported to have eaten 100 chicken nuggets a day during the Beijing Olympics. Btw, Carl Lewis was one of the athletes mentioned having winning performances after switching to a plant-based diet, he also tested positive for doping..Nate Diaz, did beat Connor McGregor, but he also lost the rematch, and lost his most recent fight, which of course they didn’t mention. Cam Newton, has his career in jeopardy after dealing with an injury he can’t recover from, and is also vegan. CC Sabathia, had to leave a game during the world series after dealing an injury, and yes he’s older (37 or so I believe) but for a pitcher that’s not that old. My point being, for every “plant-based” athlete who is successful, there’s a plant-based athlete who isn’t. and let’s be frank. If we’re talking about all-time greats, none to my knowledge have been plant-based. Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Brett Favre, Pele, Leo Messi, Ronaldo, were/are omnivores. And further, all these plant-based athletes, didn’t get there being plant-based. They BECAME plant-based. Ironically this includes Arnold Schwarzenegger who obviously used steroids in his prime, and ate tons of meat, he may not be who he is today if he didn’t eat the way he did.
These athletes put in 1,000s of hours of training, blood, sweat and tears, not to mention having the genetic ability to be in the top 1% of the world. Realistically, although diet has important ramifications on inflammation, and thus recovery, health, longevity, etc, most athletes are not known for having the best diets or the best nutritional knowledge for that matter.
- ANY diet, that moves you away from the standard American diet, is best. So if you want to experiment go for it, but just because something works, doesn’t mean it’s optimal.
One of the most crippling things you can do, is neglect that we don’t know everything, and that we can always learn more. As I said before, I love plants, I believe they are extremely powerful but to then say they are all we need is very ignorant. Plants are a tool. Our ancestors used plants, herbs, spices in very specific ways, particularly to help the body heal, however this doesn’t mean that they are a cure-all. We need to look at the big picture, and realize that as humans we have tainted the use of what the earth naturally provides for us. Sugar isn’t bad, but they way we consume it today, definitely isn’t good. Meat isn’t bad, but the way we fry it, is not the best either.
And taking a more critical view, we’ve lost our connection, to food. To nourishment. Instead we eat for pure pleasure, out of boredom. I see 10,000 calorie challenges on youtube with people eating pizza rolled up into a burrito with fries inside. We have grocery stores open late, fast food open late, to the point where we can even have food delivered to us in the comfort of our home, while we play fortnite, or watch Netflix.
Our ancestors ate a wide array of foods, and were appreciative of their food. They didn’t kill animals out of malice. They honored the animal, and ate every part of it, nose to tail. They rejoiced and shared meals as a community. In today’s world, we do the opposite. We waste food. We take it for granted. Again, I don’t think I have all the answers. And our current state of food production is definitely problematic. I’m not an advocate for factory farming. Nor am I an advocate for conventional plant agriculture either as it is highly damaging to the Earth. Holistic and regenerative farming has been shown to cultivate soil health, and even reduce atmospheric carbon. But that’s a story for another time.
My point is, don’t miss the trees for the forest. Dig a little deeper, think a little more critically. If we want real solutions, we need to come together and be open-minded. There’s always a different side to things, and dogma prevents us from seeing it.