My “Beef” with the Men’s Health Review of ‘The Game Changers’
“I’ve cut back on meat by 80% and I have never felt better. My doctors are happy and I haven’t lost a step in the gym. I’m not a vegan, but I respect people who choose to be 100% plant-based, and I think it’s more possible now than ever.
One of my mottos is “Stay hungry”, which for me means constantly learning and trying new things and climbing the next mountain. The Game Changers was an incredible learning experience for me, and I was blown away by the athletes and the science. I’m proud to be an executive producer because I believe everyone can benefit from watching it with an open mind.”
— Arnold Schwarzenegger, Executive Producer of The Game Changers
As a former team physician for the St. Louis Rams and Cardinals, I’m all too familiar with locker room mythology about meat, protein and strength. Even when concerning blood lab results would come back for some of these young athletes, any recommendation to make diet or lifestyle changes never went over well.
Experiences like these made me happy to be interviewed for The Game Changers. The film follows the story of military combatives trainer and former UFC fighter James Wilks — a guy who wouldn’t even step foot in a vegetarian restaurant — as he travels the world looking for answers about the necessity of animal foods, interviewing world-renowned athletes, experts, and even Arnold Schwarzenegger, the godfather of muscle and protein.
Wilks’ major realization is that the public has been coerced by the animal foods industry into believing that a diet centered around meat, dairy, and eggs plays a central role in achieving optimal fitness, health and even masculinity, when in fact the opposite appears to be true.
This is why last week’s review of The Game Changers in Men’s Health (MH) didn’t really surprise me, since the film also explores, ironically, how the media often plays an unwitting role in further spreading these myths.
Denying the Evidence
Nobody likes being told that their lifestyle habits, especially the food they enjoy, might be dangerous, and the first response is usually denial. Not surprisingly, the MH article opens in a similar fashion, quickly claiming that the very first study referenced — which concluded that the Roman gladiators ate a plant-based diet — “isn’t actually a study” since it was “not published in a medical journal.” In reality, the study was published in not just one, but two peer-reviewed medical journals: PLOS One (1) and the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine (2).
What could have been a single misstep actually sets the tone for the rest of the article, which claims that the dangers of an animal-based diet are not “well-established”, alleging that The Game Changers presents “only one side of the facts” from “controversial sources” and “small studies”.
Conversely, the research featured and cited in The Game Changers includes cohort studies, systematic reviews, and meta-analyses with subject pools as large as 563,277 people, reflecting a body of evidence so well-established that the world’s leading health and nutrition organizations now confidently encourage a plant-centered diet.
The World Health Organization, for example, recommends eating “a nutritious diet based on a variety of foods originating mainly from plants, rather than animals.” (3) Similarly, The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations confidently recommends, “Households should select predominantly plant-based diets.” (4)
Downplaying the Risks
When extensive scientific evidence makes denial impossible, the next defense is to downplay the risks. The MH article naturally follows suit by singling out colorectal cancer — just one of many cancers linked to animal products — which last year claimed the lives of more than 800,000 people globally, including more than 60,000 in North America (5).
Starting from the position that a person’s “absolute risk of developing colorectal cancer is about 5%”, the article then admits that “eating 50 grams of processed meat daily (about one hot dog) increases the risk of developing colorectal cancer by 17 percent.” But it follows this up immediately with, “Sounds scary. However, this increased risk is relative…In reality, actual risk goes up by about 1 percent total, to a new absolute risk of about 6 percent” — basically implying that this increased risk is trivial.
However, the 1 percent total increase in risk posed by “one hot dog” could translate into roughly 160,000 new deaths from colorectal cancer per year, including 12,000 in North America. This is why the World Health Organization classified processed meats as a Group 1 carcinogen, meaning they have been proven to cause cancer in humans (6), making the risks associated with eating processed meats anything but trivial.
The nitrites and other compounds used to preserve processed meats are only some of the many constituents found in animal products linked to cancer. One of the nutritional experts featured in The Game Changers is Walter Willett, MD, PhD, MPH, the immediate past Chair of Nutrition at Harvard University, who has published more than 1,700 scientific papers and reviews on various aspects of diet and disease.
Dr. Willett explains that the proteins found in animal foods set the stage for various forms of cancer. “We do see, for example, that high consumption of milk proteins, proteins from dairy sources, is related to a higher risk of prostate cancer…So that chain of cancer causation actually seems pretty clear.”
Another expert featured in The Game Changers is Dr. Kim Williams, recent President of the American College of Cardiology, who explains how the various constituents found in animal products, including heme iron, are linked to the development of cardiovascular disease — the number one killer of humans worldwide.
To illustrate this connection, the film highlights an analysis of six prospective dietary studies involving more than 130,000 patients, which concluded that one additional milligram per day of heme iron — found exclusively in animal foods — is associated with a 27% increased risk of cardiovascular disease (7). To put that in perspective, the average hamburger patty contains around two milligrams of heme iron.
The Risks Don’t Matter
The final defense most people use to hold on to a dangerous habit is “there are bigger things to worry about”. Here again the MH article follows the playbook, alleging that The Game Changers claims that “diet is everything”, ignoring the role that genetics and other lifestyle factors play, when in reality “diet is only a small piece of overall health.”
The Game Changers never suggests that “diet is everything” for either health or performance. After all, genetics are responsible for 10–20% of our risk for most leading causes of death, and lifestyle habits like smoking are, of course, very dangerous (8).
However, global health authorities have concluded that poor diet is a major contributory factor in more than 60% of all global deaths — including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and certain cancers (9) — and the leading cause of death worldwide, even beating out smoking (10).
A well-established body of evidence (see references below), and the world’s leading health authorities, have concluded that the dangers posed by animal foods are quite real, and that a diet centered around plants is optimal for human health.
Placing the Blame
While it would be easy to blame Men’s Health for publishing an article as scientifically inaccurate as its review of The Game Changers, I believe the fault ultimately lies with the animal foods industry, which spends billions a year (including taxpayer dollars) to reassure us that their products are not only safe, but a necessary part of a healthy diet.
While marketing and lobbying are critical to these efforts, The Game Changers goes into significant detail exposing a more insidious strategy: the meat, dairy and egg industries’ covert funding of researchers whose pro-industry “findings” infiltrate the scientific literature, eventually making their way to the public via the media.
Although the MH article doesn’t provide any references, it does quote two sources, including “Mike Roussell, Ph.D., author of The MetaShred Diet”. Ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, Roussell is a paid spokesperson for the beef industry (11). I assume the author of the article was not aware of this connection.
As such, this MH article is just the latest example of how relevant and timely a film like The Game Changers actually is.
Disclosures: I was not paid to be participate in The Game Changers, nor was I paid to write this article.
(1) Lösch S, Moghaddam N, Grossschmidt K, Risser DU, Kanz F. Stable isotope and trace element studies on gladiators and contemporary Romans from Ephesus (Turkey, 2nd and 3rd Ct. AD) — Implications for differences in diet. PLoS One. 2014;9(10):e110489.
(2) Longo UG, Spiezia F, Maffulli N, Denaro V. The Best Athletes in Ancient Rome were Vegetarian! J Sports Sci Med. 2008 Dec 1;7(4):565.
(3) World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe. A healthy lifestyle. 2019.
(4) Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, World Health Organization Vitamin and mineral requirements in human nutrition. Joint FAO/WHO Consultation on Human Vitamin and Mineral Requirements, FAO/WHO, Geneva, 2004.
(5) International Agency for Research on Cancer, World Health Organization. Colorectal cancer. The Global Cancer Observatory, 2018.
(6) International Agency for Research on Cancer, World Health Organization. IARC Monographs evaluate consumption of red meat and processed meat. 2015 Oct 26.
(7) Yang W, Li B, Dong X, Zhang XQ, Zeng Y, Zhou JL, Tang YH, Xu JJ. Is heme iron intake associated with risk of coronary heart disease? A meta-analysis of prospective studies. Eur J Nutr. 2014;53(2):395–400.
(8) Willett WC. Balancing life-style and genomics research for disease prevention. Science. 2002 Apr;296(5568):695–8.
(9) Bloom DE, Cafiero ET, Jané-Llopis E, Abrahams-Gessel S, Bloom LR, Fathima S, Feigl AB, Gaziano T, Mowafi M, Pandya A, Prettner K, Rosenberg L, Seligman B, Stein AZ, Weinstein C. (2011). The Global Economic Burden of Noncommunicable Diseases. Geneva: World Economic Forum.
(10) GBD 2017 Diet Collaborators. Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries, 1990–2017: A systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017. Lancet. 2019 Apr;393(10184):1958–72.
(11) Roussell MA, Hill AM, Gaugler TL, et al. Beef in an Optimal Lean Diet study: effects on lipids, lipoproteins, and apolipoproteins. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012;95(1):9–16.