Tim Rees
Tim Rees
Oct 22 · 20 min read

Watched The Game Changers? Now, you MUST read this.

A look at the evidence: Part 1: Intro & Protein.

Image taken from The Game Changers. Adapted by Tim Rees.

Impressive stuff

The latest in a trend of ‘plant-based’ movies, The Game Changers, has not gone unnoticed. In just one week it was crowned iTunes’ best-selling documentary ever.

At least seven years in the making, this much awaited documentary aims to,

‘expose outdated myths about food that not only affect human performance but the health of the entire global population’.

Something to be commended.

Executively produced by some jaw-dropping names and directed by oscar winner, Louie Psihoyos.

It’s sure to impress.

Unless you know a little about nutrition science.

A lot of research

I’ve read every single paper, news article and opinion piece cited within so you don’t have to. At the very minimum I have found:

  • Deliberately cloudy definition of ‘plant based’.
  • Weak studies that are not designed to provide proof.
  • Theatrical experiments.
  • Cherry picking of the highest order.
  • Presentation of risks relative to other groups within the study and not appropriate for comparison to the general public. In fact, downright dishonest.

It’s been a stressful experience. One that has enraged me not least because as I sat down to start researching I received a text:

Mate: “Have you seen Wilko’s documentary? It’s great! I’m going to give it a go!”

Old school

The Game Changers is presented by James Wilks, an old school friend of mine. I have no insider information and if I did I wouldn’t use it. I mention our connection purely for transparency.

What’s my role in this?

I’m a registered nutritionist who’s worried about the plant based / vegan movement because people are already struggling to nourish themselves with the inclusion of animal produce -the best sources of bioavailable nutrients.

Removing them magnifies this problem and leaves the young and impressionable malnourished and sick.

I believe nutrient deficiencies are becoming common, yet overlooked as a cause of symptoms and disease. (R)

This is why I’m willing to spend my time uncovering the nonsense that we’re being sold.

My mission is precisely the same as James’s.


The Protagonist

James, an ex-UFC fighter, plays the role of a guy who’s become confused with conflicting advice on diet. Motivated by his own injuries, the man’s man goes off on an odyssey of discovery and kindly brings us along.

Eight years later anyway.

It’s about as factual as The Odyssey too.

Tiny fragments of truth found in poor quality studies, anecdote, opinion and nonsense are expanded beyond anything that is reasonable.

The Game Changers truly is a myth.

An ancient-like hero takes us on a journey that is almost complete fantasy. Image credit.

What is ‘plant based’ anyway?

Spinning veganism and calling it ‘plant based’ allows the producers the freedom to present research and anecdote from sources that are not vegan but vegetarian or even omnivore with a predominance of plants.

Our host tells us he’s a ‘meat eater’ but that would make him an ex-vegan.

He’s positioned himself nicely; making it easier for those sitting on the fence to trust his view is impartial and his ‘discoveries’ objective.

The whole movie distances itself from veganism but goes on to attempt to destroy any positives from animal produce at all. This leaves us in little doubt as to the objectives. So,

I will use the word vegan, for the most part, because that’s what this is.

Aimed at men

James is as close as it gets to being a modern day Gladiator, retired now. He makes a living being macho and teaching special forces and other male dominated tactical units the ins and outs of how to kick someone’s ass. Cool.

Make no mistake, this documentary is aimed squarely at men as you will see as we go through.

The list below are the messages we receive from this movie. I will be covering each as this series goes on:

  • Manly meat eating is a stereotype and in this day and age that’s not acceptable.
  • Arguably the most macho men in history ate predominantly plants.
  • Look! We’ve managed to find some modern day gladiators (MMA) and athletes that are eating mostly plants.
  • All proteins come from plants if you forget about the ‘middlemen’.
  • Plants have all the protein you need, so chill out!
  • Look how healthy these berries, cocoa beans, teas etc are. Look!
  • There are loads of horrible things in animal produce that will kill you very quickly.
  • Changing lifestyle has been shown to reverse the markers of cardiovascular disease and we’ve cherry picked the diet aspect of it.
  • Relative risk and absolute risk will not be discussed here because, erm, science. It’s complicated, trust me.
  • Humans never ate much meat anyway. Look! We’ve found some vegan scientists who say so based on their ideology.
  • Eating carbs gave us our big brains.
  • Our teeth are not fit for purpose.
  • Meat makes you infertile; everyone knows that.
  • Animal produce screws with your hormones.
  • Big Meat propaganda is the reason you eat animal produce and think it’s healthy and manly. You’ve been brainwashed. Time to get real. Meat executives and cows have conspired to destroy the world.
  • We’ve got some people with vested interests in plant based products to add to the credibility of this documentary.
  • Here’s a ex-special forces sniper who has seen a gorilla and understands that they’re very strong and don’t eat much meat.
  • We’ve gone into a fire station and added nutritious foods to their diets. We’ve also taken away their junk foods. Some of them have improved biomarkers of health and so that proves it was the animal produce after all.
  • Hey, chill brother. You don’t have to go 100% plant based now. You can ease into it. But don’t forget animal products are pure poison.

Roadmap

In this first part, I’ll take you through from the gladiator intro, up until the end of the protein section.


The Odyssey begins

Ancient Gladiators

The ancient Roman Gladiators were a hardy bunch.Weren’t they just?

They were also the fatsos of the era.

The article, that’s easier going than the paper, tells us:

“Gladiators, it seems, were fat. Consuming a lot of simple [complex] carbohydrates, such as barley, and legumes, like beans, was designed for survival in the arena. Packing in the carbs also packed on the pounds.”

Don’t I know it!

The author goes on to quote Dr. Grossschmidt, the onsite archaeological expert:

“Gladiators needed subcutaneous fat,” the professor explained. “A fat cushion protects you from cut wounds and shields nerves and blood vessels in a fight.”

It seems a lean Gladiator would have been a dead one. Well before he could have bathed in the glory that we’re all so familiar with from the movie Gladiator.

A vegan, carnivore and omnivore walk into an arena. Not really, none of them were vegan. Image credit

The expert continues,

“cuts extended only as far as the fatty layer would have looked more spectacular and allowed the gladiator to fight on”.

All the while looking seriously tough and providing the blood thirsty audience with a hell of a show.

Carbohydrates, the fast track to stardom!

Odd comparison

Comparing modern day people with ancients, that needed to be fatter than the average for professional reasons of course, seems a little strange to me.

Not least because they were not vegan.

They weren’t even plant-based as far as we know because that definition is never given to us. Is it 51% plants, 70%, 90%, 99% or what?

It’s a 100% isn’t it?

Strong bones

The gladiator paper concluded the bodies of the young men discovered in the fighters graveyard had immensely strong bones compared to the average person.

A large meta-analysis (study of studies) from more recent times (2007) compared omnivores, vegetarians and vegan bones (R). They discovered that vegans were missing out.

“The higher fracture risk in the vegans appeared to be a consequence of their considerably lower mean calcium intake”.

The authors concluded.

Somehow this was perfectly understood in the ancient world. We know this because gladiators were supplementing.

“To keep their bones strong, historical accounts say, they downed vile brews of charred wood or bone ash, both of which are rich in calcium. Whatever the exact formula, the stuff worked. Grossschmidt says that the calcium levels in the gladiator bones were “exorbitant” compared to the general population. “Many athletes today have to take calcium supplements,” he says. “They knew that then, too”. (R)

Ancient wisdom for you.


New age gladiators

We’re then introduced to two modern day gladiators at the head of their sport.

Conor McGregor vs Nate Diaz.

Two omnivores fighting it out.

Conor Mcgregor eats meat and Nate Diaz, has gone on the record and said he,

“eats eggs and a little bit of seafood from time to time”

Next!

Muscular energy

James tells us the story of how a 19th century German chemist theorised that,

“muscular energy came from animal protein and that vegetarians were incapable of prolonged exercise”.

He cites this reference from the typed 1988 paper: Am J Clin Nutr: 48 (3 Suppl):754–61.

It shows that a vegetarian -not vegan- cyclist team outperformed two others who had included animal produce, referred to as ‘regular’.

“In 1896, the aptly named James Parsley led the Vegetarian Cycling Club to easy victory over two regular clubs. A week later, he won the most prestigious hill-climbing race in England, breaking the hill record by nearly a minute. Other members of the club also turned in remarkable performances. Their competitors were having to eat crow with their beef.” (Horton JC. Crusaders for Fitness)

The conclusions of the study can be seen in full in the photo below but i’ll summarise here too.

  • There is little basis for advocating vegetarian over omnivore in sports as long as the carbs intake is high enough.
  • The authors were concerned about the interruption or complete halting of the menstrual cycle in the female athletes (oligomenorrhea & amenorrhea).
  • Also iron (fe) deficiency.
  • Impaired mineral status from higher than normal fibre [maybe that’s why the gladiators supplemented minerals but that’s a discussion all of it’s own!]
  • The lower protein was also a concern.
Am J Clin Nutr: 48 (3 Suppl):754–61

Ancient athletes versus ancient gladiators

I particularly enjoyed the following quote in the same paper:

“The ancient Greek athletes were heavy meat eaters. Mio of Crotona, the legendary wrestler who was never once brought to his knees over five Olympiads (532–516 BC), supposedly consumed gargantuan amounts of meat” (R)

So, at least in the ancient world, if you wanted to be a legendary, lean athlete then meat was the way.

If you needed a layer of fat to protect your muscles and nerves lying beneath, then a high carbohydrate diet was your friend.


The Anecdotes

It’s taken at least seven years to find a handful of vegan athletes that are performing at very high level.

I’m not going to discuss them here because they’re anecdotes. They prove nothing and should not be of interest without a knowledge of exactly how their diets changed prior to their improved performance.

When someone improves their diet they strengthen their health and athletic prowess. There’s not a shred of evidence from this very small group that the removal of animal products ushered in success.

My understanding is that many of them are no longer vegan or no longer competing. Make of that what you will.

Now, let’s have a look at proteins, another potential concern.

Protein everywhere

James discovers something amazing,

“I was surprised to learn that all protein originates in plants. Cows, pigs and chickens it turns out, are just the middlemen

Just the middlemen?

Go directly to the source yourself then.

Why not go outside and select your meals from grasslands with pretty little wildflowers and other beautiful things?

Hey! Get the hell off our protein! Cows, are just the middlemen. Photo by Marino Bobetic on Unsplash

Silly I know; like the ‘just the middlemen’ comment that I’m still surprised by.

You need the ‘middlemen’ because they can convert things that humans can’t.

It’s really bloody simple.

Is there anyone out there that thinks they can eat grass and sustain themselves? If so, please do drop me a line I’ve got a great reality TV show idea.

Meaters versus planters

The study presented to us at this point (J Acad Nutr Diet. 113(12):1610-9) compares nutrient intake between vegetarians -not vegans- to omnivores.

James states based on the study,

“the average plant eater not only gets enough protein, but 70% more than they need. Even meat eaters like me get roughly half of their protein from plants. But athletes need more protein than most people do. So I crunched the numbers from the study and realised that based on the amount of calories I was eating, I’d still be getting more than enough protein to build and maintain muscle.”

Note: The total calories consumed daily tells you nothing about the quantity of protein.

I think more crunching was required.

It’s not mentioned at any point in the movie but protein is heavily supplemented by vegan athletes in the form of rice, pea or hemp etc.

These are highly refined non-foods.

If you’re an expert on nutrition research skip down to “Back to crunching the numbers”


Problems with the research

The study is population based, called epidemiology. It was never designed to prove anything other than associations between the studied groups.

The idea is that once correlations have been found more robust trials, often a randomised control trial (RCT), will test the causative strength of said association.

The problem is, this rarely happens and we end up with dietary guidelines based on poor evidence and studies that are not fir for the purpose, nor were they designed to be. (R)

This movie is full of this kind of research.

Associations are not causation.

It’s a little silly but you get the point from the chart below.

Actually, I can believe this correlation; 2007 was a particularly bad year for Nicholas Cage; Ghostrider, Grindhouse, Next & National Treasure. Those poor people.

Silly associations. The evidence looks connected but isn’t. Source.

FFQs

The study cited used data from a large number of people. They were sent food frequency questionnaires (FFQs) to fill in about their diet.

There are serious problems with this kind of data collection that extend way beyond this article. Forgetfulness, honesty, selective memory etc..

However, Dr. John Ioannidis, (Professor of Medicine, of Health Research and Policy, of Biomedical Data Science, and of Statistics; co-Director, Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford; Director of the PhD program in Epidemiology and Clinical Research) -WOW-, is a particularly harsh critic of nutritional research like this.

He believes it’s in need of some radical reform. He proves this by showing us some silly ‘findings’ of dietary research (R) of the same quality Game Changers uses in this section.

“…eating 12 hazelnuts daily (1 oz) would prolong life by 12 years (ie, 1 year per hazelnut), drinking 3 cups of coffee daily would achieve a similar gain of 12 extra years, and eating a single mandarin orange daily (80 g) would add 5 years of life. Conversely, consuming 1 egg daily would reduce life expectancy by 6 years, and eating 2 slices of bacon (30 g) daily would shorten life by a decade, an effect worse than smoking”.

Relative risk vs absolute risk

The other problem I have with this production is the constant use of relative risks from studies rather than the more appropriate -to Joe Public- absolute risks.

Later in the movie, Dean Ornish says,

“people who eat a diet that’s high in animal protein have a 75% increased risk of premature death from all causes, and a four to five hundred percent increased risk of death from most forms of cancer, prostate, breast colon cancer, as well as type 2 diabetes.” (R)

This is said to shock you.

It tells you ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about your risk.

Have a look at the infographic below if it’s not clear. Skip forward if so.

Comparing one group in the study to another gives you a relative risk. Unless you happened to be in that group (unlikely) the % means nothing to you but is often used to mislead. Image credit.

Read all about it!

You may remember some ‘findings’ from sensationalist headlines that have us all frantically toing and froing.

In fact it’s actually undermining nutrition science because people are fed up and just don’t read the articles anymore. And are losing faith in nutrition scientists.

Articles are sent around based on headlines (R) if they support their pre-existing beliefs.

Unhelpful headlines add confusion and do not reflect causative scientific results. Image.

Back to crunching the numbers

So, James based his protein consumption on total calories -which doesn’t work- and a study that doesn’t actually provide him with any evidence.

Our guide goes on to say,

“one cup of cooked lentils or a peanut butter sandwich has about as much protein as three ounces of beef or 3 large eggs.”

A peanut butter sandwich, that nutrition titan hey?

OK, a 3 ounce piece of beef is about 85 grams, which is the kind of portion you might expect in a POW camp.

It’s tiny.

That still doesn’t tell us much, so I’ll look at the measured amount of lentils. and compare it to beef. One cup (US) is about 240 grams.

That gives you about 21 grams of protein, 41 grams of carbohydrates -nearly twice the amount- and 252 kcals. Assuming you assimilate everything.

I don’t know about you, but I can tell the next day I’ve been eating lentils. Those undigested should be discounted from the totals. Just think about how that complicates things for a second.

Let’s see how beef vs lentils stack up in approximate portion sizes.

What about nutrients?

Check out the chart below, you should be able to zoom in on a phone. On a Mac try pressing ‘CMD” and + to zoom. PC, ‘CTRL’ and +.

This chart is to give you an idea of how the nutrients compare. I’m just sticking with protein analysis.

Nutrition information is based on the McCance and Widdowson’s The Composition of Foods integrated dataset (CoF IDS) (2015).

If you assume you’re assimilating everything from the lentils -which you’re not, but we will- then they’re not too bad.

No wonder they’re the cornerstone of vegan diets and have kept the poorest alive for centuries.

Of course, other things would have to be added to the lentils before you had a decent nutritious meal.

Amino acid (AA) profile

Beef on the left vs lentils on the right.

USDA nutrition data based on 250 grams cooked lentils vs 200 grams beef top sirloin steak, grilled.

“But what about the quality of the protein, I’d always heard that plant-based protein was inferior?”

It is.

Just look at the table above.

Every single amino acid is higher in the smaller portion of beef.

“..plant-based proteins generally exhibit lower digestibility, lower leucine content and deficiencies in certain essential amino acids such as lysine and methionine, which compromise the availability of a complete amino acid profile required for muscle protein synthesis. Based on currently available scientific evidence [2018], animal-derived proteins may be considered more anabolic than plant-based protein sources.” (Gorissen & Witard 2018)

Obviously, James thinks that Gorissen & Witard are wrong about that. His reference for this is not a study but a letter to the American Heart Association (AHA)(R) from a pioneer of the vegan diet, Dr. John McDougall.

You can see how he’s getting on by zooming to 49.00 in this interview if you’re interested.

Dr. McDougall wrote to the AHA because he didn’t like the following quote and wanted it retracted. (R)

“ Although plant proteins form a large part of the human diet, most are deficient in 1 or more essential amino acids and are therefore regarded as incomplete proteins.” (R)

He took umbrage because technically speaking you could eat such vast piles of plants that you get high enough levels of those AA that tend to be lacking in plants.

The response from the AHA was as follows:

“Although an indiscriminate mixture of plant proteins could meet protein amino acid requirements, it must be remembered that the amino acid content in most plant proteins is more limited in amount per serving than that from animal sources. Thus, it is difficult to maintain essential amino acids at optimum quantity and distribution.” ( Barbara V. Howard, PhD)

How many plants?

Below is 900g of spinach. See below the photos for the amino acid profile vs 150g of sirloin steak.

900g/2 Ibs of raw spinach for 2.01g of leucine & 25.74g of protein. Bio-availability? F*** knows. Actual London bus for scale. Also zippo lighter.
Beef 150g/5.28 ounces on the left total protein 33g/1.16 ounces. Spinach 900g / 2Ibs on the right, total protein 25.74 g/0.91 ounces.

Out of 18 amino acids listed, the beef has more in every single one minus tryptophan.

That’s an unrealistic amount of spinach vs a realistic amount of beef.

So, what are they saying?

James says,

“..when it comes to gaining strength and muscle mass research comparing plant and animal protein has shown that as long as the proper amounts of amino acids are consumed, the source is irrelevant.”

Ok, so you know that you have to have a very large portion of lentils in order to get up to similar quantities of AA seen in the beef. But of course all the time your carbohydrates are going up.

This is why most vegans you talk to defend high carbohydrate consumption.

That’s taking us away from real food which is what I’m all about.

The research cited during this piece.

‘Nutritional Considerations for Vegetarian Athletes: Susan Barr and Candice Rideout’ (2004)

This may be very boring for some, just skip down to ‘summary of this bit’ for the gist.

The study made the following observations:

“well-planned, appropriately supplemented vegetarian [not vegan] diets appear to effectively support athletic performance.

provided protein intakes are adequate to meet needs for total nitrogen and the essential amino acids, plant and animal protein sources appear to provide equivalent support to athletic training and performance.

vegetarians (particularly women) are at increased risk for non-anemic iron deficiency, which may limit endurance performance

as a group, vegetarians have lower mean muscle creatine concentrations than do omnivores, and this may affect supramaximal exercise performance.

Because their initial muscle creatine concentrations are lower, vegetarians are likely to experience greater performance increments after creatine loading [more supplements] in activities..”

This is where the flexibility I mentioned in the intro comes into play. Naming this diet ‘plant based’ rather than vegan allows them to present this study which included eggs and dairy which they go on to bash later in the show.

The same paper concludes with this:

“However, whether these associations are primarily due to the consumption of a plant-based diet (and the avoidance of animal tissue proteins) or other lifestyle practices associated with vegetarianism can be difficult to ascertain.”

Muddy isn’t it? Health benefits attributed to a vegetarian diet may be due to other lifestyle factors. Mortality rates are similar among vegetarians and health-conscious omnivores. (R)

Continuing with the same study (R): These are lower quality studies, non intervention trials FYI.

“3 Observational studies of vegetarian and non-vegetarian athletes and elderly long-term vegetarian and non-vegetarian recreational exercisers have not found differences in performance or fitness associated with the amount of animal protein consumed.

Now higher quality, intervention studies:

Short-term interventional studies in which subjects consumed vegetarian or non-vegetarian diets for test periods (ranging from 2 to 6 wk) also detected no difference in performance parameters based on the presence or absence of foods derived from animal tissues.”

They finish with:

Conclusions must thus be drawn cautiously, with the caveat that future research may provide more definitive data.”

It’s safe to assume there’s nothing more recent. I’ll remind you here that this paper is from 2004 and it was cited as evidence to support their flexible plant based diet.

Summary of this bit

A heavily supplemented vegetarian [not vegan] diet may be as good as omnivore for athletic performance but they can’t definitively state that because the lifestyles of the vegetarians also have an impact on their performance.

In 15 years since this study, it’s not been shown that the removal of animal produce has any benefits on athletic performance.

More research presented — painful.

Something a little more recent this time, 2013.

‘The effects of 8 weeks of whey or rice protein supplementation on body composition and exercise performance.’ (R)

“Both whey and rice protein isolate administration post resistance exercise improved indices of body composition and exercise performance; however, there were no differences between the two groups”.

It’s been implied throughout the movie that plant based proteins offer an advantage. This is not the case.

The evidence does not support that.

However, in fairness to James what he actually says is that the source is irrelevant as long as you’re getting the proper amounts of AA.

Nearly there

‘Role of Ingested Amino Acids and Protein in the Promotion of Resistance Exercise–Induced Muscle Protein Anabolism.’ (2016) (R)

This one weakens the previous paper by claiming,

“A potential concern we discovered was that the majority of the exercise training studies were underpowered in their ability to discern effects of protein/AA supplementation.”

The study points out in technical terms that everyone is different and responds more or less efficiently depending on the a countless number of variables.

They discovered as long as the leucine content was greater than 2 grams per dose there was no difference in strength output.

Head back up to the AA table and have a look at the leucine content for 250 grams of lentils.

You’ll need to add some tofu and seeds to them to get enough leucine, yummy.

This study did not compare vegetarians with omnivores.


Where are all the big guys?

James decides that they need to find some big vegans.

He managed to find two in 5000 miles. Bravo.

Kendrick Harris was the only male, plant based, weightlifter to represent the US at the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games. But the show focuses on Patrik Baboumian.

Seriously strong

Patrik Baboumian is one of the world’s strongest men. James then asks what we’re all thinking,

“How could one of the world’s strongest men be so powerful, eating only plants?

He’s not eating only plants. That’s misleading because he supplements big time. He’s like a walking Holland & Barrett (GNC). Have a look at what he eats in a day here.

I can just see the massive tubs lined up in his kitchen now.

Patrik helps us clear up any doubts when he says,

“Someone asked me how you can get as strong as an ox without eating any meat?” My answer was, have you ever seen an ox eating meat?”

Oxen — very different from humans. Photo by Ana Cernivec on Unsplash

I don’t really get that.


Part 1 conclusions

  • This is a vegan movie with added flexibility due to problems with the references and to make it appeal to those sitting on the fence.
  • People are becoming malnourished in our developed world and by removing the most nutrient dense foods (animal products) they will worsen.
  • Very tough men from the past ate lots of carbs because they needed to be fat.
  • Ancient athletes ate loads of meat, and presumably fewer carbs, because they needed to be lean.
  • It may be true that the source of protein is not as important as the specific AA on body composition and performance. The caveat being at least 2 grams of leucine are required. It’s misleading to say you can do this from eating plants alone because what they’re talking about is supplementation.
  • The papers presented are weak evidence supporting points that are not clear to us and actually detract from the main argument. For example, none of their evidence shows that removing animal produce improves performance however, this is implied through out.

Next time…

  • Anecdotes are great TV, not good science
  • Theatrical experiments
  • Teeny weeny studies use junk foods
  • When industry sponsoring goes wrong
  • Some reasons to include some berries, cocoa and tea but not to eat nothing but plants.
  • Beetroots are better than steroids
  • Inflammation taken out of context
  • Antioxidants from foods, not much of anything
  • Iceberg lettuce, the superfood in watery clothing
  • The best cherry picking ever!

Thanks for reading.

Tim

Part 2 can be found here.

References

For a complete reference list in order of presentation and alphabetically see here.

Tim Rees

Written by

Tim Rees

Registered nutritionist, writing about health, nutrition and sometimes myself. Passionate about regenerative farming, diet and the environment.

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