You may have heard about the documentary called Gamechangers, streaming now on Netflix, about athletes who go against the received view that a meat-based diet is necessary, opting instead for a plant-based approach to sports nutrition. It’s produced by a group of big names in film and sport: James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jackie Chan, Lewis Hamilton, Novak Djokovic, and Chris Paul. It features former UFC fighter and combatives trainer for the US military, James Wilks.
Wilks gets injured and while laid up for six months starts exploring dietary means of optimizing his recovery. He stumbles upon an astonishing research finding: the Gladiators of ancient Rome ate a mostly plant-based diet. The Gladiators! The manly men who fought to the death in the Colosseum. This blew Wilks’s mind. In his words: “This shocking discovery launched me on a five-year quest for the Truth in Nutrition, modeled after Bruce Lee’s Truth in Combat philosophy: ‘Research your own experience, absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is specifically your own.’ Beginning with this mindset, I put every preconception I had about nutrition to the test, traveling to four continents to meet with dozens of the world’s strongest, fastest, and toughest athletes, as well as leading experts on athletics, nutrition, and anthropology.”
The film follows his quest to obtain more information about the “shocking discovery” that you can be a strong and successful athlete while eating a plant-based diet. If you can get past the extremely masculine orientation of the types of athletes and the type of athleticism represented in the film, it’s got a positive message for those of us (including me) who think that the future is vegan.
But the machismo of the film is so very present. Two female athletes make an appearance: indoor Olympic track cyclist, multiple US gold medalist, and plant-powered athlete, Dotsie Bausch, who is the oldest athlete in her sport ever to win an Olympic gold medal; and Australian sprinter, Morgan Mitchell.
Much the film follows storylines and research that appeals more to stereotypically masculine interests. We follow Patrick Baboumian, and his training to secure the title of “strongest man in the world” and Scott Jurek, ultra-runner who is conquering the Appalachian Trail. There’s Olympic weight-lifter, Kendrick Farris. We also get to hear from Arnold Schwarzenegger (I liked that part because I have liked Arnold ever since Pumping Iron, though I much preferred Pumping Iron II: The Women). And the of course there is the man at the centre of the film, James Wilks, who is trying to get back into his game. An additional story line follows his father, who has some serious cardiac issues during the filming of the documentary and also decides to give a plant-based diet a try.
We are presented with research that is designed to prove that you can get strong eating plants. That’s a good message. There is a further attempt to make the case that you can get healthier in all sorts of ways. The New York Fire Department offers some of its members a guinea pigs for a short study (I think it was six weeks) where they had a raft of medical test, then followed a plant-based diet for a few weeks, and then had the same tests and their cholesterol had improved, their weight had dropped, and they felt better. Wilks father experiences improved cardiac health. Doctors such as Dr. Dean Ornish (founder and president of the non-profit Preventive Medicine Research Institute and featured in the film) and Dr. Neal Barnard (President of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine) not featured in the film) have maintained that a plant-based diet can reverse heart disease.
Three collegiate athletes allowed their erections to be monitored while sleeping. The night they ate a vegan burrito instead of a meat burrito they had dramatically more frequent and harder hard-ons. Their reactions to their test results make for a hilarious scene because the researcher is all business but everytime he says “penis” and “erection” the young men lose their shit and start blushing and giggling and trying to look serious.
A good portion of an NFL football team switches over to plant-based eating when one of the team members starts bringing vegan meals prepped for him by his chef wife, Charity Morgan. Soon a bunch of the guys are special ordering the same meals and she’s delivering them at lunch time.
The thing is, the film is an effective agent for change in its way. It offers a compelling narrative against a diet built around animal products, and that new narrative challenges strong contrary opinion. Since watching it, I know of at least three people, two of them men and one a woman triathlete, who have decided to give plant-based eating a try. And it’s been recommended to me multiple times by friends and acquaintances. I myself am strongly in favor of more plant-based eating, not just for health and performance reasons, but for environmental and animal cruelty and exploitation reasons. In fact, my latest project is focused entirely on veganism and making a case that you can be imperfect at it and still be considered vegan. So of course the message of the film is attractive to me.
It would have been great if there were less machismo at the core of the film because while it’s in the business of smashing stereotypes (about athletes and meat) it could’ve gone further and challenged more stereotypes about diverse forms of athleticism and also diverse athletes within male-dominated sports. For example, they could have included some women who are vegan bodybuilders like Jehina Malik. Or Australian boxer, Emily Jans. And they could have mentioned tennis superstars Venus Wiliams and Serena Williams who are both vegan. Or the surfer Tia Blanco.
They could also have done more to include evidence that the types of studies they were doing would have similar results for women. I remember learning about the way women’s health has been underrepresented in a lot of medical research because it was assumed, wrongly, that findings from research trials in which all the subjects were men would equally apply to women. This turned out not to be the case, and in some very significant areas, for example, with respect to risks for and symptoms of heart attack and stroke. So it does concern me that the “experiments” (in quotes because they weren’t full-blown studies) in the film only had men as subjects. I think we are right to wonder whether there are any relevant physical differences that yield different nutritional and performance results for different bodies.
This is not to say it’s a terrible film. I’ve seen it twice and it has its moments. But given the power and influence of the executive production team behind it, and the incredible reach Netflix enables, it would have been a great moment to change more than one game.
If you’re interested in trying plant-based eating or already do it but need new recipes, Dotsie Bausch’s website has some great recipes. You can find them here.
If you’ve watched Gamechangers I’d love to hear your impressions. I’m honestly the only person I know who had anything but a completely positive opinion of it.
Last night I went out to one of the best restaurants in London (Ontario). It’s the only place in town that makes it onto lists that get national recognition. Even on a Wednesday night, there was a group at every table in the compact, dimly lit space. My two friends were already sitting at the table in the warm and bustling room when I arrived for our late dinner. The restaurant offers a delicious winter vegetable salad, a heaping portion of beets and carrots, turnips and leeks, peas and even corn, all roasted or grilled, served in a dressing with fines herbes and excellent olive oil.
That was a definite for my starter. But I’d been at a lunch event earlier in the day where the lack of vegan options meant I’d had only a dinner roll and two kinds of salad, and I’d been rushing around ever since. So by 7:30 last night I had in mind a more substantial meal. I scoured the menu for something else I could make vegan and came up short.
After ordering a bowl of olives for the table, I mentioned to the waiter that I was vegan, that I wanted the vegetable salad, and then asked what else they could do for me.
He started talking about a mixed veggie plate and demoted my starter to the house greens if I wanted two courses. I actually did want two courses, but I wanted one of them to be the salad I’d been thinking of for the past few hours. Following that with grilled veggies didn’t seem like it would do it for me. So I opted for the good salad (not that the greens wouldn’t have been tasty) and left it at that. My companions ordered it too, as a starter.
So when the starters came — those salads I’d been dreaming of all afternoon — they each got their winter vegetable salad and the waiter plunked a bowl of warm and plump green olives in front of me. I promptly moved it to its intended spot at the centre of the table. I guess my salad was coming with the mains. Which it did. Almost one hour, twelve fat olives, and at least three slices of high-end white bread later.
The most common question vegans are asked (other than “how could you give up cheese?”) is “where do you get your protein?” Well I can tell you this: not at the majority of the fancy restaurants “foodies” like to frequent. It astonishes me every single time I go to one of these places with a supposedly talented and award-winning chef and they can’t come up with something even a little bit creative that includes vegan protein.
We live in a world where protein is synonymous with animal protein. We picture a plate divided into sections with the starch, the veggies, and the meat. But that view of it all belies a lack of imagination. It’s not even the way the plate looks in most ethnic cuisines. And yet our best chefs can’t manage to break from that pattern.
Last night’s restaurant is just one example. Every single “main” had some sort of animal protein taking centre stage. Then you could order some sides to go with it — olives, potatoes roasted in beef fat (that’s one way to ruin a vegan option!), roasted vegetables topped with a dollop of goat cheese (that’s another, but granted they can leave that off), polenta “fries” (sadly, and I know this because I asked, they’re made with milk).
Now I know most places won’t happen to have a tub of tofu or a block of tempeh or some freshly made seitan just sitting around. But what? You don’t have a single legume in the back? No lentils or chickpeas? No black beans or, come on, edamame? Work with me, people!
I know I’m in the minority. Heck, I chose the restaurant because we wanted to go somewhere special and the places I normally frequent, nice though they may be, aren’t in that high-end bracket. You know the places. The ones with the good wine lists.
But it frustrates me to no end. I know too that most people don’t think of it. And I can forgive them for that. But most people aren’t chefs! I can’t imagine that most of the people who call themselves chefs would construct a regular main with no protein. But somehow, when a vegan walks into the room, they don’t need protein to have a satisfying meal. No, no. They can be happy with a plate of vegetables.
Well you know what? I’m training. I had a tough bike class the night before and didn’t eat in time or enough after it. And that always makes me hungry. Famished. For at least a day. That’s why when I went out with a friend for breakfast yesterday, I had a bowl of oatmeal AND toast.
A lot of vegan primers tell us not to be too preoccupied with protein. They say we’re likely to get it along the way. Well, yes, if you add legumes to your salads and take a handful of nuts with your afternoon snack or eat soy products fairly regularly (I have no gripe with soy). But if you’re eating green salad and grilled veggies all day, then you will have a problem with protein. You at the very least need to eat a varied diet. See this article about vegan protein.
So here’s a quick list of vegan protein sources:
legumes like lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, lima beans — all manner of beans qualify and are chock full of protein
nuts and nut butters
soy products like tofu and tempeh and plain boiled or steamed edamame
TVP (textured vegetable protein)
seitan (otherwise known as “wheat meat,” made from vital wheat gluten). Read about it here.
I’ve blogged about vegan protein before. See “How to Get Lots of Vegan Protein.” But I still haven’t really figured out how to get the amount recommended for someone in training (1 gram per pound of body weight, which would be over 125 pounds of protein per day for me. If I reach 100g that’s a probably good day, though I’m not counting right now).
Of course, yesterday was a perfect storm of bad dietary moments. First, it’s a rare day that I will be out for all three meals. I usually prepare at least two and usually three of my meals every day. Not so yesterday. Second, I hadn’t properly re-fueled myself after that 90 minute class on my bike trainer the night before. Third, my day got away from me, with back to back meetings and errands that meant I had no time to fend for myself. I had to make do with what was available. And finally, I chose a restaurant that I knew wouldn’t be a great vegan destination. But I hadn’t planned the rest of the day well enough to create balance.
I still don’t see why chefs have such a block about this. There are plenty of excellent things you can make with vegan protein sources. And the plant-based diet has certainly gained a healthy following in recent years. It’s got to be possible to love food and eat this way. I wish our more exciting and inventive chefs would get on board with it.
For a long time, veganism has had an unfairly bad name in the food industry. If you’ve been keeping an eye on the web and its foodie communities over the last few years, however, you’ll know that followers are growing in numbers quickly, and the creativity and resourcefulness of its chefs, from independent bloggers to specialist restaurants, is blossoming. With recipes like these gorgeous ones from Jamie and his food team, it’s no longer only omnivores who can enjoy a varied and satisfying diet – dig in!
Read more at http://www.jamieoliver.com/news-and-features/features/top-five-vegan-recipes/#QW1kYzbq3tQJLuQu.99
And the shepherd’s pie and the “best vegan burger” both have legumes as a base. Three cheers for chefs who try!
I’m taking the leftovers from my delicious salad with me to work today. I have another catered lunch meeting and I expect my meal to be inadequate. I’m adding chickpeas to the winter veggies this time, and taking a side of hummus just in case I need more.
If you’ve had a better experience finding satisfying and balanced vegan meals at fancy, omnivore-type restaurants, please share them.
2. Fruit isn’t evil, after all. Phew. So sorry Tim Ferris. And as Tracy says, no foods are evil really. Now it turns out that some fruit protects against Type 2 diabetes. “Eating blueberries, grapes, apples and pears cuts the risk of type 2 diabetes but drinking fruit juice can increase it, a large study has found.” I’m having blueberries for breakfast with hi-protein cereal and soy milk, see above.
3. Your gut bacteria may be making you fat. “The bacteria in our gut already plays an important role in digestion. But new studies indicate that our bacteria could play a major role in whether or not we become obese.” Okay, in mice. But still worth reading about.