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.
My trainer has said on a number of occasions that I have two main things working against me as I attempt to increase my lean mass and decrease my body fat percentage: my age and my vegan diet. I’m only going to get older. This I know. And I am strongly committed to a vegan diet for ethical reasons. So I found his opinion quite discouraging at first.
But I have now come to the conclusion that he is just wrong. My first piece of evidence comes from this amazing gym in Melbourne, Vegan Strength. These guys are all vegan and I defy anyone to say that they don’t have enviable lean mass to fat body composition.
Exhibit 3, Samantha’s post the other day about vegan athletes. Clearly, these people are not under-performing and do not have compromised fitness. And yet they are vegan.
Here’s a good article from The Yoga Journal (author Rachel Seligman) about the merits of a vegan diet for sports nutrition.
According to the article, “these athletes say they stick with it because they feel—and perform—better. After six months without meat, eggs, or dairy, Jurek found he bounced back quicker even as his workouts grew harder and longer; he didn’t feel as sore or tired after one of his ultramarathons, he says. Vardaros says she rarely gets sick and outlasts her nonvegan friends in training. Heidrich says she has more energy, which has allowed her to dramatically increase her training. Not long after she committed to veganism, she completed her first Ironman Triathlon (a 2.4-mile swim and a 112-mile bike ride followed by a 26.2-mile marathon).”
Finally, my own visit to a sport nutritionist a few months ago yielded very little advice. She did a detailed analysis of the nutritional composition of my diet over a three-day period. The only thing I wasn’t doing to fuel my body for optimum performance was eating frequently enough throughout the day.
The myth that vegans (or even vegetarians) cannot be athletes flows directly from two assumptions. First, athletes requires lots of protein to gain and maintain muscle mass. And second, the only sources of quality protein are animal sources. The second assumption is off the mark.
According to The Yoga Journal article, getting enough “protein is no problem on a vegan diet. Half a cup of lentils or tofu gives you 9 or 10 grams of protein; two tablespoons of peanut butter gives you 8 grams. Beans, nuts, and grains are all good sources of protein; even veggies contain small amounts. And though meat is sometimes praised for having a complete spectrum of the amino acids our bodies need, vegans can get all the necessary amino acids if they eat a variety of foods every day.”
While I don’t think I’ve hit on a totally winning balance of fuel and activity yet, I do feel encouraged that I can continue to eat vegan. “Skinny-fat” is not the best I can hope for. I can continue to alter my body composition and stay true to my ethical commitments at the same time.