Game Changers, but Not Pioneers
BY LEE SANDFORD
My social media feeders know that I love a documentary, especially one about new ideas in the health and fitness world, so I saw lots of promo for the Netflix documentary released in September called “The Game Changers”. It’s an hourlong promotion of the pro-vegan message backed by big names like Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Cameron, and Jackie Chan. I can assure you I don’t watch these things cynically — I’m all-in on TV doctors breaking down science into laymen’s terms demonstrated with memorable and relatable anecdotal examples. I’ve now watched the program twice, first time through with my typical open mind and the second time with a more discerning eye, with this article in mind.
Second time round I laughed at the opening titles, realizing how apparent it is that as a female I am not their target audience. The sequence is like a live-action version of posters on a pre-pubescent boy’s bedroom wall: brawny men running through the jungle with rifles, a buff boxer running up the rocky steps, a sweaty heavyweight lifter, all to the song “Champion” which begins, “I’m a champion. I’m a killer, I’m a savage, been that way since the beginning.” The presenter, a fight teacher, introduces himself and wants us to know “nearly all the fighting techniques I teach are banned in the sport of mixed martial arts.” So yes, perhaps this film is not aimed at a peace-loving dance mom, who teaches fun workout classes on the beach and is a proponent of the 80/20 approach in most things.
The documentary is a series of vignettes with all roads leading to veganism. The better ones have some element of controlled experiment behind them, even if they were performed on very small sample sizes of, for example, three. The weaker ones were interviews with people who “felt better” after becoming vegan, including one with a 60- year-old elite trainer who was amazingly fit. He is one of the standouts in the chatter about the show, but again, given the industry I am in, my social media feed often features stories of people much older than him in astounding physical shape who have varied nutrition habits. He’s remarkable certainly, but not unique, and his shape I’d contest is probably equally, if not more, attributable to his job and workout regimen, than his veganism.
One of the sturdier studies was to show that what you eat immediately before athletic endeavor can have a major impact on performance. It looked at endothelial performance, which is essentially the mechanism by which the body directs blood to where it needs it most. Three college football players were tested after eating meat versus bean burritos. Their bloods were drawn and spun to show fat in the blood and therefore how well the endothelium was functioning. The meat meal was shown to impair blood circulation immediately after eating and that impact that lasts six to seven hours after you eat, implying impaired performance. Conversely, plant-based meals promote blood flow, and a larger study is quoted where simply drinking beet juice before working out allowed cyclists to cycle 22% longer and weightlifters bench press 19% more weight.
This reinforced things I had already read but was not earth-shattering and I was beginning to wonder why “The Game Changers” had gained so much traction. I had an aha moment as to why in the next study on three male athletes.
A urologist tested what effect the subjects’ evening meal had on their virility. So, this was why the show has been so well-watched and talked about! The athletes giggled their way through the study, which to explain the details of, would make me blush and my editor, well edit, so you’ll have to watch the show for a full understanding. But since it would be unfair to not impart the results of the most sensationalist vignette, one measure of the subjects’ “virility” showed improvements of between 300% and 500%.
The most impactful tests were on a group of firefighters in Brooklyn, who took a seven-day vegan challenge. The main cause of death of on-duty firefighters is coronary failure. At the end of the seven days the change in their markers was impressive with an average drop in cholesterol of 21, average weight loss of 6 pounds, and individuals struggling with high blood pressure saw improvements too. However, I’d like to have seen them test the group’s two whole foods diet, one vegan, one not, to see if it was really the vegan nature of the diet that caused the changes. Many doctors have pointed out the shortcomings of “The Game Changers” and one, Dr Peter Attia, put it well: “I’m not against a plant-based diet. I’m against misleading uses of subpar data… The fact is that virtually any diet is better than the Standard American Diet from a health perspective.” The show failed to emphasize most people went from unhealthy diets to healthy whole plant diets, not simply vegan diets. Just because a meal is vegan does not preclude it being less than healthy, a point missed in the closing scene when they show their heavyweight lifter demolishing pizza, pasta, and burgers at the same sitting.
I think my biggest takeaway from “The Game Changers” would be in line with the saying, “If you didn’t know, you haven’t been paying attention.” Back in 2006, Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivores Dilemma” concluded, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Not much of this was new, but of course the marketing machine behind it was slick and laser-focused in its audience aim.
So, ladies, if your husband or son is suddenly “vegan-curious” you now know why!