It turns out you can still be a high-performing athlete on a plant-based diet.
Last night I finally watched The Game Changers, the Netflix documentary that has everyone talking about plant-based eating. There hasn't been this kind of controversy in my CrossFit-centric Facebook feed since Forks Over Knives came out in 2011, so of course I was eager to find out what it was all about.
The film, which is directed by Academy Award winner Louis Psihoyos and produced by James Cameron, follows former mixed martial arts fighter and military combative trainer James Wilks, who is recovering from a serious knee injury and begins researching how to speed along that process. What he discovers is that plant-based eating (also known as a vegan diet) is not only effective at helping athletes to recover more quickly, but it can also significantly enhance athletic performance.The film introduces viewers to numerous professional athletes, including ultra-marathon runner Scott Jurek, Tennessee Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan, world-record-holding strongman Patrik Baboumian, eight-time national cycling champion Dotsie Bausch, weightlifter Kendrick Farris, and boxing heavyweight title contender Bryant Jennings (among others), all of whom attribute their elite performance to their plant-based diets – and say they got better after cutting out animal products. (Arnold Schwarzenegger has a few things to say, too.)
The documentary is full of references to studies that support this, from research showing that the Roman gladiators were mainly vegetarian (their Latin name translates to 'bean and barley muncher') and that human teeth are more suited to eating plant-based material than gnawing on meat, to studies linking components of animal products (heme iron, proteins) to the development of cancer and cardiovascular disease.
A basic argument made in the film is that animal products inhibit athletic performance because they don't give the body what it needs. Too often, a surplus of protein pushes carbohydrates off the plate, and yet these are what provide the energy needed to perform athletically. Plants, unlike meat, do not inflame blood vessels, which allows more blood to pump through the body faster and increase stamina.
I have not combed through all the studies that were mentioned to know whether or not the data was cherry-picked. Men's Health magazine published a scathing review that claimed this, without any references of its own; but after a detailed rebuttal was published on Medium by Dr. James Loomis, Men's Health deleted quotes it had published from a paid spokesman for the beef industry. In Loomis's words: "As such, this MH article is just the latest example of how relevant and timely a film like The Game Changers actually is." But I did make two observations that incline me toward the film.
First, who stands to gain from encouraging people to eat plant-based? As far as I can tell, relatively few. There is no giant vegetable or tofu lobby group that will make money from this – at least, nothing like the National Cattlemen's Beef Association or the pharmaceutical companies that make a fortune selling drugs to fat, unhealthy Americans to keep their bodies moving.
Second, the film showed a broad range of impressive athletes whose personal stories (not to mention professional achievements) were powerful and inspiring. It did not feel as if the filmmakers had picked a small handful of people to portray the diet in a certain way, but more like they couldn't fit in all the people who are actually doing this because there are so many. In fact, 14 members of the Tennessee Titans football team went vegan after seeing Derrick Morgan's vast improvement.
It was a mesmerizing film that I appreciated simply for the reason that it focused on athletic performance. Forks Over Knives was more about losing weight and fighting chronic diseases through diet, which is important for many people, but doesn't apply to me. As a dedicated CrossFit athlete who trains and lifts heavy weights 4-5 times per week, I have often wondered how to cut meat out of my diet without compromising performance at the gym; but until I watched The Game Changers, I didn't know of any other athletes (besides thin, lanky runners whose body types are the opposite of mine) who go without animal products.
I appreciated, too, the climate change discussion at the end of the film. Even if you don't buy the whole plant-based-for-athletics argument, it is clear that we must reduce meat consumption to curb greenhouse gas emissions. (This is the premise of Jonathan Safran Foer's latest book, We Are The Weather.) Films like this encourage people to give it a try, and be pleasantly surprised by the results. See trailer below: