The Game Changers has stirred up a lot of talk and has quickly become Netflix’s latest popular documentary. It makes a compelling argument for plant based diets but I personally wasn’t happy about how the info was delivered. Let me preface this post with this, I have absolutely nothing against vegan or plant based diets. In fact, because of my love of animals, I tried several times to be vegetarian. Even with a well planned diet, I felt terrible and it didn’t work for me. Having food allergies definitely makes that style of eating more challenging. I personally thrive on a mixed diet of plant and animal products. I have a good friend who thrives on a more carnivorous diet and others who are vegan, vegetarian or pescatarian. All very different ways of eating and yet it works for all of us. Some switched from a mixed diet to a vegan diet and have never felt better. I’ve also seen the opposite where once vegetarians added meat back into their diet, they felt better and their blood work improved. I’m a firm believer in doing what works for you which is a huge part of the approach I take when coaching clients. So no, it’s definitely not the plant based diet that I have a problem with. At all. I do have a huge problem with people resorting to absolutes while fear mongering and presenting misleading data along with it. I’m not here to discuss animal cruelty or the environment, those are deserving of their own discussion. This is purely from a nutrition standpoint. In this documentary, what is portrayed is: eat a plant based diet because that’s what humans are designed to eat and animal products will eventually kill you. Not all sides of the story were given in the case of some of the studies and anecdotal evidence isn’t a reliable source in the science world. I invite you to take a look at another side to the story.
Athlete’s Blood Tests
The documentary shows three NFL players getting their blood drawn 2 hours after consuming burritos with either chicken, beef, or beans and guacamole in them. Then the next day they all have burritos with beans and guacamole in them and blood is drawn again 2 hours after eating. The blood is then separated enabling you to see packed cells and blood products at the bottom of the test tube and blood plasma above it. Chicken and beef yielded a cloudy plasma showing fat in the blood stream and beans yielded a clear plasma showing no circulating fat. Admittedly, the visual is rather alarming.
But here is where I take issue with this. Did the bean burrito have less fat in it? It did have avocado in it for some fat, but we don’t know the fat content since that info wasn’t shared. We also don’t know what else they ate that day or how long ago their last meal was before they ate the burritos. Regardless, the whole cloudy blood plasma after eating fat is a completely normal physiological response whether it comes from animals or plants. Fat mixes with bile in the small intestine to form smaller droplet like structures. This allows fat to be transported through your bloodstream to other areas of your body to be used or stored. That is what you were seeing in the blood plasma. If you’re drawing blood only a few hours after eating, you’re catching this in the process so yes, there will absolutely be fat in your blood. A study from back in the 90’s showed this same thing but with soybean oil, which is very much a plant based fat. This is why if your healthcare provider orders a lipid panel they want at least 12 hours fasting before drawing your blood work. It will give them a more accurate read of what your cholesterol is and heart disease risk without interference from your body transporting the lipids you recently ate.
Plants help endothelial (blood vessel) function.
Yes, 100%. Plant based foods are very good for you, including your blood vessels. In fact, because beets are a natural vasodilator (increase the size of your blood vessels) it is used in some preworkout supplements to increase performance. More blood flow and oxygen to hard working muscles? No brainer! Plants are chock full of antioxidants and positively affect our circulation, no doubt about that. The studies used to illustrate that in the film, however, only talked about how the plants themselves affected people. There was no recommendation in those studies that meat also had to be given up to reap those benefits.
Professional athletes who have adopted a plant based diet.
It’s important to keep in mind that this is anecdotal. Yes, athletes can thrive on plant based diets but there are many who eat mixed diets. This again illustrates what I said in the very beginning of this: do what works for you. If someone tells you the best way to kill it in the gym is with a plant based diet, question them. On the flip side, if someone tells you that including meat and dairy in your diet is the best way to kill it in the gym, you need to question them too! There was also no discussion of what these athletes were eating prior to going plant based. What quality of food did they eat besides plants and animals? Fast food? Whole unprocessed foods? Not enough carbs? We’re not given that info to make a fair comparison.
I also want to bring up the UFC 196 fight that was referenced. Diaz was about 15 pounds heavier than McGregor. McGregor also jumped up 2 weight classes for that fight and still weighed a decent amount less than Diaz. This wasn’t mentioned at all in the documentary. Did Diaz beat McGregor in round 2 due to size or because of dietary differences? Yes, apparently McGregor eats a lot of steak and maybe not enough carbs? We don’t know what else he eats. You definitely need carbohydrates to power you through workouts and sporting events. They are the body and brain’s preferred source of energy. Also, Nate Diaz has said publicly that he mainly follows a raw, vegan diet but will occasionally eat fish and eggs too.
A peanut butter sandwich contains the same amount of protein as a 3oz piece of steak.
I mean, yeah, you can make that comparison and can get that amount of protein, but serving sizes and calories wouldn’t be comparable. A standard serving size of a peanut butter sandwich would be 2 slices of whole grain bread and 2 tablespoons of peanut butter at about 14g of protein for about 350-400 calories. 3 oz of lean, cooked sirloin steak gives you 22g of protein for about 160-170 calories. You would need another tablespoon of peanut butter on that sandwich for about another 100 calories to get the same amount of protein in 3oz of cooked sirloin. Not that more calories isn’t necessarily a bad thing depending on the person, but plant sources of protein, especially this example, can come in higher calorie and carb packages. That can be helpful for endurance athletes like some who were featured in the film, but does that mean that it’s right for everyone across the board?
Plants are packed with them, no doubt about it, but you can still eat a mixed diet and reap the benefits. Doesn’t have to be either or. The statement in the movie that iceberg lettuce has more antioxidants than salmon is an irrelevant comparison. Plants have more antioxidants than animal products, but animal products also contain vitamins, minerals, and other substances that are actually really easy for our body to utilize, aka are highly bioavailable. I would argue more so than some plant based choices. They fail to mention that salmon is a good source of complete protein, vitamin D, and is an excellent source of omega 3 fatty acids in a form that is easier for our body to use as opposed to plant based sources of omega 3s. I’ll explain that a little more later. The funny thing is, the film then argues that the antioxidants in plants fight inflammation, which they do. What do the omega-3 fats that are in salmon do? Also fight inflammation.
Human teeth don’t look like carnivore teeth
The film states that humans have smaller canines and flatter molars than typical carnivore teeth. Also, gorillas have canines and they don’t eat meat. So going off of biology and evolution, having canine teeth doesn’t mean you were made to eat meat.
Agreed, sort of. Compared to carnivores we do have smaller canines and flatter molars. What’s also correct that isn’t discussed is that our teeth don’t look like some herbivore’s teeth either. Horses and rabbits for example have teeth that are flat for grinding down vegetation and sharp incisors in the front to bite off that food. They don’t have canines because they don’t need them and only eat plants.
Let’s look at gorillas. Gorillas eat mainly plants but also will eat insects when available. They have large canines both on the top and bottom like we do, yet do not consume meat, but even that may be up for debate now as researchers have found mammalian DNA in gorilla feces. They’re not sure if it’s come from gorillas eating other mammals directly or if they’re eating insects that were eating dead mammals. Jury still may be out on that one. It is commonly accepted that their canines are for show and protection, not for eating meat. We share 98% of our DNA with them which makes a decent argument. We also share 99% of our DNA with chimps who have relatively large canines. Chimps eat mainly plants but also insects and other animals when available. I would also argue that we have sturdier teeth than some other primates due to the fact that our teeth contain more enamel. One other thing that may or may not be worth mentioning if we’re comparing diets of ours to our close relatives…chimpanzees and gorillas also eat their own feces. We do not.
Considering that we have strong incisors, canines, and flat molars like some other omnivores, I argue that variety of teeth enables us to eat a mixed diet of both plants and animals. It may not be the entire picture, I do think there is more evidence out there to support that like the digestive system.
Human digestive tracts don’t look like carnivore digestive tracts
Carnivores have shorter intestines compared to humans because they only eat meat. This means that humans are not meant to eat meat.
Again, correct but sort of. Yes, carnivores have shorter intestines than us because they don’t need as much of that space to digest plant material like we do. But again, they don’t give a comparison of what herbivore’s digestive tracts look like either which are also different from us.
Herbivore’s GI tracts have long small intestines, large cecum, and some like horses, cows and sheep, have multi-chambered stomachs. Our small intestines are shorter in comparison, we don’t have multi-chambered stomachs, and we have a very small cecum. The cecum is where the small and large intestines connect. In humans it’s a site where we absorb fluids, electrolytes, and partially digested food mixes with mucus before traveling into the rest of the large intestine. It tends to be larger in herbivores with the presence of bacteria specialized to help break down plant matter. This is the same reason why some herbivores have multi-chambered stomachs. Food is regurgitated from one chamber to be chewed, then swallowed to go to another chamber and that process is repeated until it is digested enough to go to the small intestine. Some may argue that because we can’t digest that plant material, namely cellulose, we shouldn’t be eating plants. Herbivores have bacteria or enzymes that we do not have to break it down. But others, myself included, would say that it’s a dietary fiber and still should be a part of our diet.
Since we are somewhere in between these two different digestive systems, we are omnivores.
All protein originates from plants so why not cut out the middleman, animals, in our diets?
You can eat plants in order to have a complete protein source as long as you eat a variety of them. There are very few plant sources that are considered a complete protein. Humans need essential and non essential amino acids. Our bodies can make the non essential, but we need all of the essential amino acids present in our diet. A complete protein contains all the essential amino acids that we need. An incomplete protein contains some, but combos of them can make a complete protein which can totally be done on a plant based diet. And the school of thought on that has changed as well. It used to be that you would only reap the benefits of that complete protein if you ate it at that meal. Some examples: whole grain bread with nut butter or rice and beans. Now it seems to be that if you eat incomplete proteins throughout the day but the amino acids profiles compliment each other regardless of when you eat them, you’re good to go. So yes, you can get your protein from plant sources.
On the other hand, all animal sources of protein are complete proteins that our bodies can breakdown and use very easily which I don’t think is a bad thing. And depending on what type you choose, it can come in smaller amounts of calories if choosing leaner sources. Go back to the example of the peanut butter sandwich vs sirloin steak comparison.
As I mentioned about the salmon vs lettuce comparison, that animal protein source is also rich in nutrients that are either higher in or more bioavailable in some nutrients. Here are the ones that are commonly lower in plant based diets:
- Vitamin B12: Nutritional yeast, fortified cereals and certain types of seaweed and mushrooms contain plant based forms of vitamin B12 compared to fish, pork, chicken, beef, eggs, and dairy that also contain it in higher amounts. It can also be supplemented. May be worth mentioning that plant based diets are high in folic acid which is a good thing! But it can mask symptoms of a B12 deficiency.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: flaxseed, hempseed, chia seeds, brussels sprouts – all contain omega-3, however it is in a form that the body needs to convert to actually use and unfortunately the conversion rate of ALA to EPA & DHA (the forms our bodies use) is low. We’re talking like 1-10% of the ALA you consume converts to useable EPA & DHA. Algal oil is a vegan option to supplement a plant based diet. Seafood and pasture raised animals like grass fed beef and free range eggs are good sources of EPA and DHA, the useable forms of omega-3. This is actually a really good example against cutting out the middleman. The animals are able to convert that ALA form of omega-3 to the EPA and DHA forms that we need. We are able to get that EPA and DHA that we need more easily from animal sources.
- Vitamin D: from animal sources like fatty fish, eggs, and fortified juices and dairy. Our bodies can also manufacture its own Vitamin D when our skin is exposed to sunlight. If you’re not getting much sun and/or are plant based, you would need to supplement.
Animal products cause inflammation leading to cancer and chronic disease.
The documentary states that animal products contain or form TMAO, HCA, heme iron, Neu5Gc, AGEs, and endotoxins which are detrimental to our health. Let’s break these down.
- TMAO: A marker of inflammation that increases with the intake of eggs, seafood, and red meat. But it has been shown that even when in increase in TMAO was found in the bloodstream, there was decreased blood vessel injury and markers of damage. TMAO is made by certain types of gut bacteria which makes this tough to pin down as different people can have very different gut bacteria populations. TMAO’s role in disease development is inconclusive at this time.
- HCA: Chemicals formed when animal protein is cooked at high heat – think of the grill marks on steak. HCAs can cause genetic changes and increase the risk of cancer. What wasn’t discussed is that you can decrease or almost eliminate your exposure by using indirect heat to cook meat like poaching, stewing, braising or steaming; eating more plants as they tend to fight the effects of these compounds; and using marinades on your meat before cooking. Jerk seasoning or marinade for example, was shown to dramatically decrease HCAs.
- Heme iron: There has been a correlation with heme iron, which comes from animal sources, and an increased risk of cancer. Non heme iron comes from plants. Iron is a mineral that the body needs, but too much heme iron seems to be the issue. While this is an interesting finding, more research needs to be done. A correlation or association of two items does not necessarily mean that one caused the other. It’s a good starting point indicating that it needs to be further investigated. Some may also argue that Food Frequency Questionnaires used in many studies have a high error rate from participants either purposely or inadvertently recording incorrect data. One of those people, Walter Willett from Harvard’s Nutrition Department, discusses the limitations of the Food Frequency Questionnaire that he created. However, other reputable sources like the National Cancer Institute, state that FFQs can be useful when bias is taken into account in the study.
- Neu5Gc: Most mammals, besides us and a few others contain the sugar Neu5Gc. We have a similar one called Neu5Ac, so similar that Neu5Gc can work its way into our cells, but since it’s slightly different, it can trigger an immune response resulting in inflammation. There are a couple studies both human and animal, that show Neu5Gc in tumor cells. This tends to be the case for mammal meat like beef and pork, but doesn’t seem to be shown in poultry and seafood. Should we give up those types of meat? Some cancer researchers don’t think so and that more research needs to be done when it comes to this and cancer risk.
- AGEs: similar to HCA in that there is a reaction with the food when exposed to high heat, but this can be any food with sugar, fat, and protein – meaning it’s true for plant and animal foods. In fact, broiled tofu contains a higher amount of AGEs than a fried egg. One study actually found higher levels of AGEs in vegetarians compared to omnivores. Avoiding processed foods and following the same rules for HCAs will help reduce your exposure.
- Endotoxins: these may sound scary, especially if I tell you that they can illicit a strong immune response. If inhaled, they can lead to allergies, asthma and chronic bronchitis. If consumed, and depending on what kind, they can lead to GI distress and diarrhea. Endotoxins are the byproducts of certain types of bacteria, gram negative bacteria, which can cause things like UTI, pneumonia, and gonorrhea. Humans house gram negative bacteria and their endotoxins in our mouths and nasal cavities. We do also house E. coli, a gram negative bacteria, in our GI tracts. Most strains of it are harmless, but some can make us sick. Gram negative bacteria and their endotoxins can also be found in/on other animals, plants, and soil. They are not exclusively found in animal meat but many other places in our environment.
The takeaway: There is some evidence that needs to be further investigated as far as the increased risk of colon and rectal cancers due to meat intake. While most discussed in the film can actually be mediated to drastically reduce potentially harmful compounds, further research is needed on others. To offer another counter argument, some cultures like the Maasai for example, consume red meat and dairy with some vegetables and are free from chronic inflammatory diseases. Does this mean there is a genetic reason for why they’re not affected? Is it that maybe animal protein isn’t as bad some say it is? We don’t really know enough yet to make blanket statements.
Firefighters changed their diet to a plant based diet and reduced their blood pressure and cholesterol.
In the film, they replaced not just animal products, but their ENTIRE diet with groceries that they bought for them. It very well could be that switching from high calorie, but low nutrient dense, processed foods to a lower calorie, high nutrient dense diet favorably impacted their health. There’s a big difference between a fast food bacon cheeseburger, fries, and a soda for a meal and a piece of salmon or grass fed sirloin with a baked potato and green veggies. This really should have been addressed for a more fair comparison. This also didn’t take into consideration stress levels and alcohol consumption which can also negatively impact one’s risk factors for heart disease. I would imagine being a first responder and high stress levels would go hand in hand.
Studies showing that animal products like eggs and red meat are good for you are funded by the meat, egg, and dairy associations.
True, you always have to look at not just your sources, but also how those studies were funded. Studies that are funded by a third party can be hard to find at times because from a business standpoint, why would they spend money on that if they don’t have any skin in the game? Of course it looks a little shady to see that the egg board put out a study saying that eggs are good for you! You know what else looks a little shady? James and Suzy Cameron, the executive producers of this documentary, investing $140 million dollars to grow in the vegan protein market. Remember the NFL player’s blood tests? One of the studies used to back up that “experiment” was funded by Hass Avocados with a very small sample size of 11 people making that study look very questionable. Look, you do you, but don’t call someone out on something when you’re essentially doing the same thing.
Sorry. I got sassy for a second there. ANYWAY. Dig into the study itself, not just the abstract of the paper! What was the sample size? Did they have a control group? How was data collected? How was data interpreted? Were there any adjustments made for possible errors? If there was any comparison of data, was it actually significant? You might not be able to get away from studies with suspicious funding depending on the subject, but sometimes sifting through the study can help you determine if it’s legit or if they screwed around with statistics to prove the point that they wanted to prove anyway. Reading scientific studies isn’t exactly light reading and if it’s overwhelming, there are other places to look that can compile information in a non-biased way that people can understand. I am a big fan of Precision Nutrition and Examine.com for those reasons. They are both great non-biased resources when it comes to nutrition.
Nutrition seems to be like religion these days. If you don’t eat how a group of people tells you to, you’re wrong. Sometimes that comes from a place of emotion, not necessarily facts. I bring this up because I understand if people aren’t happy about my stance on this. If you are emotionally invested in something, it’s going to get you fired up. If I’m truly honest with myself and you, that’s probably where my motivation came from to look into all of this too. I whole heartedly care deeply about my clients and anyone that consumes the info that I put out there. I like coaching and teaching in order for others to make the most informed decisions for their health. If that means taking heat from people that disagree with me, then so be it. I don’t like one sided information and I really hate fear mongering with the intent to push an agenda when there are multiple sides to the story. If something interests you, read up on it – both what you agree with and what you don’t agree with. We’re all guilty at one time or another of doing research in the name of trying to confirm our beliefs, also known as confirmation bias. I urge you to question things when it comes to your health because that’s the only way that you will be able to advocate for yourself. I mean that whether it’s info I put out there or from another source. No one’s perfect. We’re all still learning and have different views, but that’s what keeps it interesting.
Chimp vs human teeth: https://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/side_0_0/bigteeth_01
Gorilla diet: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/3/100305-first-proof-gorillas-eat-monkeys-mammals-feces-dna/
Animal vs Plant protein: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3905294/
Egg intake and TMAO: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6315879/
HCA & AGEs: https://www.precisionnutrition.com/all-about-cooking-carcinogens https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s394-001-8356-3
Neu5Gc: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24600589 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25548184 https://www.cancerresearch.org/immunotherapy/stories/scientists/oliver-m-pearce-phd
Iron: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-HealthProfessional/ https://cancerpreventionresearch.aacrjournals.org/content/4/2/177
Limitations of FFQs: https://academic.oup.com/aje/article/154/12/1100/64255
National Cancer Institute on FFQs: https://dietassessmentprimer.cancer.gov/approach/principles.html
Sources of B12: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4042564/ https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB12-HealthProfessional/
Vitamin D: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/
Omega 3s: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/