Can an athlete reach their full potential on a vegan diet?
This is the question that The Game Changers, a new Netflix documentary, set out to answer.
The Game Changers is a documentary about athletes using plant-based eating (veganism) to achieve their goals. The movie follows James Wilks, a former UFC Fighter, as he recovers from injury using a plant-based approach while interviewing famous athletes and doctors on the benefits of a plant-based diet.
As the documentary gained popularity there has been an increase in the number of people speaking about making the switch to a plant-based diet because of the facts presented in the film.
But documentaries commonly have some form of political or financial motivation. So before jumping into a plant-based approach it is important to look at the science behind the message. This blog aims to do just that and highlight whether the science supporting the documentary is truly game-changing or simply out to pasture.
Throughout the movie, The Game Changers relies on a mixture of scientific evidence and real-life accounts to promote the benefits of a plant-based diet. While there are a variety of studies conducted, and scientists and athletes interviewed, there are three main arguments that The Game Changers uses to promote a plant-based diet.
One supporting argument The Game Changers uses is that you can get enough protein from plants via complementary proteins and that one does not need to eat meat for protein. To support this, The Game Changers highlights numerous scientists and high-level vegan athletes.
The second supporting argument used by The Game Changers is a number of high-level athlete and star cameos. The Game Changers covers all of the athletic bases by interviewing endurance runners, cyclists, football players, strongmen, fighters, bodybuilders, and firefighters. Each athlete interviewed has benefited greatly from the switch to a plant-based diet. (If you’re a coach learn how to create nutrition programs for your clients in this free course.)
The third argument is that energy for performance comes from carbohydrates and not protein. To support this argument, numerous doctors, scientists, and athletes appear throughout the documentary all referencing either scientific data explaining how carbohydrates are a better fuel source than protein.
After watching The Game Changers, OPEX Fitness wanted to take a deeper dive into the arguments used to support the plant-based message of the film. We are neither pro-meat or pro-plant-based. Our ideology is an individualized approach, and we favor whatever works best for you and helps you reach your goals. Get a free introduction to our individualized coaching approach here.
The first argument in the films states that you can get enough protein in a vegan diet. A potential roadblock to this is that most foods in a vegan diet only represent partial amino acids (the building blocks of proteins). Therefore, to get adequate protein vegans must search out complementary proteins. For example, beans have what rice doesn’t have and therefore make up complementary proteins.
While it is true that you can get enough protein from complementary proteins, the average person would have to consume around 500 grams of carbohydrates (2000 calories from carbohydrates alone) a day to reach those levels. This is not always possible and is the reason why vegans typically have to supplement and have amino acid balancing issues.
Throughout the documentary, numerous athletes made cameos touting the benefits of a plant-based approach to their diet. But upon further investigation, there might have been some other reasons for these athletes’ experiences.
A common thread in The Game Changers that tied most of the athletes together was that they were already elite when they transitioned to a plant-based diet. The majority of these athletes had eaten meat throughout their athletic careers, especially during their earlier years when they were developing as athletes. It may be possible for these athletes to sustain their performance on a vegan diet, but the majority of the credit here should go to these athletes’ genetics and long training history, not just their current diet.
Further, most of the athletes stated that they felt better on a plant-based diet, were able to sleep better, and recover from injuries quicker. This occurrence could be based on how a vegan diet deloads the gut. Protein is the most difficult macronutrient to digest, so when these athletes first transition to a vegan diet they are giving their gut a break and allowing it to heal naturally. The gut is directly connected to the central nervous system (CNS) so as it heals the athlete will feel better.
Another argument that The Game Changers makes is that energy for performance comes from carbohydrates and not protein. This is true, but the way it is presented demonizes protein from meat. For example, most of the athletes highlighted in the film were overeating protein to begin with. The football players who were eating fried chicken before the game and McGregor talking about eating a steak before his fight were in fact suffering because they didn’t eat carbohydrates and ate too large a portion of high-fat animal protein close to performing. But the meat itself isn’t to blame, it was the timing, quantity, and quality.
No health and fitness coach would recommend eating fried chicken before a football game as it’s not an optimal pre-workout meal, nor would they recommend eating it in general as it is a low-quality source of protein.
The same goes for McGregor. As mentioned earlier, protein and fat requires a lot of energy to digest and is not the best way to fuel for a fight. It would be better to consume an easy to digest meal and save the protein for recovery post-fight. Learn three different strategies to fuel for a workout here.
To summarize, carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. But protein is also needed for recovery. If consumed intelligently protein can aid in performance. The athletes used in the documentary were prime candidates to support the movie’s argument because of lifestyle and nutrition habits that extend beyond simply plant-based or not.
The movie The Game Changers highlights an approach to nutrition that has worked extremely well for a selected few individuals. We understand that everyone is unique and we support an individualized approach to nutrition. For some that will involve meat and for others it will be plant-based. What’s more important than choosing omnivore or plant-based is that whichever approach to nutrition you choose works for you.
If you’re a fitness coach or a fitness enthusiast you understand that the best approach to nutrition is the one that you can execute day in and day out. That plan looks different for everyone. Learn how to create personalized nutrition programs that will give you and your clients sustainable results and sign up for The Coach’s Toolkit.