Let’s begin this article with one very simple point:
From both an ecological and an ethical perspective, going completely plant-based is far superior to eating meat.
However, the critical and undermining fault of this entire documentary lies in its intense focus on the nutritional and personal aspect of a plant-based diet, rather than the ethical or ecological aspect. By taking this perspective, James Cameron and the production team are forced into undertaking some “alternative fact” work.
The documentary follows the journey of former MMA fighter, James Wilks on his journey into the world of plant-based nutrition. Throughout the documentary, we are bombarded with references to scientific studies and celebrity appearances featuring none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger himself. The words ‘vegan’ and ‘vegetarian’ are purposefully replaced by the far less stigmatizing term: ‘plant-based’. By using this term plant-based we can see how Cameron and Wilks are really honing in on the nutritional appeal, and avoiding the typical ecological and ethical side of the argument altogether, which is definitely a very strong move in the modern world, considering how many people just shut themselves down at the mention of the word ‘vegan’.
Unfortunately for Wilks, using the words ‘plant-based’ to reduce the stigma does very little to admonish the fact that the swathes of scientific studies that are flashed across the screen in a way that screams: “Look! It’s Science Stuff!”, are not only often completely bogus but often they are conducted on population samples so small that they wouldn’t even count as a Kindergartener’s class survey. Let’s go through some of the points Wilks puts forward and assess what sort of scientific evidence he’s using to change the game.
1. Roman gladiators didn’t eat meat
Wilks uses this point to begin the documentary and helps creates the foundation of the idea that plant-based diets have been used to power elite warriors from day one. Part of this is true. A lot of research shows that gladiators did eat a predominantly plant-based diet. However, it’s not for the reason you’d think. Furthermore, the study that he references isn’t actually a study. It’s a short anecdotal article from a contributing writer, Andrew Curry to an archaeological journal. And what’s worse is, if you take the time to actually read the anecdote by Andrew Curry you’ll find that gladiators weren’t eating a plant-based diet to improve their performance or enhance their longevity.
They were doing it to get fat…
Having large amounts of subcutaneous fat creates a “cushion” around all of the gladiator’s blood vessels and nerve endings. A lean gladiator explains paleo-pathologist; Karl Grossschmidt: “would not only be dead meat, but he would also have made for a terrible show.”
Gladiators with large amounts of fat made surface wounds look spectacular which made it far more thrilling for the crowd. Not only did Wilks viciously stretch the term “study”, but he also managed to undermine his own point whilst doing so.
Ps. If you’re wondering why you have an association with Roman Gladiators as ripped, rugged and handsome; blame Hollywood. Good old cinema can’t resist depicting any ancient historical figure involved in combat through a sexy, sweaty lens; forever painting our screens with the glistening figure of 2000 Russell Crowe.
2. Plant protein provides equal and or superior athletic performance compared to animal-based sources.
Next on the list of misappropriated research: Wilks cites a 2004 study on nutritional guidelines for vegetarian athletes in which he correctly asserts that when all of the essential amino acids are accounted for the source is irrelevant. Wilks, however, again forgets to mention that the very same study also outlines that vegetarians and vegans will have a much lower mean muscle creatine concentration which greatly impacts the upper limits of athletes in extreme performance zones. Plants can be an extremely good source of protein if all essential amino acids are accounted for, but to say that it is on par with animal protein in terms of iron, creatine, and synthesis availability (which are incredibly important for high performing athletes) is an outright falsity.
3. Drinking milk lowers testosterone in men
Whilst milk has been proven to increase inflammation markers in most people, even in those of us that are capable of producing high quantities of the lactase enzyme; there is absolutely 0 evidence to show that milk decreases testosterone… Wilks cites a 2010 study that uses 7 men as its designated sample pool. 7 men. And in the analysis of these 7 men; it finds that the milk doesn’t actually lower overall testosterone permanently, it merely dampens testosterone secretion temporarily. Again, this is just another sleight of hand that isn’t an outright lie, but at this point, I could feel the reasonable doubt beginning to snowball.
4. Eating meat is as bad for you as cigarettes
In 2015 the UN published updated nutritional guidelines stating that eating processed meat was as carcinogenic as smoking 1–3 cigarettes a day. Wilkes is quick to jump on board with this point, highlighting the carcinogenic nature of meat…
However, once we waded through a swamp of cherry-picked data from poorly selected studies; Wilks begins throwing out the typical maelstrom of terrifying information about the immense and compounding dangers of animal products, all of which will increase inflammation and guarantee your shot at developing cancer. In particular, Wilks uses a study to illustrate how compounds called: hetereocyclic amines (HCAs) can lead to an increased risk of cancer. In this part of the documentary, Wilks isn’t entirely incorrect, as a lot of his statements are backed by solid nutritional science, they’re just taken wildly out of their initial contexts.
The biggest problem with this documentary isn’t just the incredibly flexible use of the word “fact”, but it is in the binary nature of the entire message.
In an interview with Men’s Health, Brian St. Pierre, M.S., R.D., C.S.C.S, and Director of Performance Nutrition at Precision Nutrition, explains how Wilks has once again manipulated data to make his side of the nutritional story seem more appealing:
“What The Game Changers fails to mention is that though hetereocyclic amines seem to cause cancer, and the overall risk may be small, you can mitigate potential damage by marinating your meat with spices and acidic marinades (such as yogurt or vinegar-based marinades). And by eating your meat with fruits and vegetables, all of which can significantly reduce your risk of HCAs.
St Pierre goes on further:
You could even go so far as to say “virtually eliminate your risk”, as they can decrease HCA formation by up to 99 percent.” — Brian St Pierre
The fundamental problem with this documentary isn’t just that James Wilks’s pseudoscientific efforts to reinforce a strong ethical and ecological argument with a scientific framework are shallow and incorrect. The fault lies in the fact that by subscribing to such a strong ideological position he destroys the opportunity for nuance and discussion.
He, like all ideologues, paints a picture of good vs bad, light vs. dark, and by doing so he places all viewers in one either in the blue corner of the ring, or the red. His stated aim was to “give everyone the facts and decide for themselves”, but when the “facts” have been sanded down, squeezed and squashed to fit into a narrow ideological box, it’s hard to take any of what he has to say seriously.
St Pierre admits that most adults need more servings of vegetables in their diets. What Wilks seems to willfully ignore is that it isn’t an all or nothing scenario:
“Ultimately, it’s not that getting people to eat plants is a bad thing. It’s generally a great thing. But you don’t have to do so by erroneously telling people that meat is killing them, and they need to go to an all-plant diet. That is a false dichotomy,” — St. Pierre.
Ultimately The Game Changers drowns us in a middlebrow attempt to make a new argument for veganism/vegetarianism on nutritional and scientific grounds.
The consistent ideological push for a singular, holy, perfect diet that is suitable for all people is beyond frustrating to anyone who understands the basics of nutrition. There is no one size fits all in terms of diet. People have individual dietary needs, and often have many complications that need alterations and consistent attention from a nutritional point of view. Not only is this documentary swinging around another pseudoscientific “diet of the month”, but it is also purposefully providing misinformation to create the outcome it wants to see, rather than letting the facts shape it.
To wrap things up: the inherent and underlying desperation to mold the “facts” to the unalterable “truth” of the net positive of a plant-based diet, leaves the informed viewer with the uncomfortable realisation that this documentary was just another regurgitation of the ever-increasing phenomenon of the digital age: that the provocative and shallow appeals to emotion end up reigning triumphant over well researched and meaningful appeal to reason.
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