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Debunking the Game Changers with Joe Rogan

What is the optimal diet for athletes? While I don’t believe there is one optimal diet for every person, I do think there are characteristics that all healthy diets share. Namely, they’re ancestral—based on the types of foods that our bodies evolved to thrive on—and they include a mix of nutrient-dense plant and animal foods.

A recent documentary called The Game Changers claims otherwise. The experts and celebrities featured in the film argue that a plant-based, vegan diet is optimal for athletes and that animal foods are harmful for athletic performance and overall health.

There are a lot of myths and misconceptions on this topic, so I wanted to take this opportunity to debunk some of the biggest claims made in The Game Changers. For a full breakdown of what this movie gets wrong, download my Show Notes, and listen to my appearance on The Joe Rogan Experience.

Download Chris’ Show Notes

I’ve conducted extensive research on the real impact of a plant-based diet over an omnivorous, ancestral diet. I’m sharing that research with you now in hopes that it helps clear up some of the misconceptions on vegan diets.

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What Is The Game Changers?

The Game Changers is an agenda-driven film, not an objective analysis of an optimal diet for athletes. The purpose of this film is to advocate for a plant-based diet. It hasn’t been peer-reviewed, and it plays very fast and loose with the science. It’s propaganda for veganism, pure and simple. 

This is a very slick, well-done film, and it has the potential to mislead a lot of people. But it’s full of misleading statements, half-truths, flat-out falsehoods, flawed logic, and absurdities. I found problems with a number of claims made in the movie, including:

  • The gorilla analogy
  • The idea that peanut butter has as much protein as beef or eggs
  • The gladiator diet
  • The impact of protein on strength and health
  • Where B12 comes from

These are examples of some very misleading and disingenuous uses of science. For instance, you would have to eat almost one-third of a cup of peanut butter to equal the protein in 3 oz of beef or three eggs; stories about gladiators’ diets ignore important details like the fact that they were being fed the cheapest possible slave diet and had a life expectancy of about two years; and it isn’t easy to consume the amount of amino acids you need for strength and muscle mass when you’re eating only plants—unless you include ultra-processed protein powders in your diet.

Post-debate critiques:

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Is a Vegan Diet Optimal for Athletic Performance?

One of the primary arguments made in The Game Changers is that a vegan diet is optimal for athletic performance. Experts in the film make a number of dubious claims in this area, including:

  • Sacrificing carbohydrate calories for protein calories will lead to chronic fatigue and loss of stamina
  • Vegetarian athletes get enough protein in their diets
  • Eating too much protein is dangerous for your health
  • Athletes can get enough essential amino acids solely from plant foods
  • And many, many more

I encourage you to download my Show Notes for a full breakdown of each of these claims, but overall, it’s hard to imagine how athletes can get enough protein on a plant-based diet. Athletes in general need more protein than the recommended dietary allowance (RDA), and the amount they need will depend on the type of sport they’re involved in, as well as their health status, age, sex, and more. While carbs are a great source of energy for explosive, glycolytic activities, in endurance sports, fat can be burned as the primary fuel source.

Protein quality matters just as much as quantity. Protein quality is a function of amino acid profile and bioavailability, and plant proteins are inferior to animal proteins on both counts. Animal proteins concentrate essential amino acids, so you get a lot more of them in a smaller amount of food (without having to rely on ultra-processed protein powders). Animal proteins have better bioavailability than plant proteins, meaning your body is better able to digest and absorb them. What’s more, plant proteins are missing a number of important nutrients athletes need, like vitamin B12, iron, creatine, calcium, and many, many more.

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What Are the Effects of a Vegan Diet on Athletic Performance?

The key question is not whether it’s possible for athletes to thrive on a vegan diet, but whether it’s likely. There are always outliers, but the exceptions don’t make the rule. Just because some of the athletes in The Game Changers excel on a vegan diet, that doesn’t mean that everyone will.

There are many non-dietary factors influence athletic performance, including genetics, epigenetics, stress, sleep, work ethic, talent, coaching, etc. These are significant. What’s more, many of the athletes featured didn’t start out on a vegan diet. They switched from a standard American diet to a whole-foods, non-processed vegan diet. But what might have happened if they switched to a “nutrivore” diet with plenty of nutrient-dense animal and plant foods? Would they have done better than they did on a vegan diet? Yes, this is plausible.

In fact, the common trajectory for vegan athletes involves a “honeymoon” period. Initially, their performance stays the same or may even improve for a short time. But after a while, you see a significant decline in performance and well-being. I’ve also seen this to be true with many of my patients at the California Center for Functional Medicine, some of whom are high-level athletes, and others who aren’t. I don’t think the athletes featured in The Game Changers are examples of the core argument of the movie, which is that a vegan/plant-based diet improves athletic performance (and animal protein harms it).

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Are Animal Proteins and Foods Harmful?

One of the key claims in the film is that animal products increase the risk of disease and shortened lifespan. But The Game Changers makes the same mistake that other films and even scientific studies that advocate plant-based studies make: ignoring the importance of food quality. 

Eating a nutrient-dense, ancestral diet based on whole foods is not the same as eating an ultra-processed standard American diet. If an athlete was subsisting on a junk food diet of Popeyes and KFC, it makes sense that they may feel better on a higher quality diet that includes fresh fruits and vegetables in place of fried, processed, and refined foods.

Observational studies on the effects of animal protein suffer from a similar problem, which is known as the “healthy-user bias.” People who engage in a behavior that is seen as “healthy” are more likely to engage in other behaviors that are also perceived as healthy, and vice versa. Red meat, for example, has been perceived as unhealthy for so long that people who eat more of it are also more likely to engage in unhealthy habits, like smoking, being physically inactive, and eating fewer fruits and vegetables. Confounding factors like the healthy-user bias influence research and are difficult to control.

Many observational studies look at diets completely out of context—focusing solely on nutrients, isolated food components, or biomarkers, without considering the overall quality of the diet. One of the inevitable results of doing this is that many observational studies end up comparing two groups of people that are not at all similar, and this casts doubt on the findings. This is how we get misleading claims that vegetarians and vegans live longer than omnivores, or red meat causes serious health conditions like cancer or cardiovascular disease, or that eating meat disrupts your gut microbiome.

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Research on Animal Foods and Conflicts of Interest

Another claim made in the film is that recent research exonerating cholesterol, saturated fat, and red meat is tainted because it’s funded by the meat, egg, and dairy industry. I’ve long argued that corporate funding of medical research is a problem. But it’s not just by the meat, egg, and dairy industry—the Big Food lobby that supports processed and refined foods like sugar and industrial seed oils is far larger. Historically, the sugar lobby paid for research in the 1960s with the goal of pointing the finger at fat, rather than sugar, as the primary driver of cardiovascular disease.

In fact, virtually all the medical experts in The Game Changers profit from selling books, supplements, or other products related to the vegan diet. Conflicts of interest go both ways, but the film doesn’t make any mention of this.

For more:

  • “Why You Should Be Skeptical of the Latest Nutrition Headlines” Part 1 and Part 2, Chris Kresser

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Is Veganism the “Natural” Human Diet?

One of the most preposterous claims in The Game Changers is that Paleolithic humans ate mostly plants. This is literally rewriting history, and it goes against what virtually all respectable anthropologists believe. Our hominid ancestors have been eating meat for at least 2.5 million years. There is also wide agreement that going even further back in time, our primate ancestors likely ate a diet similar to that of modern chimps, which we now know eat vertebrates.

It is true that we can’t know with certainty the exact proportion of animal foods vs. plants that our Paleolithic ancestors ate. That said, the archeological record provides strong evidence that animal products played a critical role in human evolution. The fossil record clearly indicates a strong history of animal product consumption in humans from 130,000 to 13,000 years ago.

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Will a Plant-Based Diet Save the World?

Several common, yet inaccurate, claims about the environmental impacts of animal foods are made in The Game Changers, like:

  • Producing meat takes up too much farmland and cropland, and that livestock consume valuable food/calories that could be used to feed humans
  • Livestock are responsible for a large percentage of greenhouse gas emissions
  • Shifting to a plant-based diet would have a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions and would free up land that could be used to grow crops

In reality, most of the land that is used to cultivate livestock is suitable only for grazing. It could not be used for crop production. And most livestock feed is not grown specifically for livestock—it is a byproduct of food overproduction processes. Eliminating livestock wouldn’t increase the food supply for humans. 

When it comes to greenhouse gasses, the common statistics cited reflect the environmental impact of industrial beef production, not regenerative agriculture. While I do agree with plant-based diet advocates that our current concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) system for producing beef and other animal foods is problematic, where we disagree is on the solution. They propose eliminating animal foods from the diet; I propose regenerative agriculture that includes grass-fed meat.

Our soils are rapidly deteriorating due to erosion, nutrient depletion, and loss of organic carbon. We desperately need new methods of restoring healthy soil, and regenerative, holistically managed livestock is a time-tested and proven method. This means converting cropland used for livestock to grassland and allowing livestock to graze there. Grass-fed cattle can actually sequester carbon from the atmosphere, meaning they can be either net-carbon neutral or even act as a carbon sink.

For more:

  • “The Real Environmental Impact of Red Meat” Part 1 and Part 2, Chris Kresser

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The Game Changers Debate with James Wilks

The Game Changers follows James Wilks, a combative instructor for the U.S. military and a former UFC fighter, as he converts to a vegan diet while sports stars, celebrities, doctors, and medical experts weigh in. They claim that a plant-based diet is optimal, especially for athletic performance, while animal products are harmful to health.

Even though it may be possible for some athletes to thrive on a plant-based diet, extensive research and my own clinical experience suggest that a vegan diet is not optimal for most people. The Game Changers relies on propaganda, sloppy or misleading science, and a lack of context to support its core argument, but I would like to set the record straight. That’s why I returned to the Joe Rogan Experience to debate James Wilks on this topic.

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