The below piece is written by Evan Lynch – Premier Endurance Sport Nutritionist and Former International Athlete. Evan has a BSc in Food Science and Health, a PGDip in Dietetics and is currently undertaking an MSc in Sports Nutrition. He has worked with recreational to professional athletes and has a keen interest on the role between health and performance.
I have been asked about Game Changers by about 15 different people since it came out, all asking more or less the same question – Do I need to go vegan or plant based?
The answer in short is no, although there are inherent benefits to consuming more plant-based products, which is a well-established fact, that isn’t really up for discussion. Note there is a slight difference in terminology, which makes a big difference to what we do in practice. Consuming more plant-based products can be put into layman’s terms as eating more vegetables, beans, pulses etc., you can do this whilst still eating animal based products, and be perfectly fine, this is just to set a precedent for the rest of this article. Vegetables, fruits, nuts are great, people should eat more fibre and less saturated fat, we should increase our antioxidant intakes too, but we don’t need to do this in an extreme manner, and we don’t need to have a load of lies and half-truths surrounding it.
Let’s look at some more terminology mix-ups, where animals such as lions are referred to as carnivores, which is true, as their diet consists exclusively of animal flesh, and how given that humans do not have diets like this, we are painted to be herbivores. There is a huge chasm between an omnivore – animals that eat both plants and animals, and carnivores. This is an example of how facts are skewed to fit a pre-set narrative, because we don’t have the same anatomical features as a lion, which is designed to eat only meat, then we must be designed to consume only plants. Dogmatic doesn’t cover the half of it. This terminology skewing is also highly prevalent throughout the documentary, where the word carbohydrate is replaced by plant. If we take note of this, we see that the documentary is essentially explaining the role that carbohydrates (which are all plant-based sources – potatoes, rice, grains, fruits etc.) in terms of exercise performance and the athletes explain that when they consumed more of them that their sporting performance started to improve (carbs are needed for high intensity) and their recovery was much better (glycogen repletion is exclusively down to carbohydrates) and that the work even felt easier (perceived effort goes down when you are appropriately fueled for workouts). The ancient gladiators also consumed a lot of plant products – not exclusively plant products, the strontium test used in the documentary actually has values for carnivores, omnivores and herbivores, and there are great degrees of overlap in all ranges, meaning you cannot conclude with such arrogant certainty that all gladiators are vegan or plant based. Also, marathon runners who would have been considered elite in the early 20th century would have drunk alcohol as a performance enhancer, can we conclude that previous generations of elite runners were alcoholics? No.
Just to note, one of the athletes (Ilya Ilyin) has tested positive for anabolic steroids and strongman doesn’t have a drug testing policy… I suspect the large lean mass gains might be down to external factors as opposed to green vegetables.
The above point is classic misdirection, the effect of increased carbohydrate intake is being taken as the effect of the vegan diet itself, as a general rule of thumb, going off of personal observation is usually a terrible idea, as we observe things, then draw our own conclusions, much like in olden times when the curvature of the earth wasn’t visible, so it was assumed to be flat. Let’s also factor in that for many people, particularly athletic populations, there is an increasing trend towards decreasing carb intakes and focusing on proteins and high fat approaches, in what is deemed as a healthy choice, we see this in lay people with phrases such as “I’m being healthy, I’m cutting out bread, pasta etc.” Also to note, most likely a lot of these athletes were already performing at a high level before making the switch, it is much harder and much less likely that you will be an elite athlete if starting from vegan – the practicality, time and effort aren’t in concordance with long term feasibility, you also risk lysine and B12 deficiency, and miss out on some zoonutrients too, the documentary states that “most people” have low B12 (pernicious anaemia), I haven’t checked the research now, but I think I would be aware of an epidemic of low B12, iron deficiency effects a lot of people, and get’s a lot of attention, I don’t think it would slip the radar like that. Many products are fortified with B vitamins anyway and just by the way, B12 is absorbed in your small intestine, your gut bacteria are in your colon, further down your GI tract, so the magical B12 made by your gut bacteria is totally irrelevant. Odds are that all the fortified grains people eat contribute to B12. Touching also on the microbiome, a half-truth was painted, high intakes of processed animal products does lead to unfavourable changes in gut bacteria, but that assumes low to no consumption of fruit, veg or dairy products, all of which promote gut health. So it’s more a case of if you only eat meat products, that’s bad, but if you are consuming your fruit, veg, nuts, wholegrains and dairy (important for gut health), that’s pretty much fine. High amounts of red meat are linked with TMAO increases, but we have been saying for some time now to limit the red meat to one portion per week, so again, the documentary is bending truths and twisting them to fit the pre-set narrative.
More often that not, when someone goes on a diet of any description, regardless of what method is being championed, people will all do a number of things: they will cut out junk food, maybe increase their water intake, consume more fruit and vegetables, maybe be more active and try sleep a bit better. Most people, in my experience, don’t do these things, even elite athletes don’t manage all of the above, if you improve a little bit in all of those domains, odds are you will feel great and perform better, it’s called health consciousness. It’s why if the first dietary method your exposed to works, you assume it was down to the magic of the diet and not the general healthy eating protocols it made you subconsciously follow. Let’s play a game and see how diets do this:
- Vegan/vegetarian – you eat way more fruit and veg, decrease saturated fat intake, yep, that will help you feel better.
- Paleo – you cut out all processed foods (chocolates, crisps etc.) and opt for whole foods, yep, most likely will lose weight.
- Keto/Low carb – cut out all staple foods and increase reliance on veg, weight loss is inevitable here, your just left with less food that you can eat.
- Intermittent fasting – you have less time to eat food. Weight loss is again inevitable.
Cynical, perhaps, but it’s the truth. For most people, losing weight, eating more fibre and simply paying attention to your diet and health will likely result in you feeling much better. Odds are you can eat meat, eggs & dairy anyway, if you just eat your fruit, veggies and pulses like dietitians have been screaming at you to do so for decades, that you’d be just fine. The documentary more or less sticks with healthy eating guidelines, it just cuts out the animal products, there is no real need to do so.
There are evidence bases that show that diets high in processed, fried and red meats are linked with CVD, bowel cancer etc., however one caveat that is conveniently overlooked is that these types of studies are limited in that they don’t identify specific products, they struggle to control for fruit and veg intake outside the meat intake, physical activity levels, stress levels etc… To bring this back into the actual documentary, a scene is shot with some football players, where they are given a meal and then are shown blood samples taken afterwards to depict blood flow. To note here is what exactly these players ate, the deep fried chicken and steak sandwiches most likely had vast amounts of triglycerides, trans fatty acids and saturated fat, all of which can cause the effects that were shown, it is pertinent to note however, that there is a huge difference between fried products and baked/grilled/roasted products, and that there is a world of difference between a grilled lean chicken breast, which has very little fat, and a deep fried chicken product, which has a lot of fat. This scene was clever, it skimmed over details including ingredients and preparation methods, and painted all meats as equal, it’s basically stereotyping. If you avoid deep frying, frying in oil and opt for lean cuts, not breaded, and avoid barbequing, you should be all good to consume meat products. Dairy and eggs are the same, they are fine to eat, and no, there aren’t antibiotics, hormones or growth factors in your milk, and no, you don’t need to worry about IGF-1, seriously, relax.
A few other things to point out:
- Peanut butter is cited as a great protein source, and was even compared to meat and eggs, but to get let’s say a 20-30g dose of protein from peanut butter, which would be a piece of meat/fish or 3-4 eggs, you would need 5-6 tablespoons of the stuff, which also delivers a whopping amount of fat and calories with it. Further to this, there is more truth bending in terms of protein bioavailability, yes, all foods contain all or most amino acids, in varying degrees (traces, even), but protein quality is deemed by how many essential amino acids (EAA’s) a food has, and all plant products rank way below animal products.
- Some of the research studies are funded by companies with vested interests in the outcomes (Hess Avocado & endothelial function test), Arnie himself alongside James Cameron are launching a pea protein product and company…
- I switched off when inflammation was mentioned, especially CRP, which is only really elevated if you have an infection or illness, and is more of an acute marker than a marker of lifestyle & diet. Foods in general don’t have as much of an ability to cause inflammation as we may be lead to believe, also, inflammation isn’t always a bad thing. Eating your oily fish, chia seeds and getting fruit and veg in the door help with any excess inflammation.
- Neither Jackie Chan nor Arnie are nutrition experts.