How many other vegan men out there hear the ‘but how do you build muscles?’ question on a regular basis?
As a doctor, a man, and a person who likes to work out, I have been acutely aware for a long time of how many dietary myths and mistaken cultural beliefs persist about veganism, health, athleticism and masculinity.
The Game Changers
When I first heard about The Game Changers, a documentary covering all these topics with some big-name producers behind it (including James Cameron, Arnold Schwarznegger, Novak Djokovic, Lewis Hamilton and Jackie Chan) I was excited but also nervous about whether it would do the justice the issues deserved.
It turns out my fears were unfounded: when I finally saw the film at the cinema last month, I was blown away by how good it is. The Game Changers is a fantastic achievement, and I believe it will actually live up to its name.
It only took a week to become the biggest selling documentary of all time on iTunes, and today it is released on Netflix where it will be able to reach the millions of viewers it deserves.
I am already recommending it to my patients, as are many other doctors across the world. Even vegan-sceptic Piers Morgan has agreed to watch it, after one of the documentary’s stars, strong-man Patrik Baboumian, carried four people across the Good Morning Britain studio.
The film starts with James Wilks - elite Special Forces trainer and The Ultimate Fighter winner - recovering from an injury and researching the best ways to speed up recovery. To his surprise, he discovers that the Roman gladiators were vegetarian, which challenges his deeply held beliefs about masculinity, athletic ability and virility.
He then goes on to meet several inspirational world-class athletes, including Olympic cycling medallist Dotsie Bausch, ultramarathoner Scott Jurek, UFC fighter Nate Diaz, and American footballer Derrick Morgan, who have all had astonishing achievements after adopting a plant-based diet.
The footage of their achievements is beautifully filmed and awe-inspiring, and their enthusiasm is so infectious that everyone I went to the cinema with felt motivated to take on a new physical challenge afterwards (although unlike Baboumian it's doubtful we’ll be turning any cars over in the near future).
The plant-based advantage
Wilks explores the reasons behind the 'plant-based advantage' in some detail; this includes the fact that meat and other animal products produce inflammation in the body, whereas plant foods are anti-inflammatory and therefore lead to a quicker recovery time after workouts.
Inflammation also plays a key role in the onset and development of chronic diseases, which helps to explain why vegans have lower rates of heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.
There is a powerful scene in the film where firefighters in New York City learn that the biggest risk to their life is the same as the general population - death from heart disease. They agree to try a seven-day vegan challenge, and the results are similar as what my patients achieve when they agree to try going plant-based - more energy, reduced cholesterol and blood pressure, healthy weight loss, and improved blood sugar control.
My patients are always astonished - as was Wilks’ father who also adopts a plant-based diet for heart disease - that merely changing the way they eat can transform their health, and are delighted that they are put back in control of their health. It is estimated that if everyone went vegan, the worldwide economy would save $1.6 trillion by 2050 through health and social savings.
There is an important section on the attempts of the meat industry to try and create confusion about the health effects of their products, comparing their tactics to those of the tobacco industry, who paid athletes and doctors to advertize their products and tried to present their own dubious research demonstrating the 'safety' of smoking. Now, we have athletes selling us Big Macs, and undeclared lobbyists for the meat industry writing for prestigious medical journals.
For example, there was recently a flurry of media headlines about ‘vegans being at risk of brain damage’ due to a lack of choline. This stemmed from an opinion piece by a nutritionist in the British Medical Journal, who had failed to declare she worked for the Meat Advisory Panel, a meat industry lobby group.
The BMJ amended the article to declare this conflict of interest after I wrote to inform them of this, but unfortunately, this important amendment was not reported by the media outlets who had already spread the unfounded scare story. Doctors and dieticians who are not funded by the meat industry are clear that choline deficiency is not a concern for vegans.
Also making widespread headline news recently (interestingly the day before The Game Changers was released online) was a study claiming that ‘red and processed meat isn’t as bad for health as previously thought’. This study has multiple significant flaws and has been criticized by the wider scientific community including the World Cancer Research Fund, and subsequently, an investigation by the New York Times found that the lead study author had previous ties to the food industry, including the beef industry, that again had been undisclosed.
Another example is the very small number of scientists who deny that cholesterol is related to heart disease. This has been debunked by the vast majority of experts, and there are suggestions to treat ‘cholesterol-deniers’ in the same way as ‘climate change deniers’ in order to prevent dangerous public confusion.
As long as there is money to be made from an industry, however, there will be people claiming that it is safe, and the media will always enthusiastically report on any story that suggests people can carry on with habits they enjoy.
Meat and masculinity
A key aspect the film explores is the culturally embedded myth, encouraged by the meat industry myth, that meat is an integral aspect of masculinity. This idea was famously explored by social scientist Carol Adams in her 1990 book The Sexual Politics of Meat, and unfortunately still persists. It is reflected in the fact that men only currently make up 37 percent of vegans. There persists a belief amongst many men, that the only time it is ‘safe’ to be seen is cooking is grilling meat at a barbecue.
This is where I believe the film will really be a Game Changer. By showcasing elite plant-based bodybuilders, UFC fighters, weightlifters and American footballers, winning in their respective fields, it robustly proves that not only are vegan diets not holding athletes back in these traditionally masculine sports, they are in fact excelling.
The evidence to refute the common dietary myths is well presented (and summarized on the Game Changers website). This includes solid answers to the classic protein question. The myth that you need animal protein has been debunked, and the film explains that all protein comes from plants - vegans just cut the middle man (or ‘middle cow’). In fact, there is a wealth of evidence to show that plant protein is much healthier than animal protein. Globally people are eating more protein than they need, often to the detriment of other nutrients, such as fiber, as Dr Garth Davis explains in detail in his book Proteinaholic.
Another persisting belief, encapsulated by the alt-right slur 'soy-boy', is that soy is somehow feminising for men. The evidence is categorically clear that soy does not affect testosterone or estrogen in levels in men, whereas it is, in fact, it is dairy milk from cows - who are often pregnant - that contains mammalian sex hormones and has been proven to increase estrogen and decrease testosterone in men.
Exploring the issue of virility further, an amusing scene showed volunteers being hooked up to a penis sensor, which showed that plant-based meals actually improved the quality and frequency of their erections. Responding to these results, the urologist Dr Spitz states: 'it's going to wake up people who have penises, and it’s going to wake up people who like people who have penises'. (I love how inclusive this is!)
As a GP, I measure blood sugar levels and cholesterol levels in patients presenting with erectile dysfunction, as these are known contributing factors, and the evidence is clear that a dietary change towards fruit, vegetables, whole grains and legumes improves blood flow and therefore erections.
New plant-based products like Beyond Burgers and Impossible Burgers Beyond taste so similar to beef that most people cannot tell the difference, and are similarly high in protein, making a mental shift to plant-based eating much easier and less threatening to men.
These foods are processed so not as healthy as eating some unprocessed tofu, but still much healthier than their meat versions. They are also healthier for the planet. Towards the end of the film there is a good summary of the environmental devastation that meat and other animal products are wreaking on the planet.
Animal agriculture is responsible for over 90 percent of the destruction of the Amazon and globally uses 83 percent of agricultural land but produces just 18 percent of calories and 37 percent of protein.
It has been calculated that going vegan is the biggest impact anyone can make to reduce their ecological impact, an issue explored in the new book by Jonathan Safran Foer We Are The Weather.
A few criticisms of the film I’ve heard include disappointment that high profile sports stars like Novak Djokovic or Venus Williams did not feature more heavily, that there wasn’t enough detail on how to go plant-based, that the differences between ‘junk food’ vegan food and healthy plant-based food was not described in more detail, and that the animal rights aspect of veganism did not feature more.
After the screening I attended at the cinema, they showed some cut footage, which addressed some of these points, and although I understand the need for editing to keep people's attention it would be great if the producers could also release an extended cut version.
In the meantime, their website also has a lot of useful information on the 'how' part of going plant-based. The documentary Forks Over Knives presents the data about chronic disease and processed foods in more detail.
In terms of animal rights, there is a small nod to this towards the end of the film, and I would argue that this isn’t the film to explore this issue in more detail, and could lead people to switch off. Once people are ready, there are already several documentaries on this topic (Earthlings, Dominion, Land of Hope and Glory), that people may be more receptive to when they have already changed their behaviour for the health and fitness benefits.
'An enormous punch'
Ultimately, however, this documentary packs an enormous punch in its 80-minute running time.
Academic research papers have limited ability to motivate people to change their lifestyles. Watching people performing incredible acts elicits much more visceral and emotional reactions that go a long way to counteracting negative stereotypes.
I’ve already had my first patient report back to me they have gone plant-based after watching it, and I am sure they are only the first of many. For our health and the planet, this film couldn’t have come at a better time.