The Game Changers Documentary
The game changers is a documentary on Netflix featuring James Wilks, a retired professional mixed martial artist. Whilst recovering from injury, James researched how to support his recovery which ultimately led him to look at research from around the world on the impact of protein and carbohydrates on the body – from a performance and recovery perspective but also in general health terms including heart disease, risk of premature death and chances of contracting ill health including risk of developing cancer.
The documentary has gained a huge amount of interest from people wanting to understand what plant based eating is and if the research featured if valid. Subsequently, many people have spoken out against the documentary claiming that it is biased, people featured on the documentary were simply doing it to make money, and the research sited was flawed. I am not going to look at these arguments, instead simply look at how the body works, what protein does in the body and how it does process both plant and vegetable sources differently. I will look at the bodies need for carbohydrate and if you were to make any changes to plant based eating, what this would look like to make sure you were getting all the nutrients that your body needs.
So lets start with the question most people want to understand – is the research and information portrayed in the game changers documentary valid? Well, in my professional opinion, the simple answer is yes - however, people can still be ‘unhealthy’ when following a plant based diet, but more on this later.
The documentary discussed lots of different areas as to the benefits of plant based eating – these were not only looking at the levels of protein that our bodies are provided with, but also the antioxidants, phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals that plant based eating gives to the body – these all have anti-inflammatory properties, are key components for a strong immune system, support how the body functions at a cellular level, can reduce our risk of developing ill health and can even slow down how quickly we age. If your diet is lacking in plant based food, you simply will not get enough of these key components we need. So much is written looking at our diets from a macronutrient level – this is measuring your intake of fat, protein and carbohydrates, especially when looking at improving muscle mass and fitness levels. Just calculating your macronutrients is not a way to measure a good diet. It is not looking at how your body uses and breaks down these foods, and more importantly there is no focus on the micronutrients – the vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and antioxidants. These really are the little power houses that have the ability to not only look after your muscles, tissues, organs and systems but also have the potential to reverse ill health. You might be eating your ‘correct’ amount of protein each day, but if your body cant utilize this protein, or this protein creates inflammation and increased inflammatory markers in your blood, you are creating damage, reducing your energy levels and creating a burden for your immune system.
Due to clever marketing, we are led to believe that vegetable sources of protein are inferior to animal sources of protein, and this is all down to the building blocks of protein called amino acids. We are make some amino acids in our body, but there are 22 that our body can not make which we have to get from dietary sources. These are called the essential amino acids. Historically it was thought that vegetable sources had some missing and therefore they were lacking, so the only way to get your amino acids was to eat meat. It is true that vegetable sources can varying in how much of the amino acids they contain, however if you are eating a plant based diet that has a good variety of plant based protein, your diet will be getting all the amino acids it needs so this is quite an invalid argument to make.
One of the areas the documentary focused on initially was looking at how well the endothelium in our body works. The endothelium regulates blood flow throughout the body, and if it is impaired it cannot dilate properly restricting blood flow to that area of the body. They conducted a small research group showing when you eat animal fat and protein, the fat can stay in your blood stream therefore potentially damaging the endothelium, whereas plant fat and protein are processed in a much different way, and not only do they not damage the endothelium, that actually have the ability to improve its functioning. This is important not only for athletes, but for our general energy levels and wellbeing. We can become so reliant on sugar and caffeine to stimulate our bodies throughout the day and keep us awake and alert whilst at work. Improving blood flow throughout the body really helps improve how much oxygen and nutrients are circulated. The result of your body getting more of these circulated? Improved energy, improved physical performance and improved mental clarity.
One of the biggest claims of the documentary was focused around our intake of animal products and our increased risk of ill health, quoting if you have a diet high in animal products you are at a 75% increased risk of premature death and a 400 – 500% increased risk of death from most forms of cancer. Whilst I can not substantiate these claims made, I can explain some of their reasoning for this, which is mostly around animal products and their levels of hormones, antibiotics and something called insulin growth factor 1 (IGF1). IGF1 is mostly found in milk and dairy products and is a hormone specifically designed for weaning. When a baby animal is born, it goes through its biggest growth spurt during its early weeks. IGF1 works by stimulating the cells in the body to grow and divide rapidly, therefore helping the baby to grow. If we have a high intake of dairy, and IGF1 there is a risk that this is triggering our cells to grow and divide rapidly which can be a precursor to many forms of ill health, especially if it is stimulating damage cells to grow and divide rapidly before our immune system can detect them and kill them off before damage is down.
What about our gut bacteria? The bacteria in our gut is gaining more and more interest, with greater research being carried out. Some people now claim the gut to be the second most important organ in our body because of its role – from metabolism, immunity, absorption of nutrients and direct impact on our mood and stress levels, the gut bacteria really do play a key in our overall health. Eating a diet high in plant food really helps the gut bacteria to flourish and really encourages a large variety of ‘good’ bacteria to colonize and thrive, encouraging systemic health benefits.
Does this mean we should all go plant based or simply avoid red meat? Well, there is no simple answer to this one and is really down to what you can do. Red meat isn’t the only meat that has been shown to have potential negative effects, and it is in fact all meat and dairy products. If you are going to continue to eat meat, try to get the best quality you can and have smaller portions of this. This would reduce the amount of IGF-1, hormones and antibiotics you are exposing your body to. Going completely plant based might not suit the constitution of some people – plant based protein is very high in fibre so can create bloating wind and a change bowel movements if you go from not eating much to suddenly having a large amount in your diet. If you can, try to go meat from 2 – 3 days a week to begin with, find recipes you enjoy and take the changes slowly.
As mentioned at the start, going vegan doesn’t always mean you are healthy – sugar, processed carbohydrates, crisps, chips, vegan chocolate, some alcoholic drinks, meat substitutes are all vegan but it doesn’t mean it is good for you – especially if you start to increase your intake of white processed carbohydrates. If you want to make nutritional changes to improve your health, it is important to remember that and not just rely on convenience foods.
Try to ensure you are eating complex carbohydrates and you are eating plenty of plant protein sources – nuts, seeds, lentils, beans, soy, tofu, vegan protein powders, nut butters are just some of the places you can start to boost your plant based protein intake from. Be adventurous with the variety of vegetables you are eating – the greater the array of colour you eat during the day the greater the phytochemical content your body will be getting. The greater the variety the greater the impact this will also have on your gut bacteria levels and all the health benefits this can bring.
This documentary has made people really think, but don’t rush changes, think it through, plan and think about your long term health rather than a short term quick fix.