The Science Behind The Game Changers
Today I’m answering your top nutrition questions on the science supporting the vegan diet behind the movie “The Game Changers”.
What are your thoughts about the science supporting the vegan diet that was presented in the movie The Game Changers? –Rick
Sharon: The movie The Game Changers has received a great deal of attention, as more and more people look to a plant-based diet to aid in athletic performance. And we now have over 30 years’ worth of good evidence linking plant-based—including vegan diets—with health benefits, including reduced risks of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, hypertension, and cancer. We also know that plant-based diets are linked with greater intakes of healthful nutrients, such as healthy fats, fiber, many vitamins and minerals, and phytochemicals—which have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant action.
While there are not enough studies demonstrating the athletic performance benefits of plant-based diets over other types of diets, we have seen studies that have documented performance benefits for specific plant foods, from cherries to beets to green tea. And it is intuitive to draw the conclusion that eating mostly whole plants might flood the body with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds, which should be quite helpful to athletes in improving performance, endurance, and recovery. Indeed, research shows that plant-based diets are linked with lower levels of inflammation and oxidative stress, which would support this concept.
When it comes to the scientific basis for this documentary, I felt that there were some reliable facts presented, and then some information that might have been more for illustrative purposes rather than evidence-based information. For example, personal vials of blood analyzed immediately after eating a meal is probably not data that a respected peer-reviewed journal might publish, but it provides a visual example on film. And largely the film is based on anecdotes over research. The stories of athletes experiencing benefits in their performances while eating a plant-based diet are impressive. And viewers of the movie can take it just for that. If a range of athletes are performing at their best following this eating style, it might be something you might want to consider trying to see if it works for you.
One thing to keep in mind is that good research should compare interventions—for example, compare the effects of one diet against the effects of another diet. In many cases, documentaries leave this out of the equation, and with plant-based diets and sports performance, clearly, we are lacking research comparing vegan diets against other healthful eating patterns, like a Mediterranean diet. The gold standard for nutrition research is randomized controlled trials, however these are very difficult and expensive to conduct, which is why we don’t have enough of these studies in the nutrition world.
James and Suzy Cameron are creators of the film, and they have been criticized for being biased due to their financial interests in a plant-based food company. However, I have met Suzy, and believe both she and her husband are entirely genuine in their environmental advocacy for plant-based living, rather than purely revenue generation. In other words, I believe that the Camerons would have made this film whether they were behind a plant-based food company or not.
There are many evidence-based benefits for eating a plant-based diet, many of which are presented in the film. In my work as a plant-based dietitian, I have found that athletes—in particular those that perform in nature (runners, bikers, climbers)—not only care deeply about their performance, they often are driven by concerns over the planet, so they eat a plant-based diet to lessen their impact on the Earth and animals. There are more reasons than one for athletes to pursue this diet.
It’s also important to consider that a plant-based diet—rich in whole plant foods, like beans, lentils, whole grains, soy foods, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds—provides so many healthful nutrients to the diet, and these foods are linked with the health benefits derived from eating plants. These benefits—better heart function and blood pressure, reduced inflammation, better glucose control—can all help in athletic performance. Indeed, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that vegetarian and vegan diets can be beneficial and appropriate for all people of all ages, if planned well.
It’s important to make sure you plan a vegan or plant-based diet appropriately if you are an athlete, as you have increased nutrient needs that must be met with the diet, including more protein, carbohydrates, healthful fats, minerals, and the vitamin B12 (which must be supplemented in the diet). If The Game Changers inspires you to give a plant-based diet a try, then I would encourage people to make the move. However, they should get professional help from a plant-based nutritionist to make sure your diet is balanced to support increased nutrient needs. And even if people don’t want to go 100% plant-based, they can gain benefits from eating a more plant-based diet.
You can check out my free toolkit for more information on eating a healthful vegan diet.
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About Ask Sharon:
As part of my program “Ask Sharon”, I am answering the top question of the month submitted through my blog, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram to answer here. You can even win a prize! Don’t forget to submit your burning nutrition question via my blog, or other social media.