The new Netflix documentary The Game Changers debunks the myth that you need meat to be healthy. Are plant-based diets the secret weapon to becoming an athletic champion?

Olivia Rafferty

The new Netflix documentary The Game Changers debunks the myth that you need meat to be healthy. Are plant-based diets the secret weapon to becoming an athletic champion?

Alongside many other big figures in the sports world, US military combative instructor James Wilks “sees the human body as a powerful machine with the potential for excellence in many areas”. Under the misconception that food is just a source of calories and protein, the former UFC fighter finds himself injured and decides to go on a mission to uncover the ‘Truth in Nutrition’.

Wilks’s first discovery, concluding that Roman gladiators were vegetarian, inspires him to travel across four different continents. He meets icons like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lewis Hamilton, Dotsie Bausch and Morgan Mitchell, finding that their success all came down to the sole consumption of plant-based foods.

Does this, in fact, mean that veganism isn’t the ‘weak’ lifestyle that we make it out to be?

The global effect

As a long-term vegan who can’t go a day without a workout, I can’t say being ‘weak’ has ever even been a passing thought. I personally feel it has made me stronger.

But the biggest reason I went plant-based, is because of the wider effects our diets can have on planet Earth.

Damien Mander, Founder of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, believes that despite his efforts to hunt down those who kill elephants and rhinos for fun, the biggest enemy we face is the meat industry.

“This whole fantasy that we need meat to get our protein is bullshit, I mean just look at a gorilla. It’ll fuck you up in two seconds, and what does a gorilla eat?” Mander makes a point about the ‘greater enemy’, but what is the animal agricultural industry taking away from us?

The Game Changers states that ¾ of all agricultural land is used for livestock. Meat, egg, dairy and fish farming uses 83% of farmland – but only provides 18% of the world’s calories. As a consequence, it is the earth’s biggest source of habitat destruction, whilst giving little back.

Water is also an issue. The continuous outtake of water to make feed for animals has to lead to 25% of the world’s rivers fizzling out before they even reach the sea. Put into perspective, a single hamburger requires 2400 litres of embedded water. That’s almost two years of drinking water for the average man.

If more people went plant-based, not only would we waste less water, and destroy fewer lives, but we would also cut down 15% of global emissions.

Even with just the US going vegan, we would free up land the size of Africa, and save 1 million litres of water per person per year.

But how do plants optimize our health?

Focusing on the smaller-scale effects, Wilks realises that plants are also the key to a longer life.

72-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger recounts how he used to eat 10-15 eggs a day, believing that all his protein had to come from animals. Switching to a 99% vegan diet, he claims that his cholesterol dropped to “the lowest that it ever was in [his] entire life.”

The World Health Organisation has stated that if the known risk factors were eliminated, over 40 per cent of cancer and at least 80 per cent of all heart disease, strokes, and type 2 diabetes would be prevented.

There is a big confusion with heart diseases and their link to food. Avoiding red meat is no longer enough because cholesterol and saturated fat are not the only culprits. Thus, lean meat, low-fat dairy and egg whites are not the solutions to a disease-free life.

Research has found that a single animal-based meal can impair blood flow and increase inflammation by 70%. And even one portion of white meat increases your chances of colon cancer by a third.

But if you retrieve protein from plant-based foods, you will consume 65 times more antioxidants and reduce the risk of heart disease by 55%. The nutrients we get from plants optimize flow and recovery, and stimulate our immune system; perhaps this is why it is the only diet proven to have ever reversed heart disease.

Bouncing back

Being able to jump right back into a workout is a huge advantage for athletes.

Six weeks into his experiment, Wilks comes to a shocking discovery. Beating his record time on rope training by 52 minutes, feeling no pain whatsoever, the former UFC fighter realises all that has changed is his diet.

On average, plant-eaters get 70% more protein than they need. One peanut butter sandwich has as much protein as an ounce of beef or three large eggs.

But protein is not the main source of energy for exercise, carbohydrates are.

Studies show that the removal of this essential element will lead to chronic fatigue and loss of stamina. So why do we tend to cut out carbohydrates when we want to get into shape?

The Game Changers explains this with the myth that carbohydrates causing weight gain is probably the answer. Although it has now been proven that foods such as bananas, oats and sweet potatoes are directly associated with decreased body fat.

So, before jumping to the conclusion that you can’t get through a workout without your protein shake or burger – remember that a bowl of porridge will do you better.

Media Glorification vs. Manhood

The Game Changers‘s final area of exploration is the reasoning behind the protein myth. Schwarzenegger himself comments: “There was this misconception that that’s the only way you get big and strong… But you’ve got to understand: that’s marketing. That’s not based on reality.”

Ironically, meat has proven to have an opposing effect on men. Meat causes the loss of their ‘manhood’.

An experiment carried out on American footballers, who were made to eat meat-based food one night and plant-based the following, and then wear a device measuring their natural erections whilst asleep, shows extraordinary results.

When realizing that plant-based food actually leads to longer-lasting, harder erections, one of the subjects humorously recalls: “When I was younger and I saw a guy ordering a steak at a restaurant, I’d want to be like him. Then if I saw a guy ordering a salad, I’d think he’s soft. But really, it’s the guy with the steak who’s soft.”

Fueling yourself like a champion

Even if it isn’t because of animal welfare, or the state of our planet, re-evaluating our diets may not be the worst decision we can make today.

It may seem like a mountain, an impossible challenge, but Dotsie Bausch, eight-time US National Cycling Champion says: “People have in their heads that if they are going to do something, it’s an all or nothing approach and that’s not the case at all.”

We are lucky enough to have everything duplicated in its vegan form, including ‘burgers’, ‘nuggets’ and ‘steaks’. Even just looking at Wilks’ website is a place to start. With recipes ranging from curries and cinnamon rolls to stir-fries and even pizza, turning plant-based won’t be as daunting as you think.