What We Learned from the Athlete-Packed, Plant-Based Diet Documentary 'The Game Changers'
Wait, Arnold Schwarzenegger is a vegan now?!
It's a new era for veganism. From Kyrie Irving to former NFL lineman David Carter, more and more athletes are beginning to rely on a plant-based diet for improved performance, whether it's for a brief stint in the off-season or a full lifestyle transition. The new documentary The Game Changers explores the impact a plant-based diet has on athletic achievements, endurance and overall health and wellness. The film, which is directed by Oscar-winner Louie Psihoyos, and produced by James Cameron (who’s been on a vegan diet for years), is the project of MMA fighter and Ultimate Fighter winner James Wilks.
Throughout the film, Wilks serves as the narrator who attempts to tie all the stories together as he talks to athletes across all different sports, from two-time surfing champion Tia Blanco to record-holding Olympic weightlifter Kendrick Farris, along with many medical professionals, such as Dr. James Loomis, the former team physician for the St. Louis Rams and Cardinals. The result is an in-depth look at why a plant-based diet is so important to each of these athletes' own tales of success, while also taking a critical look at the meat industry and the myths it continues to perpetuate. The film itself is a bit scattered—in trying to cover so much ground, it sometimes feels as though the story itself is all over the place, and some of the points it makes (like the societal pressure on men to eat meat as a reflection of their manhood) are much stronger than others. Still, the film sheds light on a lifestyle that is becoming more and more popular among elite athletes.
Below is a breakdown of some of the more memorable points and moments from The Game Changers.
What Nate Diaz's Upset Over Conor McGregor Meant for the Vegan Community
One of the main points Wilks and Co. want to drive home here is how the meat industry grabbed hold of the market and popularized the idea that eating meat is equivalent to manhood. This message, which the documentary portrays as a manipulation of minds similar to the kind of societal shaping cigarette ads attempted, is demonstrated early on in the film by the August 2016 fight between Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz. McGregor, the seemingly invincible warrior, was the undefeated favorite, the tough guy who loves meat and therefore the embodiment of a "man's man." Diaz was the scrappy (but not undersized) underdog, who is vocal about his vegan lifestyle and his exclusion of any kind of animal meat from his diet. For advocates of the plant-based diet, the fight had a symbolic feel of the plant finally stepping out of the shadow and conquering its overpowering rival of meat. In what Wilks dubs the "greatest upset in the history of the UFC," Diaz ended up upsetting McGregor in the second round, a victory that his brother Nick, celebrated with a tweet that declared: "Conor McGregor got his ass kicked by a vegan!" It felt like as much of a win for the vegan community as it was for Diaz himself.
College Athletes Let A Urologist Measure Their Arousement Levels On A Plant-Based Diet
As mentioned above, The Game Changers is intent on debunking the problematic myth of "meat equals manhood." In order to do so in a way that might, ahem, resonate more effectively with its viewers, it films a meeting between a few college athletes and Dr. Aaron Spitz, the lead delegate of urology for the American Medical Association. What follows is the most entertaining scene of the documentary, thanks in large part to the very genuine and hilariously bashful reactions from the athletes. The young men are told by Spitz (in a study that he mentions is not yet backed by science), that a plant-based diet will increase their levels of arousement while they're asleep. (This is not the only mention of sex in this documentary...Lou Smith, a former NFL cornerback, later emphasizes how great his sex life has been since he's been on a plant-based diet).
Dr. Spitz gives them a "tool" to wear while sleeping and gives them both an animal-based and plant-based meal. The camera then focuses in on the athletes as they find out their results—after switching from meat-based to plant-based, their arousement levels jump by 300-400%, causing each of them to put their hands over their faces and laugh uncontrollably, while one of them shouts, "Bro! Bro, that's an hour longer, bro!"
Scott Jurek Set The Record For Running the Appalachian Trail on A Vegan diet
Jurek, a legend in the ultra marathoning world, set the speed record on the Appalachian Trail back in the summer of 2015, hiking through the 2,189 miles from Georgia to Maine in 46 days, eight hours and seven minutes. He did all this while maintaining a strict vegan diet, a difficult concept to fully comprehend due to our preconceived (and, as the film asserts, incorrect) notions about the correlation between animal protein and high energy levels. One of the film's crucial tenets is that we need to move past our tendencies to cling onto "outdated ideas about nutrition." The assumption that "meat gives you energy" is the biggest one. The animals who supposedly hold so much protein were getting all of that protein from the plants they were eating to begin with...so what if we just cut out the middle man and go directly to the original source? That's what Jurek has been doing for years, and it's what the film says had a huge part in his ability to refuel and press on through the rain and wind and eventually reach the top of Mount Katahdin. In some insightful and personal scenes, the documentary places us right along with him on his hike, as we get a sense of his struggles, doubts, and ultimately, his victories. (It's worth noting that Jurek's record has since been broken by Karl Meltzer in 2016, whose record was then broken by Joe McConaughy in 2017. The latter celebrated with "pancakes, eggs, sausage, home fries and toast.")
Arnold Schwarzenegger is a vegan now?!
In a film full of unexpected vegan figures—Germany's Strongest Man! A professional bodybuilder! A heavyweight title contender!—the good old "Austrian Oak" may be the most surprising. He's only in the film briefly, but he touches on how he has, in the past, been used by the meat industry as the shining example of the kind of man who eats steak—the desirable, strong man who can lift and fight and be the Terminator. "I've lived in that world," he says at one point. "Steak is for man." Schwarzenegger is the most famous figure in the documentary, and his presence adds an intriguing layer to the stories being told. While many are similar tales of athletes turning to veganism to try to perform at their highest levels, Schwarzenegger was advised by his doctor to start cutting meat out. It's still not completely clear if he's 100% vegan, but he talks earnestly at the end about a strategy that seems much more attainable for non-vegans who may be watching: Rather than advising a complete lifestyle change, he tells them to just cut meat out one day, two days at a time. It doesn't need to be an instant process. But his underlying message is that if he, with almost all of his fame relating to his buff appearance and tough guy demeanor, can cut down, it may not be as hard as one might anticipate after all.