Do you need meat to build muscle? The Game Changers investigate
Is everything you've been told about animal protein a lie?
One new documentary suggests you should overhaul your meat-based diet and replace it with plant protein. While there is some truth in this approach, The Game Changers ultimately provides a one-sided view that doesn't consider a counter-argument.
What is The Game Changers about?
The Game Changers is a feature-length documentary led by James Wilks, a self-defence expert and former UFC fighter. Wilks suffered torn knee ligaments during a sparring session, which plunged both his professional and cage fighting careers into jeopardy.
After reading up on recovery strategies, he turned towards a plant-based diet to aid his recovery. The Game Changers documents Wilks' journey in uncovering the truth about animal protein, plant protein and their roles in performance and recovery.
Can you build muscle without meat?
What sets The Game Changers aside from many other pro-plant documentaries is its choice of talent. It's a far cry from the hippy culture and militant veganism seen in Cowspiracy, for example.
Wilks challenges the assumption that eating meat makes you a man, and that you need it to build muscle and strength. Arnold Schwarzenegger makes an appearance, and says he regrets eating so much meat during his bodybuilding heyday. Schwarzenegger also says his cholesterol is now the healthiest it has ever been after switching to a plant-based diet.
Also featured is Patrik Baboumian, a vegan weightlifter and one of Europe's strongest men.
In essence, you can build muscle on a plant-based diet. You just have to think a little differently. Research shows you need 20-40 grams of protein post-workout. A chicken breast, salmon fillet or steak will provide this in one serving.
For plant protein, you can't get by on one single source to hit that target. You have to combine foods such as beans, lentils, quinoa and chickpeas each time to hit that same level of protein. It's possible, but just means you have to eat lots of food.
Despite the health benefits Schwarzenegger has experienced from cutting back on beef patties, he recently told Men's Health USA that he isn't completely vegan.
This is evidence for reducing meat intake, but not completely eliminating it.
Were Gladiators vegetarians?
In its initial scene, The Game Changers harks back to the very first competitive athletes: Roman gladiators.
Although renowned for their brutal strength and toughness, Wilks claims Roman gladiators were mostly all veggies. They were actually referred to as 'Hordearii', which translates from Latin as 'barley men'.
Wilks meets a scientist from the Medical University of Vienna, who analysed the remains of Roman gladiators. In these remains were the presence of grains, legumes and barley, but not much meat. Further tests showed no loss of bone density or muscle strength either.
Again, this points to the ability of plant protein to supply the body with sufficient energy for strength sports, but it's not clear whether these gladiators were completely meat-free. There's a difference between eating a majority plant-based diet, and one that is 100% vegan.
Fuelling up a Fire Department
Wilks meets the Brooklyn branch of New York's Fire Department. The segment begins with a pretty startling statistic - the biggest killer of firefighters isn't smoke, or fire itself. It is heart attacks.
Most of the men employed report high blood pressure and unhealthy levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol - obvious risk factors for cardiac issues.
Their diets are high in meat and animal protein, too. The firefighters are put on a plant-based diet for a few weeks and report back with their findings. Virtually all of them lose weight and lower their blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
But the problem with this study is the same for many others: correlation doesn't equal causation.
There might be a link between plant-based diets and better health, but can we say for definite that a plant-based diet actually caused these results?
Most plant-based diets are lower in calories - could it not be that which explains the weight loss? When you lose weight, your risk of heart attack and disease is also lowered.
NFL players ditching meat
Wilks follows three NFL players from the Miami Dolphins. The two meat eaters are given animal protein meals, whereas the vegan player is given a plant-based meal.
Their bloods are taken shortly afterwards. The vegan player produces much clearer blood than those who ate meat. These results are reinforced by evidence provided by an array of cardiologists, who report that meat is more likely to cause heart problems and circulatory issues.
Plant protein is generally low-fat, whereas meat is generally higher in fat. In The Game Changers, there is a lot of credible evidence put forward that points to the anti-inflammatory properties of a plant-based diet.
That said, it's a huge generalisation to assume all meats pose the same risk. High levels of saturated fat are linked to conditions such as atherosclerosis, true. But a very lean cut of turkey is not as harmful as a fatty, rib eye steak, for instance.
Turkey is also extremely rich in leucine, a branched chain amino acid that plays a crucial role in the muscle-building process. This documentary covers essential amino acids (EAAs), but doesn't make a single mention of branched chain amino acids (BCAAs).
In terms of the NFL players, their blood tests may also be impacted by health conditions that we don't know about.
Paleo Diet - was this really vegetarian?
Wilks goes in on the Paleo Diet, also known as the Caveman Diet. This aims to replicate what Paleolithic man supposedly ate - meat, fish, seasonal fruit and nuts. As Wilks points out, they got it wrong.
Remains of these humans also show the presence of grains and legumes. Both foods are banned from the modern Paleo Diet. Wilks, however, jumps to the conclusion that Paleo man was therefore plant-based, but this seems wide-of-the-mark. These carb sources and fruits were widely available to cavemen, but that's not to say they ate no meat.
They simply had to go and hunt for it - so there was less meat present in their diet than what you'd find nowadays.
Should we reduce our meat intake? Probably. Do we need to completely cut it out? Probably not. Environmental concerns remain the most convincing argument for becoming completely plant-based.
The Game Changers is released in selected cinemas on the 16th September