“The Game Changers” - Does the Science Stack Up?

Netflix - The Game Changers
Photo: The Game Changers

Day 10 Quarantine…

I’ve just returned to Singapore from settling my eldest into her university halls in England. It’s been a tough, hectic and joyful trip, as lots of parents who’ve just been through this will know. Now I find myself with a lot of time to reflect, as I serve out my time in quarantine.

Quarantine TV

Last night I finally watched The Game Changers. This pro-vegan show hit iTunes in 2018 and became an instant best-selling documentary (in fact, it’s the most successful documentary in iTunes history). When it dropped on Netflix last year, it lapped up a fresh audience in their millions. 

This documentary pitches viewers to embrace a fully plant-based diet by presenting new thinking and research about the magnificence of veganism.  Cinematically blending health and nutrition with "expert" views, it's directed by James Cameron (Titanic, The Terminator etc) and vegan activist James Wilks, and co-produced by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan.  This is a plush, celebrity-laden production that was destined to have mass public appeal.

I started watching the show with a balanced personal point of view.  I know that eating more plants is good for your health, but I believe that "properly produced" animal foods like meat, dairy and eggs are a natural part of the human diet and necessary for optimal health and performance. That said, I am always all eyes and ears for anything that can show me that there’s a better way to eat and stay healthy.  Sounds fair?   

What’s it All About?  

This 2-hour documentary follows the journey of former MMA fighter James Wilks, on his journey into the world of plant-based nutrition. Throughout the documentary, we are bombarded with references to scientific studies and celebrity appearances featuring none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger himself.  It didn’t take long for me to clock that the words ‘vegan’ and ‘vegetarian’ are purposefully replaced by the far less stigmatizing term: "plant-based". By using this term plant-based we can see how Cameron and Wilks are honing in on the nutritional appeal, avoiding the typical ecological and ethical side of the argument altogether. A smart move. 

This strategy of repackaging of an old food philosophy tweaked my suspicions, quickly highlighted as the swathes of scientific studies flashed across the screen. It was like something from the Shopping Channel screaming, "Hey look! It's Science Stuff…it's gotta be true!", but as the show unfolded (and my subsequent reading proved), the data was not only generally bogus, but was conducted on population samples so small that they wouldn't even count in an Infant School class survey.

I’ll go through just a couple of the questionable points Wilks puts forward and assess what sort of scientific evidence he’s using to change the game. Honestly, anyone interested in authenticating data will have a field day clocking the false claims which others have widely debunked. If you want to cut to the chase, have a read of this report. It’s a brilliant science-based summary that highlights everything that’s wrong with the data relied upon in The Game Changers.

1. Roman Gladiators Didn’t Eat Meat

This point is used to help create the foundation of the idea that plant-based diets were used to power elite warriors for centuries. Wilks cites just one “study by archaeologist Andrew Curry as the main proof of the age-old, health-enhancing nature of the vegan diet. Except it's not a study at all; it's a short anecdotal article in an archaeological journal. What's worse is the article states that gladiators weren't eating a plant-based diet to improve their performance or enhance their longevity. They were doing it to get fat.  According to paleo-pathologist, Karl Grossschmidt, the gladiator would not only be dead meat, but he would also have made for a terrible show.

Roman Gladiators

Gladiators with large amounts of fat made surface wounds look spectacular which made it far more thrilling for the crowd. In addition, nowhere is it stated that gladiators didn’t eat meat. This is a good example of the low-quality evidence on which The Game Changers seeks to woo us into embracing a plant-based diet.   

2. Plant Protein Provides Equal and Superior Athletic Performance Compared to Animal-Based Sources.

Next on the list of misappropriated research, Wilks cites a 2004 study on nutritional guidelines for vegetarian athletes in which he (correctly) says that when all of the essential amino acids are accounted for, the source is irrelevant. Wilks, however, neglects to mention that the very same study also outlines that vegetarians and vegans will have a much lower mean muscle creatine concentration which greatly impacts the upper limits of athletes in extreme performance zones. Plants can be a very good source of protein if all essential amino acids are accounted for, but to say that it is on par with animal protein in terms of iron, creatine, and synthesis availability (which are incredibly important for high performing athletes) is plainly false.

3. Drinking Milk Lowers Testosterone in Men

There is simply no evidence to show that milk decreases testosterone. Wilks cites a 2010 study that uses 7 men as its designated sample pool. And in the analysis of these 7 men, it finds that milk does not lower overall testosterone permanently, it merely dampens testosterone secretion temporarily. Again, this is just another sleight of hand that isn't an outright lie, but at this point, I was feeling reasonable doubt beginning to swell.

Effect of milk on testosterone

4. Eating Meat is As Bad for You As Cigarettes

In 2015 the UN published updated nutritional guidelines stating that eating significant amounts of heavily processed meat was as carcinogenic as smoking 1–3 cigarettes a day with no reference to the many nutritional benefits of animal proteins. Wilks is quick to jump on board with this point, highlighting the carcinogenic nature of meat. Wilks throws out a shock-jock maelstrom of terrifying information about the immense and compounding dangers of animal products, all of which will increase inflammation and guarantee your shot at developing cancer.

Tobacco vs Meat

This theory has been widely debunked, another example of taking data, wrapping it in hysteria and placing it wildly out of the correct initial context.

Dear Netflix, Can I Get My Money Back?

There are many problems with The Game Changers and countless reviews that have raised the red flag. It isn't just the pseudoscientific efforts to reinforce a strong ethical and ecological argument, it's the shallow and oftentimes false scientific framework. Unfortunately, by subscribing to such a strong ideological position, it destroys the opportunity for a nuanced and genuine public discussion. 

Like all ideologues, The Game Changers paints a picture of good vs. bad, light vs. dark, and by doing so it polarises viewers into opposite corners. The show aims to "give everyone the facts and decide for themselves", but when the "facts" have been sanded down, nipped and neatly tucked into a narrow ideological box, the show loses all credibility. I could go on describing lots of other incorrect, irritating and misleading aspects of the show, but I hope you get the picture (or better still, have a look and judge for yourself).

Final Thoughts

The Game Changers targets the highly suggestible, Instagram-nurtured, yo-yo diet market. It is built on misinformation to create the outcome it wants to see, rather than letting the facts shape it.  Rebranding veganism/vegetarianism under the plant-based diet flag is both a clever and cynical marketing ploy, but ultimately it plays on our never-ending search for what's new, what's better. 


Photo: The Washington Post

I've written about this several times, but yet again, the show stands for an ideological push for a singular, holy, perfect diet that is suitable for all people. This is highly frustrating to anyone who understands the basics of nutrition, and the accepted wisdom that there is no one-size-fits-all.

Plant-based diet

The Game Changers leaves the informed viewer with an uncomfortable realisation that this documentary was just another regurgitation of the ever-increasing phenomenon of the digital age: the appeal of provocative TV which drives subscribers and ratings. 

The Game Changers Movie - Instagram

Oh, and I have to mention the undeclared vested interest of James Cameron who benefits financially from his vegan product investments including Verdient Foods, a multi-billion dollar plant-based protein company. Lewis Hamilton, who features in the show, is a major investor in London-based vegan fast-food chain, Neat Burger.

If you wish to become a vegan for ethical, environmental, moral, religious, or other reasons, please go ahead. But please, don't become a vegan because a documentary like The Game Changers scared you into it. 

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