How The Game Changers movie is misleading us about vegan diets and athletic performance

Vegan diets are better than omnivorous diets for athletic performance. So says The Game Changers movie. However, there is very little evidence to support this claim. And the ‘evidence’ presented in the movie is unforgivably misleading.

Throughout the movie the viewer is dazzled with stories of ‘world class’ athletes who got fitter, faster, and stronger after transitioning to a plant-based diet. The film’s narrative implies that these plant-based athletes are dominating their sports, because of their plant-based diets.

But when we dig a little deeper (as we did last week with the evidence on vegan diets and blood vessel function), it becomes obvious that we are being misled (again):

  • Stories about a handful of individuals doesn’t prove anything about anything. Even if these individuals were in fact dominating their respective sports.
  • The featured athletes are not dominating their sports. Not even close. It’s safe to assume that the movie’s producers found the best vegan athletes out there. Which means there are many omnivorous athletes who are better. Often far better.
  • Transitioning from a Western-style junk food diet to a whole food plant-based diet (as many of these athletes did) will likely improve health, and may improve athletic performance (at least in the short term). But that has little to do with meat versus plants, and everything to do with junk vs real food.

Let’s take a look at each featured athlete (as at November 2020) in the order they appear in the movie.

Conor McGregor (UFC Fighter)

According to the movie, Conor McGregor lost to Nate Diaz in UFC 196 (6 March 2016) because he ate meat and his opponent did not. It’s true that McGregor lost the fight and that Diaz is a vegan. But what the movie didn’t mention was that McGregor beat Diaz in the rematch at UFC 202, less than six months later. McGregor is currently ranked 12th in the UFC pound-for-pound rankings, and 4th in the UFC Lightweight rankings. Diaz doesn’t feature in the current rankings.

Scott Jurek (Ultra-runner)

Scott Jurek is undoubtedly an accomplished ultra-runner. And he has been a vegan for a long time. He won the Western States Endurance Run (the world’s oldest 100-mile trail race) seven times between 1999 and 2005. His best time (clocked in 2004) was 15:36:27. A staggering achievement. But the record time of 14:09:28 (nearly an hour and a half quicker than Jurek) is held by Jim Walmsley. Walmsley is a vegetarian, but he doesn’t hold back on the animal foods – eating yoghurt and pizza daily. A further 11 runners have clocked faster times that Jurek. I haven’t researched their diets, but I assume none of them are vegan, otherwise I’m sure The Game Changers would have tracked them down.

As for the Appalachian Trail (the focus in the film), Jurek broke the record on 12 July 2015, completing the 2,190 mile route in 46d 8h 7m. But two years later, Joe “Stringbean” McConaughey ran it almost a whole day quicker, and one year after that Karel Sabbe smashed another four days off McConaughey’s time. Neither McConaughey or Sabbe is a vegan, and both love pizza (an ultra-runner favourite it would seem).

Morgan Mitchell (Track Runner)

Mitchell is a good 400m and 800m runner. But she’s far from being the best. She came 24th in the 400m at the Rio Olympics in 2016, and 22nd in the 800m at the Doha World Championships in 2019. Her best time in the 400m is 51:25, which is the 382nd fastest time. Her best time in the 800m is 2:00:06, the 470th fastest time. If there was a more accomplished vegan track athlete out there The Game Changers would have found them, so we can assume the fastest runners are all likely to be omnivores.

Dotsie Bausch (Track Cyclist)

Competing in the Olympics at age 40 is a massive achievement. Winning a silver medal is astonishing. And that’s exactly what Dotsie Bausch, the ‘plant powered’ cyclist did in 2012. I don’t want to be picky here, but she didn’t win the gold medal, and it was a team track cycling event. Her team mates were not vegan. And I’m not convinced that she was at the time either. I found an interview from September 2012, shortly after she won her silver medal in London. When asked about her diet, she said, “I eat mostly vegetarian”. That suggests she wasn’t even a fully committed vegetarian at the time, never mind vegan. Given there are five different track cycling events in the Olympics, there are likely to be quite a few omnivorous track cyclists who are as good as, or better, than Dotsie.

Kendrick Farris (Weightlifter)

He’s certainly strong, but not the strongest. In terms of Olympic results, Farris came 6th in Beijing (2008), 8th in London (2012), and 11th in Rio (2016). He transitioned to a vegan diet in 2014, and while his personal performance may have improved since then, his standing on the world stage (which is what matters here) has clearly declined.

Patrick Baboumian (Strongman)

Much is made of Patrick in the movie. How can you become so strong eating only plants? To be fair, he is very strong. And he does hold some random world records. But, how strong is he overall compared to strongmen who eat meat? Well, not very as it turns out. He has never qualified for The World’s Strongest Man or the main IFSA Strongman World Championships. He’s not big enough (and, by implication, not strong enough). He did compete in the IFSA 105kg Strongman World Championships – a lighter weight category – coming 14th in 2007 and 9th in 2009. He didn’t compete (probably because he didn’t qualify) after 2009. He became vegan in 2011, and, as far as I can tell, has not qualified for a world strongman competition since.

Bryant Jennings (Heavyweight Boxer)

Jennings has won quite a few professional fights, for sure, but he doesn’t make it into the top 30 world rankings, and has never won a title. The top two places in the world rankings are held by Tyson Fury (who currently has two belts) and Anthony Joshua (who currently has three belts). Both Fury and Joshua eat well-planned omnivorous diets with plenty of fish, meat, eggs, dairy, fruit and vegetables.

Derrick Morgan (NFL Linebacker)

Morgan retired in 2019 after nine seasons with the Tennessee Titans. He was ranked the 17th best Outside Linebacker in the 2017 season (his first season as a vegan), and was described as, “the premier example of a good-not-great player”. His performance dipped in the 2018 season, and then he retired age 30 in 2019, both of which seem to be at odds with how amazing he said he was feeling, performing, and recovering on a vegan diet.

Lewis Hamilton (F1 Driver)

Lewis is, of course, the exception here. He is undoubtedly dominating his sport. And he is a vegan. It’s surprising that he wasn’t given more airtime in the movie. But can we say that his vegan diet is responsible for propelling him to legendary F1 status? I don’t think so. Hamilton only became vegan in 2017. By that time he had already won two (if not three) of his seven Drivers’ Championships. The vegan diet certainly doesn’t seem to be hampering his performance. It may be improving it, but who’s to say he wouldn’t have been just as good, or better, on a well-planned omnivorous diet?

Yes, transitioning from junk food to a well-planned plant-based diet may well make you fitter, faster, or stronger. But will it make you the fittest, fastest, or strongest? The profiles of the world’s best athletes suggest otherwise.

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