One of the most popular and potentially deadly nutrition documentaries of recent years

The Game Changers is a documentary available on Netflix and iTunes. It is the best-selling documentary of all times on iTunes and will likely prove to be one of the most famous nutrition documentaries for years to come.

The Game Changers however has a fatal flaw that puts a substantial number of its viewers at substantial risk of potentially deadly adverse health outcomes. Here’s how.

A famous study

The below graph is from an abstract for a very famous and popular article (among cardiologists) published by researchers at Harvard in 2017.

It shows that eating more healthy, whole plants is associated with a lower risk of heart disease. Meanwhile, eating more meat (“animal foods”) is associated with higher risk of heart disease. So far, so good.

But what makes this study so popular among cardiologists is that it also shows that eating unhealthy, refined plant foods is associated with higher risk of heart disease.

Cardiologists use this paper to communicate an important point:

Going plant-based is not enough.

One must eat healthy plant-based foods. If one replaces meat with unhealthy plant-based foods, this might make one’s health even worse. There is even a name for this: junk food vegans.

Oreos are one of the classic vegan junk foods and is indeed widely promoted by animal rights organization PETA:

According to the above study and others, one is not doing one’s health any favors by swapping meat for vegan pizza, ice cream, and Oreos. While vegan junk food might taste good, a plant-based diet rich in junk foods is actually worse for health than the average omnivorous diet.

So not all vegan diets are created equally. Some are even created worse.

Junk food vegan? Or whole foods? How The Game Changers confuses and may endanger lives

So it is surprising and disappointing that this now well-known fact among plant-based health experts was not conveyed in The Game Changers. In some scenes, the film even seemed to suggest that replacing meat with junk food would produce better health.

This is false and will lead to worse health among viewers who get this impression.

An analysis

To objectively characterize this problem, I quantitatively and qualitatively analyzed every line in the film, using a search function on a document containing all speech in the film, then collating all statements containing particular keywords. Below is a screenshot of this work:

(This file can be downloaded here.)

Here’s what I found.

The word “plant” or “plants” appeared 69 times. The vast majority (65) were in a context arguing in favor of their consumption in lieu of meat, without specifying what kinds of plant foods should be eaten.

The word “meat” appeared 57 additional times. These were also all in the context of advocating their reduction, without addressing what they should be replaced with.

The concept of whole foods veganism was never introduced; emphasis instead was placed on hyperprocessed vegan foods

In only two occasions were “whole foods” mentioned, and only in passing. They are as follows:

“A whole food, plant-based diet is gonna optimize the growth of blood vessels into damaged tissue, it’s gonna lay down new tissue in tendons and muscles, it’s gonna stimulate their immune system to fight off infections.” (31:41)

“When you eat a healthy, whole foods, plant-based diet, it changes the expression of your genes.” (1:15:14)

(For the remainder of this review, I will be including in parentheses the time point in the video where the quotations can be found. My timepoints might differ slightly from yours, depending upon the release. Adjust accordingly.)

The term “whole food plant-based diet” is a staple among advocates of plant-based diets in the medical community, yet in neither of these cases was the concept explained. This was a grave mistake. While plant-based diets can be healthful, if they are composed of junk foods, they can be harmful if they replace a diet containing more meat and less junk.

Alarmingly, there were two statements that seemed to endorse vegan junk foods.

This is from Derrick Morgan, an NFL player and a key interviewee in the film:

“Yeah, I love to eat. In the beginning I was like, I gotta psych myself out to say I don’t care about flavor anymore. It wasn’t really a sacrifice. She was still cooking, you know, mac and cheese and chicken wings. Just plant based.” (00:59:51)

This line implies that nothing needs to improve diet, so long as one goes vegan, and one will enjoy improved health. One can eat the same mac and cheese and chicken wings, but if they are plant-based, they become healthy.

This is harmful misinformation.

The second line is from his wife Charity:

“These are plant based burgers. Grill up, smell, and taste like beef. And I’m making truffle mac and cheese, buffalo wings, kale caesar salad, crispy Brussels sprouts with a smoked sauce reduction, and we’ll finish off with a peanut butter cheesecake.” (01:01:10)

Plant-based burgers on plant-based refined buns with plant-based buffalo wings and peanut butter cheesecake.

Sounds a lot like the unhealthy plant-based diet associated with higher heart disease mortality.

Here are some images from the film:

There was a similar scene with Rip Esselstyn (38:17), showing relatively more healthy plant-based foods. Yet while the scene with Charity and Derrick Morgan and teammates focused on the deliciousness of the junky vegan food, the health superiority of the foods introduced in the scene with Rip at the firehouse was never explained. In other words, there was an asymmetry in representing healthy versus unhealthy plant-based diets, and this asymmetry leaned in favor of unhealthy plant foods. This is a serious and harmful flaw.

A caveat?

There was one part in the film where James speaks on the harms of refined carbohydrates. He says:

“I already knew that processed carbs like white flour and sugar can lead to weight gain, but what I didn’t realize is that unprocessed carbohydrates like oats, bananas and sweet potatoes are associated with decreased body fat.” (58:38)

Yet this comes just one minute before the long scene showing the football players talking about and eating junky vegan foods.

Which part did you remember? The seconds dedicated to the harms of white flour and sugar? Or the minutes of video dedicated to delicious-looking junky vegan foods containing white flour and sugar being consumed by some of the film’s stars?

The promotion of unhealthy vegan foods–and thus unhealthy vegans–was it intentional?

The promotion of unhealthy foods was not an accident. It was intentional. The word “vegan” was mentioned 11 times. In 9 cases, all that was implied was that a vegan diet was better than a diet containing meat, without specifying what kind of vegan diet.

Alarmingly, in 2 cases, vegan junk food was endorsed:

It’s best to lead by example. Most people say, “Oh, I just can’t become vegan.” I said, “You’re right. It’s a process to it.” I’ll give you guys some vegan chocolates. (01:17:22)

Really just… I like pizza. If I’m about to just chow down, like really get it, – man, a lasagna. – If you like chicken nuggets, okay, they have vegan nuggets. If you like meatballs, they got vegan meatballs. A lot of pizza, pasta and burgers. Sometimes even at the same time.

I will not give a time stamp to that line. Why? Because it was the closing line of the movie.

The film closed by emphasizing unhealthy vegan food. This implies that the lack of emphasis on healthy vegan food and the focus on unhealthy vegan food was an intentional design feature of the film.

Look at the following graph again:

And think for a moment about what the apparently focus on unhealthy vegan foods implies.

This problem could have been fixed with just a few minutes of a single interviewee emphasizing and explaining the importance of a plant-based diet that is rich in whole foods, but in the entire 83-minute documentary, this was never done.

Not once.

Instead, the film closed with a line endorsing a plethora of unhealthy vegan foods. “Sometimes even at the same time.”

A website that is just as confusing and harmful as the film

On the Core Principles page of the website, we find the following paragraph:

While most people understand that sugary drinks like soda, fried foods like potato chips, and refined flour products like white bread or pastries are definitely not ideal for optimizing health or fitness, few people understand that a diet based on animal foods — whether whole (like chicken breast and eggs) or heavily processed (like bacon and cheese) — is of far greater concern than misguided fears like “eating too many carbs”. And even fewer understand that the overwhelming body of scientific evidence shows that choosing a diet centered around a wide variety of plants, especially in their whole form, is the single most powerful tool we have for the prevention, treatment, and even reversal of many of our most common diseases.

The first sentence alone is confusing. For people who do not understand precisely what carbohydrates are and confuse them with white bread and pastries (not realizing that many healthy carbohydrates also exist), this first sentence seems even to excuse hyperprocessed foods like these, suggesting that animal products are more harmful. This is false. Animal products are likely less harmful than such foods.

But the second sentence is the real zinger. Let’s look at the most confusing part:

the overwhelming body of scientific evidence shows that choosing a diet centered around a wide variety of plants, especially in their whole form, is the single most powerful tool we have:”

The operative word is not “especially”. It is “only”. “Only in their whole form” is how this phrase should read. Refined, junky plant foods are not helpful for the prevention of disease. Yet this sentence implies that the whole food part of a plant-based diet is optional. This is not true, and a diet consisting of many refined foods will cause greater harm to health than the average omnivorism will.

When we click on the Recipes page, we find similar ambiguity with the opening image:

Junk food, veganized.

This will not improve health. Foods like these replacing other breakfast foods like eggs may well harm health.

The role of animal foods and unprocessed foods in a healthy diet

This does not imply that junk foods should never be consumed. They can be consumed, in moderation. Yet the film never makes this distinction. This is unfortunate because this basic piece of nutritional literacy would be helpful to people who believe that simply avoiding meat will improve their health.

It will not.

If most of your calories are coming from hyperprocessed foods like pastries, bagels, crackers, donuts, etc., then your health would probably be better off if you replaced these calories with animal foods.

Without these caveats, the film should be regarded as harmful for the public health and not be promoted or shown in public institutions. Contrary to what James Wilks claimed on the Joe Rogan Experience, this film effectively does not primarily extol the health virtues of healthy plant-based diets. Rather it really does prioritize the promotion of veganism–in the name of health but, for many people who will be confused by the film’s messaging, despite the negative health consequences that will ensue.

Coming from someone who consumes a predominantly whole foods plant-based diet, I believe much to my dismay that this film risks causing significant damage to the cause of predominantly plant-based diets.

Coming from someone who consumes a predominantly whole foods plant-based diet and who believes that predominantly plant-based diets can be healthy and should be much more widely consumed, I believe much to my dismay that this film risks causing significant damage to this cause.

If you want optimal health on a plant-based diet, the large majority of calories must come from unprocessed foods. If you would like ideas about how to achieve this, Google “whole foods plant-based diet”, and you can get started.

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