Before I start this post, I will disclose that I am not a vegan, but unlike the low-carb zealots, I think we can learn something from the plant-based crowd. This is why even before the film The Game Changers came out, I was already listening to what they had to say. I discussed the start of this journey back in June in the post Listening to the Smartest Vegans.
Before YouTube and The Game Changers
When The Game Changers came out, I was already receptive to a pro-vegan case that spoke directly to athletes, because I had started watching many great vegan role models on YouTube.
Until this year, with the exception of light-weight endurance athletes, I was unaware of muscular athletic male vegans. This point is important because if you go your entire life without seeing evidence that one can follow a whole-foods plant-based diet at an elite level, you don’t believe it is possible. And that was my case and I’m guessing the case with many other fitness enthusiasts.
Prior to this year, my biased beliefs against a vegan diet came from the fact that every man that I had met that self-identified as a vegan looked weak and malnourished. In hindsight, I can now clearly see that these vegans were motivated either by ethical reasons or they were coming to a vegan diet because they were trying to solve a health issue. Restrictive eating of any type can result in a malnourished look.
I loved the movie The Game Changers because it demonstrated clearly that one could achieve a high level of athletic performance on a vegan diet. I knew one could be a 100-pound marathoner on a vegan diet, but seeing boxers, powerlifters, and bodybuilders succeed was powerful.
Debunking the Debunking of the Debunking
After watching The Game Changers, I also read and watched many of the debunking articles and videos. Then I followed the debunking of those debunkings. I went deep on this.
There were some good, bad, and outright dishonest rebuttals. Layne Norton, who has a damn good-looking website, wrote The Game Changers Review – A Scientific Analysis (Updated). Then Garth Davis, MD, who has a terrible-looking website, wrote Response To Layne Norton’s Review of the Game Changers. You pick the winner. I found Davis, despite having an ugly website, to be more persuasive. Also check out Mic the Vegan’s YouTube response to Chris Kresser’s rebuttal.
Here is my take away.
Many in the low-carb, keto and paleo fitness communities are experiencing massive cognitive dissonance. The bedrock belief that one must eat meat and or dairy to be strong, elite and cut has been shattered. For many, this is the first time they will have been exposed to the idea that they had a gap in their knowledge of nutrition.
They could respond positively – like I did – and celebrate the fact we as fitness enthusiasts have another dietary path we can use to achieve great physiques. Or they could double-down on their prior beliefs by seeking out comforting words from a debunker in their nutritional tribe. Often their nutritional tribe leader is profiting from the myth that The Game Changers demolished.
Yes, I said demolished. Remember, the movie wasn’t making the case that a vegan diet was better. It may have been implied at times, but the larger point was these vegan athletes showed us what many in the Paleo and related communities said wasn’t possible.
If you think I am making that up, here is one example. From the Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf, which is a book I purchased back in 2010 in my early Paleo days.
Some well-intentioned but misguided souls will tell you that you can get protein from beans and rice, nuts and seeds. That’s true, but these are what I would call “third-world proteins.” They will keep you alive, but they will not make you thrive.
Those athletes in The Game Changers looked like they were thriving to me.
How I’m Proceeding
Whole-food plant-based vegans often make the claim that their diet is less inflammatory, which should result in faster recovery. Faster recovery is the number one thing I have been interested in for years now. I also now know that I won’t lose muscle by shifting to “third-world” plant proteins, so I am free to test a more vegan-based diet out for myself.
And I have been. Since spring, I have cut out 90% of my dairy and red meat consumption. I have reduced my chicken and egg consumption by about 50%. I’m still eating the same amount of seafood. I’ve increased my legume, tuber, and whole-grain consumption (all gluten-free now).
What has been the result? I’ve lost no muscle and I’ve never been leaner. My recovery times are better. Plus my energy level is higher, although most of that came from reducing my coffee intake. I’ll continue my test because it appears to be working.
I’ll end this post with a Bruce Lee quote:
Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own.
The useful thing I am absorbing from The Game Changers is the knowledge that men and women at a variety of ages in a variety of sports can achieve a high level of fitness without animal protein. And the thing I am discarding is the Paleo/Low Carb myth that one can’t be elite on a plant-based diet.
Nov 30, 2019 — 10:22 am
So how do these fine athletes obtain adequate vitamins D and K2, just to mention two fat-soluble nutrients which are considered critical for long-term health?
For my part I’m less interested in seeing evidence that one can follow a whole-foods plant-based diet at an “elite level” but seeing long-term evidence that it is sustainable at all age levels across multiple generations.
Dec 1, 2019 — 7:47 am
Vitamin D from the sun. K2 from natto. Plus there is supplementation. Sources of vegan fat include avocados, coconut, nuts, and seeds. Not a concern.
Dec 2, 2019 — 1:22 pm
@Victoria: Supplements are not *whole foods*. If vegans require vitamin pills to obtain the dietary nutrients that omnivores get through consuming animal products, then that is a tacit acknowledgement that the vegan diet is fundamentally inadequate. That’s OK if you are promoting veganism for ethical reasons and everyone is aware of its nutritional shortcomings, especially parents with young children.
As for vitamin D, Michael (for example) lives at 47N and I (for example) live at 52N. At these latitudes the sun isn’t strong enough around six months of the year for those of living in these reaches to produce vitamin D through the skin, hence consuming (ideally) *whole foods* sources are indispensable for good health, as I’m sure you are aware. That does not include avocados, alas.
Dec 2, 2019 — 7:22 pm
@Colin – Yeah, for me my issue was iron. I wasn’t even vegan, but I am an active blood donor and without red meat, but iron levels got too low. So, today I supplement with a whole-food beef organ tablets.
My current thinking is one can get almost all the benefits of that diet by following it 80-90% of the time and then hit the most nutrition-dense animal foods to round out the diet. Especially in winter, as you pointed out.
Dec 4, 2019 — 6:20 pm
While on a 10 – day cruise to the Panama Canal, I decided to read Protein aholic by Dr. Garth Davis. I found the book overwhelmingly convincing of the benefits to human longevity derived from a plant based diet.
Due to personal choice, I am never going to give up animal protein, but I do try to lessen my consumption regardless of my personal outcome.
Dr McDougall speaks eloquently convincingly of a starch based diet. Dr Esselstyn and Dr Pritikin have reversed symptoms of heart disease with plant based diets taccompanied by less than 10 percent of calories from fat. Dr Kempner used rice (carbohydrates) to alleviate symptoms of hypertension and diabetes.
Worrying about trace vitamins due to personal imposed limits of animal proteins seems rather petty when there is a complete lack of empirical evidence that vegetarians suffer any additional health consequences due to diet choices.
35 years of practicing pharmacy has revealed very few true dietary concerns of a plant based diet. The real obesity problem is overconsumption of everything. The real enemy is overconsumption.
The result is obesity and insulin resistance. Decreasing carbohydrates while obese may be appropriate until one is not insulin resistant. Carbohydrates do increase insulin levels leading to fat deposits. Insulin resistance keeps the pancreas pumping out even greater levels of insulin for greater storage of fat leading to less energy for activities. This leads to hunger. Viscous cycles of hunger ensues.
When one gets lean, then bump up the carbohydrates and let de novo lipogenesis do it’s thing. No one talks about this!
Dec 5, 2019 — 6:54 am
@Marc – Thanks for the book tip. I’ll add it to my reading list.
Dec 8, 2019 — 5:25 pm
@Marc — interesting. I am now keeping my weight between 160-165 pounds for a BMI of 22-23. I intermittently fast by not eating dinner, but I find myself naturally gravitating towards eating more carbohydrates and not constantly loading up on protein.
Jan 4, 2020 — 1:36 am
Vitamin D in animal foods is too low anyway to make a difference, and in majority of cases comes from supplementing animals’ diets or the final product. It’s the problem with a location, not a diet. That’s primo.
Secundo, why are you guys afraid of supplements? That argument comes up in each discussion about plant based diets and it gets more silly each time. If you can be more (or at least no less) healthy on PBD with supplements, than on omni diet without, what’s the problem?
Jan 6, 2020 — 10:52 pm
Vitamin D from food is a real thing it seems, and an example of that is that indigenous northern Europeans were black, see below. I think Im not mistaken also in saying that The Game Changers claims that paleolithic people were vegans, Ive no idea if that was true but of the known archaic groups today, or in recent history, clearly the vast majority, perhaps all of them, are not vegans, which makes the claim seem speculative and improbable…
And btw MAS the film is indeed saying veganism is superior… that said it is as you say good to get ones assumptions challenged…
Pigmentation genes carried by the hunters and farmers showed that, while the dark hair, brown eyes and pale skin of the early farmer would look familiar to us, the hunter-gatherers would stand out if we saw them on a street today.
“It really does look like the indigenous West European hunter gatherers had this striking combination of dark skin and blue eyes that doesn’t exist any more,” Prof Reich told BBC News.
Dr Carles Lalueza-Fox, from the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (CSIC – UPF) in Barcelona, Spain, who was not involved with the research, told BBC News: “If you look at all the reconstructions of Mesolithic people on the internet, they are always depicted as fair skinned. And the farmers are sometimes depicted as dark-skinned newcomers to Europe. This shows the opposite.”
So where did fair pigmentation in present-day Europeans come from? The farmer seems to be on her way there, carrying a gene variant for light skin that’s still around today.
“There’s an evolutionary argument about this – that light skin in Europe is biologically advantageous for people who farm, because you need to make vitamin D,” said David Reich.
“Hunters and gatherers get vitamin D through their food – because animals have a lot of it. But once you’re farming, you don’t get a lot of it, and once you switch to agriculture, there’s strong natural selection to lighten your skin so that when it’s hit by sunlight you can synthesise vitamin D.”
The first modern Britons, who lived about 10,000 years ago, had “dark to black” skin, a groundbreaking DNA analysis of Britain’s oldest complete skeleton has revealed.
The fossil, known as Cheddar Man, was unearthed more than a century ago in Gough’s Cave in Somerset.
Scientists believe that populations living in Europe became lighter-skinned over time because pale skin absorbs more sunlight, which is required to produce enough vitamin D. The latest findings suggest pale skin may have emerged later, possibly when the advent of farming meant people were obtaining less vitamin D though dietary sources like oily fish.