“I am one Netflix documentary away from veganism,” I proclaimed some months ago in the midst of a conversation about the environment. Then, not so long later, The Game Changers became the talk of the town, and I was further intrigued. My sister and brother-in-law watched the film and by the following week their pantry and refrigerator were stocked with plant-based products. Soon, they were lauding the positive effects: weight loss, more energy, better sense of well-being. Hmmm, I thought, will this be the documentary that really turns me off of meat for good?
Because I often lead with my heart, I can be pulled into arguments that employ pathos quite quickly. I acknowledged this going into the documentary and I was mindful to approach watching the documentary as I approach any text I evaluate with students: I pressed “play” ready to engage in a conversation, so to speak, with what executive producer James Cameron and narrator and former UFC fighter James Wilks present.
As I watched the documentary, my brow furrowed. Over one dozen producers had been part of making the film; they have done quite a fine job of showing visually persuasive material. As I watched and took notes, and opened up my computer afterward to go down the research rabbit hole, I have become more troubled with the claims the film makes. The following is written not to convince you to be a vegan or not, but to offer a critical lens with which to evaluate The Game Changers. As I watched the film, I identified three reasons I am skeptical of the claims made.
Comparing professional athletes with the everyday human
The documentary opens with scenes of bad-ass athletes in their most empowered moments: winning track races, cycling strong and the boxer going for the knockout hit with you, the audience, as his opponent.
At first, it seems reasonable to think that we should all eat like athletes — they are fit and strong and healthy. Athletes, though, need fuel that the average gym-goers do not. Scott Jurek, featured in the film, and one of the world’s greatest endurance athletes, must fuel his distance running with many, many carbohydrates; protein, whether plant-based or animal, will not offer him the sugars he needs for sustained stamina.
When talking with Jurek and the other athletes in the film, Wilks does not engage in a discussion about what they need for their recovery. How many supplements is a vegan athlete taking in order to account for the nutrients they are not getting from meat? The audience is left to wonder, or not, as we have become so distracted by the theatrics, as Brian Sanders from Food Lies calls the appeal to our sense of humor, our understanding of masculinity, and our ability to be persuaded by an aesthetic appeal.
Focusing on theatrics in lieu of presenting valid research
A truly entertaining part of the film is when three male athletes are fed burritos. One night the athletes are given burritos with meat for dinner, and the other night they are fed entirely plant-based burritos. Each night the number of erections and length of time of their erections last are measured. These beefy men turn giggly when they get their results; I couldn’t help but giggle too. As it turns out, the men had more erections and bigger penises on the night they ate the bean burrito. So, “real” men don’t have to eat meat after all. At the end of this segment, the researcher does admit that this isn’t a full experiment, but we might assume that any man watching the show is going for the veggie burger tonight.
The image that did jar me for a moment was the vial of cloudy blood. Again, three men’s blood is drawn after eating a meat burrito, and then a plant-based burrito. After eating the bean burrito, the men were shown their blood vials and their blood ran smooth and clear. After consuming the meat burrito, cloudy blood appeared in the vial. Cloudy blood, I thought, NOO! But is cloudy blood problematic? Nobody in the film explains this further, the “researcher” simply shows the men and says, “Look how cloudy your blood is.”
The art of cherrypicking and the use of biased sources
As I worked to balance the powerful images in each scene with critical thinking and logical reasoning, I started to take more note of the experts featured in the documentary. My English teacher brain was lighting up as I noted the bias by omission and bias by selection of sources. There are numerous credible sources that believe in a plant-heavy diet that includes animal protein, but these sources were not included. This is not entirely surprising as documentaries often have a strong sway, but it caused me pause. I began writing down the names of the sources included.
Dean Ornish, a physician and researcher, is featured in the film. Interestingly, when set off to learn more about him, I found that Ornish has been criticized for the research he has used to create his own Ornish diet. Additionally, while Ornish follows a low animal protein diet, he is not a strict vegetarian himself.
As I looked into more of the producers and experts involved in the making of the documentary, such as James Cameron, Caldwell Esselstyn, Aaron Spitz, I discovered that each of them will professionally benefit from convincing the audience that the plant-based diet is best. This does not automatically discredit them, but it sure kept me wanting to know what those who encourage meat as part of a well-rounded diet had to say.
Deepening the debate
As an English teacher, I am a credible source when analyzing language and bias. I am not an expert on science and nutrition. While I took issue with how the documentary presented their argument, I could not entirely discredit it, and so I pressed on in my research to see what support or opposition exists in response to the plant-based diet.
I have long followed Chris Kresser, a leader in functional medicine, and his podcast Revolution Health Radio. I will not do his notes on the documentary justice if I try to summarize them here, but I encourage you to listen in to the series of conversations that he has engaged in in response to The Game Changers. Kresser responds to many claims made and studies cited in the documentary, among them: the toxicity of animal protein, the truth about vitamin B12, and the significance of carbohydrates and exercise.
Kresser first responded after watching the documentary in a podcast episode entitled Why the Optimal Human Diet Includes Animal Protein. He then appeared on the Joe Rogan Experience to discuss the documentary further, returned to Rogan’s show to a debate with Wilks, and finally reflected on that debate.
Watching The Game Changers, and then digging into the claims reminded me that whatever we chew on, be it a diet entirely plant-based or inclusive of chicken wings too, we must take time to digest an argument slowly. Based on what I understand to be environmental impacts of eating meat, I continue to consume rather modest amounts of beef. Based on what I understand about the impact human actions have had on sea life, I consume fish no more than 1-2 times a week. Based on what seem to me to be logically debunkable claims made in the documentary, I will not be changing my carnivorous game… just yet.