To Meat or not to Meat, that is the question…
I want to congratulate you on reaching this landmark. You’ve started something and you’ve stuck with it and that is a reason to feel good about yourself. Some of my friends are reporting a drop in belt holes, kg’s, an increase in mental cognition and I have to say that it makes me smile to see that you’re all thriving on this program.
Over the past weeks, I have repeatedly been asked whether I have watched a Netflix movie, called The Game Changers. It’s a movie produced by James Cameron and Arnold Schwartzenegger. Now, over the past years, there have been some terrible food documentaries, such as Fed Up, What the Health and Supersize me. I enjoyed watching this show, and would urge you to watch it too, albeit with a pinch of Himalayan sea-salt…
While I can’t vouch for everything that The Game Changers claims, I do believe that this movie is going to make some waves in the way that people see food. It’s amazing how little we actually know about the food we eat and how readily we become proponents of the latest movements if they are easy to understand and relate to others…
We live in interesting times. Old paradigms are being turned on their heads. The internet has allowed us to inform ourselves, and we are no longer at the mercy of big business marketing ploys. The noise, however, has increased dramatically and we’re left to being the judges of many soapbox prophets.
I would suggest that one look at some of the movie’s claims and then decide whether to get that hot dog at the end of the market.
Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater just yet. The movie makes valid points, but some of the points are selectively made, for the sake of demonizing your boerewors roll. (said only slightly tongue in cheek)
Just a few things you should consider…
Protein as Fuel
The movie claims that protein is not fuel for endurance exercise… and that endurance athletes don’t require large amounts of extra protein but would prefer to operate on energy derived through gluconeogenesis.
Athletes use protein to enhance lean body mass (LBM) and recovery, not for energy. It’s worth noting that various studies have shown an increased need for protein in endurance athletes to prevent deficiency (1.6–1.8g/kg). Just for reference, the RDA for protein is 0.8g/kg. This challenges the film’s narrative that vegans get more than enough protein if we are talking about athletes. A large survey of vegans put their average protein intake at 83g/d. For a 75kg athlete that would equate to ~1.1g/kg, over 30% below their daily requirement.
Omnivores, on the other hand, had an average intake of 113g/day (36% more than vegans), which would be 1.5g/kg which is closer but still a bit shy of this recommendation. Throughout this film, they seek out many vegan athletes and show them performing at a high level in an attempt to convince you that veganism must be a magic elixir for athletic performance, but this is an example of bias confirmation. If you set out with the goal of finding evidence that supports your bias, you always will. Low carb proponents do the same thing and can highlight various successful ultra-endurance athletes who compete and do extremely well even on a low carbohydrate diet, such as Zach Bitter. While endurance athletes may benefit from a greater ratio of carbohydrate to protein, athletes looking to maximize lean body mass certainly need to include adequate protein. Conservative estimations for maximizing LBM in athletes who resistance train is 1.8g/kg. However, a systematic review indicated that for athletes who energy restrict (aka diet to make weight classes etc) and resistance train may benefit from protein intakes of 2.3–3.1g/kg for optimal LBM. That is, the MMA fighter who is trying to make the 205 lb (93kg) weight class and must diet to do so would have an optimal protein intake of 214–288g per day to retain maximum lean body mass.
That is 3x what most vegans consume (also worth noting that it’s way more than the average omnivore consumed).
Increasing protein depletes muscle glycogen
Increasing animal protein depletes muscle glycogen
Dr James Loomis claims that if you increase protein consumption in place of carbohydrate, you deplete muscle glycogen and impair performance. In fact, high protein doesn’t appear to impede post-exercise glycogen restoration when carbohydrate intake is sufficient. In studies comparing post-exercise consumption of carbohydrate alone or carbohydrate PLUS protein demonstrated that the combination of carbohydrate plus protein actually produced the same or greater response in glycogen resynthesis. In fact, post-exercise protein in combination with carbohydrate was shown to improve subsequent day exercise performance more than carbohydrate alone. Finally, protein aids glycogen resynthesis if not enough carbohydrate is available. So saying that protein depletes muscle glycogen is, at best, simply not true. Based on the current data, endurance athletes should likely consume a diet containing high carbohydrates, adequate-protein, and low fat.
One may be swayed by all the examples of elite athletes shown in this film, but this is simply an example of confirmation bias. If I went on a hunt for impressive ketogenic athletes I can find them. Keep in mind they hand-picked these athletes, these were the best they could find. If we are going to value anecdote over research data I could easily make cynical points such as, where are all the legions of gold medal winners? I’m not saying you can’t be an elite athlete and be vegan, you certainly can, but you can also be an elite athlete and NOT be vegan, which are the majority of elite athletes. Did these athletes win because they went vegan? It’s highly unlikely, there is no empirical evidence showing subsequent superior performance for vegan athletes compared to non-vegans. They use Kendrick Farris as an example of a top weight lifter, but his best placing in the olympics was 8th. Impressive, no doubt, but where is the big leap in performance from turning vegan? I also found it interesting that they did not bring up the 2012 gold medal winner in Farris’ class, Ilya Ilyin who is also vegan? Probably because Ilya failed the drug test. Gee, I wonder why they never brought that up? I’m not trying to imply all vegan athletes are on drugs, I’m simply highlighting another example of cherry picking the facts that they wanted to show. What about Usain Bolt? The fastest man on the planet who says he ate over 100 chicken nuggets per day at the Beijing olympics!? If meat and protein were as terrible for performance and dietary intake is as important as this film claims, how could he possibly win gold?
All Protein Comes From Plants So We Don’t Need Animal Protein
The movie assumes that if anything, plant protein is better than animal protein.
This is simply not correct.
Plant proteins are between 10 and 40% less bioavailable than animal protein. Further, most plant proteins are limiting in various essential (meaning we need to get them from the diet) amino acids. Rice protein is deficient in lysine, pea contains about half of the minimum methionine content, and soy, while low in methionine, has just enough not to be considered deficient. Further, most plant proteins are low in leucine, the essential amino acid responsible for stimulating muscle protein synthesis. Now, if you eat enough total protein from a variety of plant sources you can make up for these limitations. It was found that consuming a diet containing 30% of calories from wheat protein was sufficient to maximize protein synthesis, whereas at 10% & 20% of calories from wheat protein, animal protein was superior compared to wheat. So you CAN get maximal anabolism from vegan protein sources, but you will need more total protein, and a much more well thought out diet to do so. However, keep in mind that on average, vegans only get about 14% of their calories from protein. At these low levels of protein, the quality of protein becomes even more important. Do we need animal protein? No. But is it a superior source of essential amino acids? No question, especially when total protein in the diet is low.
Animal Protein Increases Inflammation
Examples of vegan diets being less inflammatory than protein diets are cited and that’s partially correct. In truth though, one of the biggest drivers of inflammation is weight gain. Vegans typically consume less calories than omnivores. This is a huge reason why a vegan diet is associated with better health. Inflammation is driven by increases in body fat, not necessarily red meat. Interestingly, a systematic review of over 1100 studies demonstrated that there was no difference in inflammation in healthy subjects who consumed more than 255 grams of red meat per week than subjects who ate less than 255 grams of red meat per week.
Additionally, none of these studies controlled total calories. Perhaps even more relevant was a recent randomized control weight loss trial where researchers had type 2 diabetic subjects split into two high protein (30% of total calories from protein) weight loss groups: one consuming protein predominantly from animal protein and another group consuming protein from plant protein. These diets contained the same total calories, protein, carbohydrates, and fats. The only differences were the protein sources. Both groups lost the same amount of weight and low and behold both groups DECREASED inflammation to the same extent. This suggests that the anti-inflammatory benefits to a vegan diet are likely simply due to vegans consuming less total calories than meat-eaters. However, meat-eaters can likely enjoy the same health benefits so long as they do not consume too many overall calories and live a healthy lifestyle.
Animal Protein and CVD/Cancer
As we have already established, meat-eaters tend to eat more calories, gain more weight and be more prone to heart disease, but as we demonstrated with the data on inflammation, this is a problem of excess energy intake and its associated weight gain, not because animal protein is somehow inherently inflammatory. What about CVD? While fatty meats are associated with increases in total cholesterol and LDL, lean meats do not have the same effect of increasing blood lipids. There is also evidence that fish, even fatty sources of fish such as salmon which contain the essential fatty acid omega 3, may decrease CVD risk. Further, consumption of lean beef (113g per day) as part of a healthy overall diet has been demonstrated to decrease cardiovascular risk and improve blood lipids. Interestingly, a Mediterranean diet (high protein from lean meats, low saturated fat, moderate carbohydrate and fat intake) has been demonstrated to improve CVD markers.
They then showcase various vegan bodybuilders who built impressive physiques on nothing but plants. Ok cool. As we already discussed you can build muscle as a plant-based athlete, you just need to consume more protein since the quality isn’t as good. These athletes are shown without acknowledgment of genetics, training, or the possibility of steroids. While these anecdotes may seem convincing, there are far more examples of top bodybuilders who eat animal protein so it seems silly to lean on a few isolated cases
Stop Eating Meat to Save the Planet
This is a compelling argument insofar as raising meat takes a disproportionate amount of land and water. They claim that emissions from meat production are more than all of the total forms of transportation in the world combined. This is not true. Meat production accounts for 3% of America’s greenhouse emissions, with the figure rising to 13–18% in less developed countries.
Transportation accounts for 65% of greenhouse gases worldwide. So before admonishing a meat eater for damaging the environment, maybe take a look in the mirror and then at the size of your car’s engine.
I was hoping that the film would showcase the fact that you can be a vegan or plant-based elite athlete. It may be more work to be a vegan elite athlete, but it’s possible to achieve.
However, I don’t think it’s fair to demonize animal products and make veganism the answer to the most health problems. To be clear, I think that following an eating regime aimed at keeping you healthy, is great. A plant-based diet, heavy in fiber is great! There’s also nothing wrong with following a diet based on ethical reasons. If you don’t want to eat meat because you don’t want to intentionally harm animals, that’s great.
My take-away from the movie, is that we do tend to eat too much red meat. We eat poor quality red meat, which can have the effect of making our insides fatty. The general populous that has no issue with the MacDonalds Big Mac, is also likely to exercise less and succumb to other unhealthy habits. However, if you are conscious of your health, watch what you eat, exercise your body (and your mind), then I would not side-step meat altogether. This high-quality protein is another arrow in your dieting arsenal. It should live alongside other arrows, but as with anything in life… Too much of a good thing, simply ain’t that good for you.
I hope this helps