Game Changers: Plant-based fact or fiction?

What’s a good activity for social-isolation? Netflix!

We have all had a little more time to watch more Netflix lately, and the words “plant-based” seem to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue. This is fueled in part by the recent documentary “Game Changers.” The movie offers up a healthy dose of celebrity anecdotes, eye-catching graphics and captivating results from numerous “studies,” arguing that eating a plant-based diet is the only way to achieve optimal health – and maybe even an Olympic gold medal to boot.

If you’ve watched it, you no doubt have questions about whether it’s worth its weight in broccoli. Below are my top five takeaways.

Nutrition science is complex!

The documentary weaves together anecdotes with passing mentions of nutritional studies. But it’s not that simple. Even as a dietitian trained in reading these studies, I had to re-watch parts and scour scientific journals for the proper information. One example of a questionable claim is when the documentary compares blood samples after a meat-containing meal versus after a vegetarian meal. All the study showed is that there is fat in your bloodstream after a meal, which is completely normal! Especially if that meal was higher in fat. While this certainly makes for eye-catching TV, this “study” does little more than create confusion.

“Plant-based” is not synonymous with “vegan”

A real oversight in this film is that “Game Changers” never actually defines what “plant-based” is. Technically, a plant-based diet means eating mostly or only plant foods. Instead, this documentary leaves people with the impression they need to adopt a completely vegan diet, which eliminates all animal products and byproducts (like honey), to reap the health rewards. This is likely due to the fact that most (if not all) the athletes referenced in the film adhere to a strict vegan diet.

Dietitians are the right experts

It’s mind blowing how many food documentaries fail to give dietitians a seat at the table. We are experts in food and health, and trained to translate scientific, medical and nutrition information. This documentary foregoes that expertise, opting for a former UFC fighter as the all-knowing educator. The only dietitian in the film is shown on CNN, flying in the face of a recommendation from the World Health Organization warning of the well-established association between processed meats and risk of cancer. Please understand that this is only one perspective and may not accurately reflect the most commonly held views of those in our profession!

Plants are good

The central thesis of the documentary is that plants are good and I couldn’t agree more. The research is clear that we can all benefit from eating more plants, especially plant-based proteins. In fact, a well-balanced plant-based diet has been shown to help people achieve and maintain a healthy body weight and lower blood pressure. It can also reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Game Changers is right that plant-based diets are not only nutritionally adequate but can also fuel high performance athletes.

Health advice is best served by professionals

The fact of the matter is there are countless food documentaries that are full of bias and bad information. If you were inspired by this or any nutrition documentary to improve your nutrition, great! But before making any drastic changes, talk to your doctor or dietitian to make sure it is right for you.

There is no one “right” way of eating. A plant-based diet has a lot of benefits, but diets that contain some meat can also be perfectly healthy. For example, the Mediterranean style of eating is one of the healthiest dietary patterns on the planet and it contains some animal protein. The best diet is the one that helps you meet your health goals, that you can maintain and that makes you feel good.

Social distancing and self-isolating are two things we can do to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Practice indoor activities such as reading, cooking, watching movies, or home workouts. Together, we can make self-isolation informative and enriching.