Game Changers: Filling in the Blanks with a Dietician
April 12th, 2020
What is discussed here is one opinion amongst many. Before taking any nutritional advice, seek assistance from a registered dietician or doctor.
The new diet seizing the US market is the elusive plant-based/veganism trend, fueled by its positive impact on the environment and, in part, the Netflix documentary Game Changers, which came out on September 16th, 2019. The documentary follows the producer James Wilks, a former MMA fighter, through his journey as he becomes plant-based. Only by diving deeper into Wilks’s claims and doing a bit of research did I find that a plant-based diet might not be not all that the film cracked it up to be. Through all of its promotion of a plant-based diet, the film fails to include the one profession that specializes in all things food: dieticians. So I reached out to one to hear her take on Game Changers.
“My first reaction to the movie was that it was very well made, but as somebody that has studied nutrition and has been in the field for a very long time, I could automatically pick out what they were blowing out of proportion,” began Adena Neglia. Neglia grew up as a competitive figure skater as a regional and intercollegiate national competitor. When she became interested in optimizing her athletic abilities is when she developed a great interest in the study of food and nutrition. As well as working at Brown & Medina Nutrition, Neglia also acts as the senior dietician at Mount Sinai Hospital in their outpatient nutrition program where she provides counseling for both pediatric and adult patients. Neglia has written nutrition articles for publications that include Life and Style, Access Hollywood, Teen Vogue, and People Magazine, and has also appeared on NY1. When she watched Game Changers, she became unnerved. “Immediately I got a sense of fear-mongering and pseudoscience. I knew a lot of people were going to be hooked after watching it,” she sighed.
The first issue she encountered with the film was that they used the words “vegan,” “vegetarian,” and “plant-based” interchangeably, and that became very confusing for viewers. The term “vegan” refers to a person who, like vegetarians, chooses to forgo any animal products in their diet, but unlike a vegetarian, also avoids any related animal products like milk, eggs, honey, and dairy products (to name only a few). “Plant-based” however, is a new term with a definition that is murkier than its counterparts. Plant-based refers to people who actively attempt to fold plants into their diet and include little to no animal products. For example, if a vegetarian were at a supermarket, they might choose to have regular penne pasta (made of wheat and eggs) for dinner; this would be vegetarian. A plant-based person would instead select a bean pasta.
There were four main points that the movie made that we chose to discuss. The first one was that the gladiators, arguably the most accomplished warriors of all time, were predominantly vegans. I asked her if she sees this as a factor that should compel someone watching to become plant-based. In response, Neglia said, “when you look back at the research, what they were claiming [about the gladiators] wasn’t even factual….they were cherry-picking the research...As a dietician, I sat there and googled all of the studies they flashed onto the screen. I don’t know if anyone else did this, maybe other dieticians, but part of their wow-factor was that it looked like all of their claims were backed by science. In reality, they were all unreliable experiments because of their small sample sizes or the results they got didn’t last more than a couple of hours.” She also explained that people should not view this as a conjecture that applies to all past civilizations. Conversely, some civilizations lived solely on meat such as the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic, the Chukotka of the Russian Arctic, the steppe nomads of Mongolia, and more.
The second main point Game Changers presented that sparked a lot of backlash was that iceberg lettuce has more antioxidants than salmon. To this Neglia replied, “I don’t ever look at food as just one thing. I think all foods have something really amazing to offer. Iceberg lettuce compared to salmon is a completely different thing. We have to look at what we’re getting from salmon: protein, Omega-3s which is vital for brain and heart health. There’s so many benefits and comparisons that you could make so it’s kind of foolish to compare one thing from each and determine that one is better for you than the other. Nutrition is synergistic.”
The third point that was made by the documentary is that consuming meat can lead to contracting cancer. She asserted that “it’s hard to measure. We can look at these studies and see that meat causes cancer and then another appears to prove that meat prevents cancer. What these studies do is that they look back at people’s diets and ask them questions about it. As humans, we’re not great at remembering what we eat. In many cases, the researchers don’t take into account any other factors -- if they smoke, what their mental health is like, how much they sleep. That was too big of a stretch and a jump for me. I don’t think, with all the research we’ve been able to do, that you can definitely say that meat causes cancer in any way, shape, or form.”
Lastly, there was an experiment performed in the documentary where two out of three athletes were given beef burritos, and the third was given a bean burrito. The researchers then centrifuged each of the athlete’s blood so a thin layer of fat was visible coating the top of the vegetarian athlete’s blood, and a much thicker layer coating the other two blood samples. “What did each of their individual bloods look like prior to that experiment?" Neglia immediately wondered. "Was it always like that? I think also anyone’s blood taken immediately after a meal like that will look like that. It doesn’t mean it stays that way. I had a lot of questions about that one. Was all the fat equal? 25 grams from the plant-based burrito and 25 grams from the meat? They don’t really go into that. Again, they didn’t talk about what else that person ate that day or what they normally eat. It was another shock factor for sure, but they didn’t show the whole picture so I feel like they tricked people there.”
Finally, I asked Neglia what she would tell James Wilks if she had the chance to meet him. “Firstly, I don’t have an issue if people want to become plant-based, or vegan, or whichever term they decide on using," she said. "My big issue is when somebody does something and then tries to push it on somebody else. Food or ways of eating for people, in a way, has become a religion. The only time I advise people not to go vegan or vegetarian is if they have a history of disordered eating. What I would say is missing is if they are going to talk about being plant-based is to talk about how to do that, or provide resources on how to do that. Or, get a registered dietician on the show. I think he said he did research for a thousand hours. Well, a registered dietician is going to go to school for a minimum of five years. After seeing this documentary, I fear that people are going to eat salads all day and falsely believe they’re taking care of themselves. They’re advising their viewers to take things out [of their diet] without telling them what to put back in.” She also wishes that they could have presented both sides of the argument so that people could make an informed decision. “More often than not, when I reveal to my clients what the documentary failed to talk about, which is the benefit of a well-rounded diet and how much work it is to transition to being plant-based (supplements, research), they decide that going plant-based is not for them," she said. "I understand why they didn’t include the other side, for entertainment purposes, for the wow-factor, but a respectable documentary would have provided research for both sides.”
Though seemingly opposing sides, the documentary and Neglia both agree on one thing: many people could benefit tremendously from including more plants in each meal. One’s diet doesn’t have to be completely plant-based like what James Wilks is advocating for, or completely meat-based like that of the Inuits, but it seems as though the answer is somewhere in between, away from all the gimmicks and false promises that the dieting industry produces. A diet that allows freedom and celebrates the menagerie of food we as humans can experience. A diet of balance.