“At our very first screening at the Sundance Film Festival, I had a long line of people who wanted to know how to start eating plant-based RIGHT NOW.”
A new documentary called “The Game Changers” is out to prove that a plant-based diet is the most advantageous one for athletes — or, really, for anyone interested in improving their health.
The film, executive produced by “Titanic” and “Avatar” director James Cameron, is slated for release in fall 2018. It’s the latest signifier of the growing trend in sports in which an increasing number of athletes are choosing a plant-based diet — eschewing the traditional high-protein or high-carb diets of the past.
Everyone from Venus Williams to the defensive line of the Tennessee Titans to the NBA’s Kyrie Irving and the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick is eating plant-based diets, citing numerous health benefits as their motivations.
Several other films, such as “What the Health” and “Forks Over Knives,” also focus on the health benefits of a plant-based diet, but “The Game Changers”’ producers have a clear and somewhat new angle: It also aims to dispel myths tying manhood, virility, and strength to meat consumption.
In one section of the film, researchers conduct an experiment proving that a plant-based diet leads to stronger and more frequent erections — and it’s led to some, shall we say, firm responses.
“At our very first screening at the Sundance Film Festival, I had a long line of people who wanted to know how to start eating plant-based RIGHT NOW,” U.S. Olympian Dotsie Bausch, an athlete spotlighted in the film, says. “After seeing the film, no one wants to wait or make the transition slowly. My hope for ‘The Game Changers’ is that it jump starts this plant-based revolution.”
Bausch, the oldest Olympic competitor in her discipline, stood as a plant-based athlete on the Olympic platform at almost 40 years old. She experienced nearly immediate changes when she went vegan. “My blood flow increased, my digestion improved, my recovery time was cut in half, and I had teammates who were 10 years my junior chasing me around the track,” Bausch tells GOOD.
Rip Esselstyn is another accomplished plant-based athlete featured in the film. A top-10 Olympic distance triathlete in the United States for over a decade, he attributes his success to a diet that strengthened his immune system.
“Even though I was putting all this stress on my body every day, I very, very rarely got sick,” Esselstyn says. “As an athlete, a huge nemesis is getting sick.”
In the film, Esselstyn challenges 35 New York City firefighters to take his Engine 2 Seven-Day Rescue Challenge to see how their weight, blood pressure, and internal biochemistry could measurably shift in just one week. “When they're doing whole plant-based foods, we've got an average total cholesterol drop of 31 points, weight loss of almost seven pounds, and blood pressure at 10 over 5 — and these guys were just blown away,” Esselstyn reports.
The reasons athletes and normal folks alike experience these physical changes are multifold.
“A whole food plant-based diet is inherently rich in unprocessed carbohydrates,” Dr. James Loomis, a plant-based-diet doctor interviewed in the documentary, explains. “It helps us maintain adequate glycogen stores, which is the energy we use for shorter duration exercise and short bursts of energy.” Inflammation is also reduced significantly while antioxidant consumption rises, leading to improved recovery time. “The compounds that make blueberries blue or raspberries red or sweet potatoes orange—those are all very potent antioxidants. By eating a plant-based diet, it significantly increases your ability to offset this oxidative stress.”
Of course, people often ask: But where do you get your protein?
“There is more than enough protein in the plant-based diet to help build and repair muscle and body tissue after athletic performance,” Loomis says. “I mean, you don't see mountain gorillas or elephants and ask, ‘Oh my God, where do they get their protein?’ But what do they eat? Well, they eat plants.”
Plant-based athletes load up on protein by eating lentils, beans, tofu, seitan, peanut and almond butter, and seeds, among other foods, according to Derek Tresize, a professional vegan bodybuilder.
According to published studies, 97% of Americans get more than the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of protein. And overconsumption of protein is associated with kidney disease, diabetes, certain kinds of cancer, and even osteoporosis. Fiber, on the other hand, is what most people are actually deficient in — 97% of Americans don’t get the RDA, increasing risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and other chronic diseases. More immediately, this deficiency can also hurt athletic performance.
“Meat has zero fiber,” Esselstyn adds. “We now know that fiber is so imperative in giving us even stores of energy over the course of the day, in allowing us to be as regular as a Swiss commuter train so we're not backlogged, constipated, and having all this nonsense basically festering in you for days at a time.”
Another common question is whether you need dairy for strong bones. In reality, we can get all the calcium we need from plants and may actually be hurting our bones with high dairy consumption. On average, we absorb just 30% of the calcium in milk, yogurt, and cheese, but we absorb twice that percentage if we eat dark leafy greens, nuts, and legumes.
“If you look at population data, countries with the highest milk intake, dairy intake, have the highest rates of osteoporosis,” Loomis says. Theories as to why this might be are numerous. Dairy lowers pH levels in the blood because of increased amino acid intake, and we have to neutralize that acid by leaching calcium out of our bones, Loomis explains. “The calcium that's in milk, where did that calcium come from? It actually came from the dirt that the plants were grown in.”
In his opinion, no distinction should exist between sports medicine and regular medicine—we were all designed to be active.
“There's no such thing as sports nutrition; there's just healthy nutrition,” he says.
For Loomis and a growing consensus of doctors, nutritionists, and athletes, that nutrition plan couldn’t be clearer.