Why Plant-Based Diets are Not Game Changers

Why Plant-Based Diets are Not Game Changers

April 01, 2020

by Moritz Klatten
Champ Performance, Hamburg, Germany

From an Iron Game perspective, vegetarians were often thought of skinny, weak folk who liked to eat salads. If it ended with that, and they left the rest of us alone, I wouldn’t have a problem. But nope, these people just won’t go away and can’t get it through their heads the idea that, as we carnivores say, “Plants are what food eats!”

Vegetarians have tried to convince us that meat is bad for you, eating anything with a face on it was gross, raising animals for food was cruel, raising animals for food is killing the planet, and – besides – there are not enough animals to feed the starving children in the jungles of Africa! Vegetarians even find ways to get a few scrawny Hollywood celebrities to join their Dark Side, and perhaps their testimonials encouraged Burger King to introduce a plant-based burger (pisssss – the secret ingredient is soybeans).

Not having success with those PR campaigns, the Green Thumb community decided to spread the word that all athletes, including those in the Iron Game and those in strength-power sports such as football, would perform better on plant-based diets. Want to run faster, jump higher, build bulging biceps, and be able to “Lift things up and put them down?” How about doing a body good with a banana smoothie with some tofu and wheatgrass! 

The latest high-profile celebrity leading the plant-based charge is filmmaker James Cameron (yes, the Terminator guy) with his popular Netflix documentary, The Game Changers.

In addition to having Cameron’s creative genius and an Oscar-winning director in Louis Psihoyos, the film featured the endorsements of none other than the Arnold “The Austrian Oak” Schwarzenegger and the accomplishments of numerous elite athletes representing a variety of skills and physical qualities.

For endurance, Cameron offered for your consideration ultra-marathon runner Scott Jurek and eight-time national cycling champion Dotsie Bausch; for strength, world-recording breaking strongman Patrik Baboumian and weightlifter Kendrick Farris, a 3x Olympian; for the fighting sports, heavyweight boxer Bryant Jennings and MMA champ Nate Diaz; and for more mainstream sports fans, Tennessee Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan. Impressive!

These sports celebrities were necessary because, as is often the case in promoting a cause, emotional often trumps logic (or, in this case, science). This emotional appeal is one reason why vegetarians actively promote actress Alicia Silverstone, because they are in a position of influence and apparently have some unique insight into -- in this case -- nutrition. (Oh, if you’re starstruck, consider that Silverstone said this when discussing her breakout film, Clueless, “I think it was deep in the way that it was very light. I think lightness has to come from a very deep place, if it’s true lightness.” This epiphany won Britain’s Plain English’s “Foot in the Mouth Award” for making “the most baffling verbal statement of the year.”)

Much has been written about the pros and cons of plant-based diets, with “spirited” commentary on both sides. I will touch on some of these arguments, but focus more on these compelling testimonies from superstar athletes that have gotten our attention. Let’s get started.

Roman gladiators
consumed plants,
but also got high-
quality protein from fish.
(Miloš Šarčev photo)

Plant-Based Propaganda

In the interest of fairness, let’s start with a PR statement from a website created by Game Changers:

“As presented in The Game Changers, a diet centered around plants, especially in their unrefined form, can yield significant athletic/performance advantages. These include improved blood flow, increased muscle efficiency, reduced inflammation, quicker recovery times, and enhanced immune function…While athletes often pick up on these advantages quickly, people from all walks of life who want to look, feel and perform better can benefit from these improvements as well.”

>Those are pretty bold statements, but to make this topic into a movie, you need a compelling story. Enter James Wilks, elite Special Forces trainers and the winner of “The Ultimate Fighter,” a television series about promising MMA fighters produced by Fox Sports.

Wilks was seriously injured while training, being sidelined for six months. During this time, he decided to research nutrition for athletes, focusing on what was the best diets for recovery – after all, the best workout in the world will do little to improve performance if you can’t recover from it. He took his quest seriously, claiming to have spent more than 1,000 hours researching the topic. So what did Wilks discover?

Wilks leaned that the mighty Roman gladiators consumed little or no meat. “This shocking discovery launched me on a five-year quest for the Truth in Nutrition, modeled after Bruce Lee's Truth in Combat philosophy: ‘Research your own experience, absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is specifically your own.’ Beginning with this mindset, I put every preconception I had about nutrition to the test, traveling to four continents to meet with dozens of the world’s strongest, fastest, and toughest athletes, as well as leading experts on athletics, nutrition, and anthropology. What I discovered was so revolutionary, with such profound implications for human performance and health — and even the future of the planet itself — that I had to share it with the world.”

That’s the sales pitch – now let me share what I’ve discovered about their supposed success stories and comments about nutrition science.

Winners and Losers

If you take to Google, you’ll find many excellent articles comparing plant-based diets to conventional diets that include meat. As this blog is about performance, let’s start by focusing on the claims made about athletic performance, particular those elite athletes who endorse this diet. Here are four of my major “beefs” with the testimonials presented in The Game Changers:

1. Fighters perform better with plant-based diets. As a fighter himself, Wilks was intrigued by the idea that Roman Gladiators were primarily plant eaters, and consumed needed a lot of fat to protect them from cut wounds and to protect their blood vessels and nerves (and using this logic, it follows that the best Ninja warriors must have been morbidly obese!) However, consider that based upon what we know about studying the grave sites of these early fighters, they were near the ocean and as with most Romans mostly likely also consumed fish. But what about today’s gladiators, namely boxers and MMA fighters, such as Diaz and Bryant?

Let’s start with Diaz, the MMA fighter who The Game Changers said thrived on a plant-based diet. The program implied that Diaz’s superior physical conditioning enabled him to beat the seemingly unbeatable, steak-loving Connor McGregor on March 5, 2016 as part of UFC 196. It’s true that Diaz won at 4:12 in round two with a rear-naked choke submission, but there’s more to the story.

First, McGregor was supposed to fight Rafael Dos Anjos, but Anjos could not compete due to a broken foot he suffered during training. McGregor was the featherweight world champion, a division that has fighters weighing between 136-145 pounds. This fight took place in the welterweight division, which has fighters weighing 156-170 pounds – in other words, McGregor moved up two weight classes to fight a larger opponent. Consider that Diaz failed to make weight in a match on December of 2014, so the welterweight division was a more natural bodyweight for him. Why is this important?

Being bigger means more punching power. McGregor is known more as a striker, and in fact has 13 career first-round finishes and won UFC 194 by knocking out Joe Aldo in just 13 seconds! This power would give him more advantage in this area as a lightweight than as a welterweight. It’s also possible that McGregor underestimated Diaz, because five months later McGregor defeated Diaz in UFC 202. Final point: just like the Gladiators, Diaz also ate fish.

As for boxer Bryant Jennings, he went vegan in 2015. He said, “My early years growing up in Philly, the only thing we knew was spinach in a can, collard greens and Popeye’s, KFC, everybody frying chicken.” Thus, he went from feasting on fried junk food to munching on a plant-based diet. The question is, would Bryant would have performed better if he ate a healthier diet with animal products. Beyond the issue of eating cleaner, let’s look at his performances.

Bryant won one world boxing championship, which is to be commended, but not a unified title. The two best fighters he faced were Wladimir Klitscho and Luis Ortiz. Klitscho, at age 39, was nearing the end of his career, but won in an unanimous decision; Ortiz was undefeated, and remained that way by finishing the fight in the 7th round with a TKO, despite having to deal with the flu the week of the fight. Jennings would fight twice in 2019, losing both fights. The takeaway is that Jennings was an impressive fighter, but there were others who fought in his prime who were better.

2. Elite weightlifters can thrive on plant-based diets. Just because one athlete does well with a plant-based diet, it doesn’t mean all would. Weightlifter Kendrick Farris was used as an example of a strength-power athlete making gains on a plant-based diet. First, this discussion is not meant to slight Farris – he earned his place on three Olympic teams defeating the best in the US, a remarkable accomplishment. But let’s look at how he performed in those Games (all weights in pounds), according the International Weightlifting Federation’s database:

Year Bodyweight Snatch Clean and Jerk Place 

Thus, based on these results, in the span of three Olympic cycles, Farris lifted less weight despite adding 20 pounds of bodyweight! And although Farris was the best in the US, consider that his competition was at an entirely different level. At the 2012 Games, the gold medalist snatched 410 pounds to Farris’s 352, and clean and jerked 487 to Farris’s 434.

Farris’s story is an example of proving a point with a case study, which are scientifically weak. A better approach is to look at meta-analyses (which summarizes the results of numerous studies) and controlled studies.

3. Strongman competitors get even stronger on plant-based diets. In weightlifting, which Farris competed in, results are not always determined by the strongest athletes as the snatch and clean and jerk are complete movements that take into account qualities such as speed and flexibility. Not so much with strongman competitions. Strongman events involved such events as carrying loaded cylinders, pushing heavy sleds, flipping tires and, yes, lifting rocks. Patrik Baboumian is an accomplished strongman who was featured in The Game Changers.

Baboumian won German’s strongman nationals and broke several world records, but never competed in the World’s Strongest Man or Arnold Strongman Classic, considered the pinnacle of the sport. Writer Roger Lockridge that when four-time World’s Strongest Man Brian Shaw was asked about Baboumian’s records, he responded, “I would feel pretty comfortable in saying that in any lift he's claiming he has a world record, I've lifted more.” 

The problem with the strongman competition is that there are many federations with have different rules and events, so it’s difficult to compare one strongman’s results to another’s. For example, Babouian did a world record 1,234-pound yoke walk, Shaw carried 1565 pounds but for a much shorter distance. What we can compare more directly are the three basic powerlifts, as follows in this comparison between Babouian and Shaw:

Bench Press Squat Deadlift

Baboumian 474 815 794

Shaw 525x2 903 1014

4. Elite Bodybuilders Get Brutally Huge and Ripped on Plant-Based Diets. There is a belief that plant-based diets can build muscle as well as animal protein diets, and the Game Changers documentary features the endorsement of Arnold. Arnold may follow a plant-based now, but in his peak years, animal proteins were a big part of him getting big.

Another example of misleading propaganda about muscle building is the diet of legendary bodybuilders Bill Pearl.

Pearl competed at the highest levels of bodybuilding. In won the 1953 Amateur Mr. Universe, defeating future James Bond Sean Connery, and won the Mr. Universe four times over a span of 18 years! The most prestigious bodybuilding title is the Mr. Olympia. In 1971, Pearl won the Mr. Universe title beating our two former Mr. Universe winners, Sergio Oliva and Reg Park, and one future one, Frank Zane. Pearl says he is a vegetarian, but that’s not entirely true.

Pearl won 10 of 11 bodybuilding competitions up until 1969, and followed a typical muscle-building diet that included meat, fish, and eggs. It was only then that he switched to a lacto-ovo vegetarianism, which included whole eggs and dairy product. Also, it should be mentioned that Pearl has admitted that he experimented with steroids, which of course accelerates muscle growth.

Science Fact and Fiction

The average viewer of the The Game Changers, is not a scientist, and often cannot determine what makes sense about nutrition and was is simply nonsense. Here are three examples of the sloppy science associated with plant-based diets:

Energy system training requires a balanced diet that includes not just carbohydrates, but protein. Shown putting in some roadwork is boxer Yuriorkis Gamboa, a former unified featherweight world champion and Olympic Champion trained by the author.
(Christian Barz photo)

1. Carbs are a primary source in athletics, not protein. Wilks couldn’t understand how endurance athletes could thrive with a diet so high in carbs! Wilks claims to have spent over 1,000 hours researching this topic, but this is Nutrition 101 – for endurance athletes, especially the ultra-marathoner featured in the video, carbs are the preferred energy source. I’m surprised this comment didn’t end up on the cutting room floor.

2. Plant protein is nearly as good as animal protein. Protein is composed of amino acids, many of them considered essential. If a food does not contain all the essential amino acids, it must be combined with another foot not deficient in these amino acids to the body to use it. One resource for determining the quality of protein is the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAA). It is the method endorsed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The highest PDCAA score is 100, and beef is right up there with .92. We see a big drop-off with plants: Peas have a score of .73; oats, .57; peanuts, .52; rice, .47; and corn, .42. Eggs and milk are at 100, and are allowed in lacto-ovo vegetarian diets, but not strict began diets. This restriction makes it difficult for vegan athletes to get sufficient protein for optimal performance. One option is protein powders made from plants that can be mixed as drinks to make it easier to consume more protein, but these are pricey.

Going back to our examples of Iron Game athletes and especially bodybuilders, consider that elite athletes in these sports often found that they needed to consume large quantities of protein to continue progressing. For example, Ronnie Coleman, 8x Mr. Olympia reportedly would consume 546 grams of protein a day. That’s a bit extreme. Generally speaking the protein intake of strength/power athletes should be approximately 1.2-1.5 g/lb for strength/power athletes and at least 0.9 g/lb for endurance athletes. However, consider that if an athlete is on a low-calorie diet, they may need a higher protein intake as the body will use protein more as an energy source. Also, Russian weightlifting coaches have found that during periods of intense training, these athletes may perform better with 2 g/lb.

3. Meat causes inflammation. Adding vegetables and fiber can reduce inflammation, and that’s true. However, it’s not necessary to reduce animal protein intake to get these benefits – simply eat more vegetables! As for all these rants about meat containing toxins, the main issue is with consuming processed meats (that often contain ingredients I can’t even pronounce!), cooking meant over an open flame and not removing charred parts of the meat.

4. Soy protein is good for you. Soy is certainly easy to produce and can help feed large populations, but there are many issues with consuming it, especially on a regular basics. For example, soy is associated with unnatural changes in male hormone patters, may increase the risk of breast cancer, and is linked to thyroid dysfunction, digestive discomfort, and cognitive decline. For more on the dangers of soy, check out Kaayla Daniel’s book, The Whole Soy Story: The Dark Side of America’s Favorite Health Food.

Finally, and I saved the best argument for last, is that many of those involved in producing The Game Changers had a financial incentive to make this film. Starting from the top, James Cameron has invested $140 million in a company that produces pea protein.

Hopefully this discussion doesn’t encourage you to dramatically increase your consumption of bacon and eat less broccoli, but to look at radical approaches to dieting with a skeptical eye. This is especially true with those diets that use testimonials of celebrities, which has been the recent focus of the plant-based diets promoted in The Game Changers. Yes, fruits and vegetables are good for you, and most people don’t consume enough of them. But that doesn’t mean you have to avoid animal products, especially if you are serious about improving athletic performance.

 

Moritz Klatten

Strength Coach Moritz Klatten primarily works out of a boxing stable called Champ Performance in Hamburg, Germany. He has trained five world professional boxing champions and three Olympic champions, including Yuriorkis Gamboa, a WBC, WBA, WBO World Champion. Klatten’s book, The Klatten Power Boxing System, is available through amazon.co.uk.

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