Diet for Human Performance: Does This Change the Game?

Diet for Human Performance: Does This Change the Game?

David Katz 18/09/2019 2

I am in the movie, The Game Changers, debuting at a thousand theaters throughout the U.S. on September 16. In all fairness, my role is rather closer to Mike Wazowski on TV than leading role- but still- I am in it. More on that later.

Among the more salient and redundant of human frailties is the tendency to submit to Newton’s third law of motion: for every action, an equal and opposite reaction. (I concede my own tendency to decry this tendency may be only slightly less redundant.) When our obsession with cutting dietary fat (not that we ever actually DID so) and hoarding Snackwells failed to make us all immaculately svelte - we reacted not with any sense, but by directing our preoccupations at an opposing macronutrient. Our benighted and promiscuous infatuations have taken us through a parade of nutritional nonsense since.

This would be bad enough if limited to nutrition, but of course it is not. Our society acted by electing a President of mixed race, and African descent. Inevitably, we then reacted by electing an overt racist, scarcely a coincidence. So, while intended for colliding blocks of flotsam moving through space, Newton’s third law seems to explain a lot of what goes on down here just as well.

The tendency to oppose action with reaction is particular grist for the documentary mill. Documentaries are set in motion by a desire to make a point. That point generally needs making because it is unknown, disparaged, or disbelieved- because it does not figure among society’s prevailing actions, predispositions, and presumptions. Opposing with the reality check of a reaction is, arguably, the very reason to make a documentary.  

Accordingly, one should not be too surprised when bad documentaries- of which there surely are many- succumb to hyperbole and distortion. More importantly, one must allow that even the best documentaries will be far better at telling the truth and nothing but the truth than the whole truth, and for a specific reason rooted in logic.

Consider this simple, logical proposition: “in order to be X, you must be Y.” Now imagine you are a producer who knows that to be false, and wants to enlighten the world.

You really just need to put on display one prominent, indisputable example of X that is NOT Y, and your job is done. That’s how logic works. If X can ever happen without Y, then Y is not required for X.

Now, it may still be true that X and Y can occur together, and maybe even often do. But it would NOT be this producer’s job to remind everyone of that, since that’s the awareness everyone had at the start. The point of “this” documentary would be to fix the logical fallacy that X requires Y, if indeed it does not.

In the case of The Game Changers, “X” is achieving the pinnacle of human performance- size, strength, speed, endurance, resilience, and so on- and “Y” is eating meat and eggs and dairy. We have all heard that we humans in general, and men in particular, need to eat meat to be big and strong. The message literally reverberates through our culture in story and in song.

It is false

The Game Changers’ mission is to show that it is false, and it does so decisively, emphatically, and indisputably- standing on a bedrock of pure logic. The movie presents you a gallery of athletic luminaries achieving to the extreme limits of human potential, and running exclusively on plants. X, in other words, without Y. So, no- Y is not required for X. Full stop.

For the world records, the compelling tales of human interest, and the astounding feats of plant-powered athletic prowess, and much more- see the film.

The author at the NYC Premiere of Game Changers with World Record holding strong man, Patrik Baboumian

I turn now to my quibbles, because I did have a few.

In making the case that plant-exclusive diets can fuel world class athleticism, it would have completed that 'truth' to allow for the fact that some world class athletes are decidedly omnivorous, and obviously doing just fine. Here, there would also be room to note that for some, the benefits of more (or only) plant foods, less animal food, might be more about long term health, rather than an immediate enhancement in athletic prowess. Let’s just get this over with: when Michael Phelps was being Michael Phelps at one Olympics after another, he was not vegan.

The movie uses a schematic comparison of human to lion anatomy to make the case that Homo sapiens are not carnivores, and that is certainly true. But we are not anatomical herbivores, either, and leaving out a comparable comparison to, say, wildebeest, potentially plays into the hands of those who will want to note gaps, gaffes, and distortions. We do not have the large grinding teeth of obligate herbivores; we have a less complex GI tract.

As is widely known, we Homo sapiens are constitutional omnivores, and that means we have choices. The film could have made it clear that eating only plants is a choice entirely consistent with the extremes of human performance (as well as our long-term health, and that of the planet) without seeming to imply that we are herbivores in the same way that deer and antelope are herbivores. 

Perhaps more importantly, the movie never makes explicitly clear the potential to eat only plants, and still eat badly. A diet of nothing but Coca Cola and cotton candy would be vegan; that would NOT make it a good idea. Of course, the foods on display in the movie tend generally to be wholesome, but there need not have been any implied halo of “it’s from a plant.” Sugar is from a plant. The best diets are, indeed, plant predominant- but they are also reliably made up of wholesome foods in sensible, balanced combinations. The movie in no way disputes this- it simply never says it.

Lastly, a minor matter most likely to trouble my fellow academics and researchers. We know that for every study cited saying “A,” there may be another saying “B.” The truth tilts not with any one study, however a news cycle may hype it, but with the overall weight of evidence. The movie did an admirable job of attaching scientific papers and studies to all of its main assertions, but did not concede in any instance the existence of countervailing evidence. I think the movie made its point more than robustly enough to accommodate such preemptive grace.

My quibbles notwithstanding, I thought the movie was exceptionally good, and am truly proud to be involved. The film was never intended to put on display a systematic review of the dietary patterns associated with athletic success. The film was intended to change the game by making a specific point: no, you absolutely don't have to eat meat (and eggs, and dairy) to be big and strong. Since so much perception, folklore, and marketing is in the other direction, The Game Changers team was fully justified in making that point as emphatically as possible. 

They certainly did so, with a movie that is also engaging, inspiring, moving, at times funny, and from my point of view- over all too soon. You can be among the biggest, baddest, strongest, fastest, toughest athletes in the world, and fuel that entirely with plants. That is true, and yes- it does change the game. 

Documentaries are reactions to what’s going on in the world, and at times succumb to the tendency to game the change they are seeking to make. This one resisted that temptation admirably overall with, let’s say, >95% success. That’s better than any score I’ve ever seen on Rotten Tomatoes.

See the film, and decide for yourself. Look for me; I play Mike Wazowski. Somebody had to.

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  • Robert Tanksley

    Congratulations Dr Katz !!

  • Kelsey Scott

    I'll watch the movie with my family

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David Katz

Healthcare Expert

David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, FACLM, is the Founding Director (1998) of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, and former President of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. He has published roughly 200 scientific articles and textbook chapters, and 15 books to date, including multiple editions of leading textbooks in both preventive medicine, and nutrition. He has made important contributions in the areas of lifestyle interventions for health promotion; nutrient profiling; behavior modification; holistic care; and evidence-based medicine. David earned his BA degree from Dartmouth College (1984); his MD from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (1988); and his MPH from the Yale University School of Public Health (1993). He completed sequential residency training in Internal Medicine, and Preventive Medicine/Public Health. He is a two-time diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine, and a board-certified specialist in Preventive Medicine/Public Health. He has received two Honorary Doctorates.

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