‘Game Changers’ is pushing a new wonder diet, can it all be true?


Professor Jim Whelan, Research Director of La Trobe Institute for Agriculture and Food, says that when it comes to the environment, plant-based diets have definite benefits over the animal-based variety.

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“It takes roughly seven tonnes of corn to produce a tonne of beef, five tonnes of corn to produce a tonne of pork, it takes three tonnes to produce a tonne of chicken. So environmentally, you can probably feed far more people by just feeding them plant-based protein than animal-based protein.”

Even with the extra processing required to create plant-based meat-like alternatives, Professor Whelan says that they are likely more environmentally sustainable. Professor Whelan advocates a mix of animal and plant-based protein, to ease the burden on industrial farming.

“Rather than trying to produce cheap meat, we should be calling for a little bit less meat, but maybe more quality so farmers get a premium price and so we’re not pushing the production systems to the extent that we are at the moment.”

The benefits of plant-based diets go beyond the environment, however, with many people turning to it for health reasons. But it’s here that the buzz around plant-based eating has all the hallmarks of what athlete and author Matt Fitzgerald calls a “diet cult”.

In Fitzgerald’s definition, diet cults demonise one food group or macro-nutrient, claiming that they have found the one true way of eating. Not only is it the best, adherents of diet cults are emotionally invested in their preferred diet, deriving a sense of identity and community from the specific eating regime. And, just like spiritual cults, they use fear to recruit others to the one true way of eating.

Adherents of diet cults are emotionally invested in their diet, deriving a sense of identity and community from the specific eating regime.

The Netflix doco Game Changers ticks a lot of those diet cult boxes as it follows military combat instructor and former Ultimate Fighting Championship martial artist James Wilks as he discovers the wonder of a plant-based diet.

While drawing on to science to make its case, the documentary has been criticised for cherry-picking data to make its points. And it’s served with a healthy dose of fear. One segment suggests “how a single animal-based meal can impair blood-flow.”

That includes blood flow to specific areas of the male anatomy. In one segment, members of the Miami Dolphins football team are tested to see how many erections they have during a night’s sleep after eating meat versus eating only plant-based meat. As you may have guessed, it turns out that beans are good for boners.

Public Health Nutritionist Clare Farrand from The George Institute for Global Health says that while a plant-based diet is generally better, she cautions against assuming it is automatically better.

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“Ultimately, we do want to be encouraging people to eat a more plant-based diet, but it’s the source of the food [that’s important]. When we recommend eating more of a plant-based diet, we’re talking about eating more fresh options.”

People can make the mistake of assuming that plant-based food is synonymous with health food, when this is not always correct.

Research, which The George Institute for Global Health conducted in collaboration with VicHealth and the Heart Foundation, found that many plant-based meat alternatives are loaded with salt. The worse offender was meat-free bacon, with 2 grams of salt per 100 grams.

The recommended daily salt intake is 5 grams – less than a teaspoon.

Hearth Foundation dietitian Sian Armstrong says that consumers still need to check the labels of plant-based foods.

“They tend to get that health halo because they are plant-based, but they are often really highly processed, and some of them can have particularly a lot of salt added to them to get a little bit of extra flavour,” says Ms Armstrong. “[T]hey are still highly processed foods. They’re not something that we recommend you be eating every day.”

And it isn’t just the highly processed foods, such as the fake meats that health-conscious consumers need to be concerned about. Some brands of flavoured tofu and falafel brands were also packed with salt.

As for the plant-based diet becoming the new paleo, La Trobe University’s Professor Jim Whelan thinks there’s little danger of that.

“You have whole cultures in the world who eat plant-based diets that go back hundreds, if not thousands of years”, says Professor Whelan. ‘Whereas I don’t think there’s any evidence that anyone ever lived on this thing called ‘the Paleo diet’.”

Christopher Scanlon is a Melbourne writer and academic.

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