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Going Vegan, is it really a Game Changer?

After months of friends and clients asking me if I have watched the Netflix documentary Game Changer, I thought I should watch it and understand what all the fuss is about. These are some of my thoughts.

For those who are not familiar, Game Changer is a documentary directed by Oscar winners James Cameron and Louis Pshyoyos. It is narrated by James Wilks, an elite special forces trainer and he interviews some amazing athletes who have not just competed but smashed all stereotypes of plant based diets reducing athletic performance.

The athletes’ interviewed are without a doubt phenomenal and put forward a convincing argument that we can all be this kind of vegan, super human athlete. But can we? Are we all able to live up to James Cameron and Louis Phyoyos standard of vegan utopia?

The Game Changer Trailer

Game Changers vs Standard American Diet

The major issue I had with the presentation of information in The Game Changers was the comparisons made between a wholesome fresh vegan diet and a garbage Standard American Diet (SAD). There were no scenarios of good wholesome balanced diets only the extremes of vegetables and fried chicken. Or a bean burrito and a greasy hamburger on a sugary bun. The worst examples of meat protein consumption were given. Of course, your arteries are going to look better if you only ate avocadoes rather than southern fried chicken.

The film gave no information on the benefits of a Mediterranean diet which boasts lower cardiometabolic diseases and increased longevity. The Mediterranean diet is predominately vegetable based with some quality dairy and small amount of meat and fish. There were no comparisons to the traditional Japanese diet which is also is mostly plant based with small amounts of fish, beef and eggs.

There are a few things that you should consider. Some of these points should be taken seriously as they can really prevent major deficiencies and help you navigate if a plant-based diet is really for you? I am always advising my clients there is no perfect diet plan, you must tailor your diet according to your individual needs.

Common complications of following a vegan diet:

Some of the most common conditions and complications that I see from clients following a long-term vegan diet include the following:

  • Iron deficiency: a vegan diet can obtain a portion of iron from fortified foods and other sources. However, iron from animal products, is still the most easily absorbable. Low iron or anaemia can cause a range of symptoms including: low blood pressure, fatigue, poor circulation, insomnia, dysmenorrhea, cognitive impairment, hair loss and depression to name a few. Iron deficiency can be caused by a variety of genetic and medical conditions but for most of cases it is simply through not enough dietary intake. Consider also that foods fortified with iron are a cheap synthetic form of iron, usually ferrous sulphate. Ferrous sulphate is difficult for the body to absorb and often causes constipation. If you are considering a plant-based diet and your serum iron levels are starting to decline make sure you take a quality iron supplement that is free of ferrous sulphate.

  • B-12 deficiency: similar to iron, most of our B12 comes from animal products. I know The Game Changers suggests that we are not absorbing B12 due to the process of factory farming, but other than a few genetic and gastrointestinal conditions, B12 deficiency tends to be exclusive to those who are on a vegan diet. Symptoms of B12 deficiency include: nerve pain, fatigue, poor concentration, memory loss, poor digestion, mental disturbances and reduced immunity. The therapeutic dose of B12 is 1000mg a day.

  • Deficiencies in essential fatty acids: to be fair, many people who are not vegan still struggle with getting enough good fats. Deficiencies in EFA’s may include symptoms of poor condition of hair, skin and nails. Lack of EFA’s is linked to decreased cognitive performance and poor mental health. Additionally deficiencies in EFA’s are vital for our DNA replication and support our immune system. However with a vegan diet the combination of other deficiencies make the lack of EFA’s so much more pronounced. If you are considering a plant-based diet make sure you are getting enough flaxseeds, chia seeds, avocadoes, hemp, coconut oil, evening primrose, olive oil and good quality nuts. Eicosepaenoic Acid (EPA) is often referred to the anti-inflammatory portion of fatty acids and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) is the brain fuel portion. Many plant sources of EFA’s are rich in gamma-linoleic acid, which is important as a source of EFA’s but does not always offer the same therapeutic benefits of fish oil. Marine Algae sources of EFA’s may be used as a vegan alternative, however they are more costly and a higher quantity needs to be taken to achieve a therapeutic dose.

  • Hormonal disruptions: in practice I often see young women who have lost their menstrual cycle due to a vegan diet. Why is this so? It can be due to sudden weight loss, there is not adequate body mass to ovulate. It can also be due deficiencies in certain amino acids, zinc, EFA’s and iron. I would like to stress that any diet that states that it is acceptable or not a complication for a woman to lose her menstrual cycle is completely irresponsible. The women who were interviewed in the doco were elite athletes, and fair to say they would be not ovulating with such low body fat. However, I would hope that they were being monitored to avoid long term complications with bone density and fertility. Amenorrhea, even in athletes, accelerates bone losses due to the lack of oestrogen to the bone.

Women’s hormones can additionally be disrupted due to the imbalance of liver function. A vegan diet can actually reduce stage 2 liver clearance, which is important for the excretion and formation of our sex hormones. For this reason, women can on a vegan diet develop severe acne.

Hormonal disruption is often the complication that forces women to abandon a vegan diet. I strongly advise young women to consider seeking a nutritionist if any of these hormonal issues are becoming apparent in their switch to a vegan diet.

Soy, contrary to The Game Changers is still considered a hormone disrupter for many women. Especially for those who have reproductive conditions and cancers. Oncologists will still advise women in breast cancer remission to avoid soy.

  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome: it is not new information that beans and legumes can make you gassy. They are for vegans their primary source of protein. A vegan diet is very high in FODMAPS, the chain of carbohydrates that tend to ferment in the gut causing IBS. Tips for reducing the gas include: soaking all legumes and removing the foam from the cooking, adding bitter greens to the diet, adding spices such as fenugreek, cardamom, caraway and fennel to dishes. Drinking digestive teas such as dandelion, camomile and peppermint after a meal to reduce bloating and discomfort. For many of my vegan clients they are dependent on probiotics and digestive enzymes to reduce the symptoms of IBS.

  • Growth and development: probably the most debatable question is whether it is safe to raise your children on a plant base diet? Yes, it is true that in countries where they are vegetarian by faith their children are raised on a plant-based diet. Statistically they are below the growth chart and may have delayed growth due to dietary insufficiencies.

In Australia, we hope that we have more wealth and abundance and this would not be a concern for a family wanting to raise their children vegan. Unfortunately, for many Australians food security is an issue and reducing it down to plant based only, does make things stressful and likely nutritionally substandard.

For a child not to at risk of developmental delays on a plant-based diet regular blood tests need to be regularly taken. I would personally insist on permanent supplementation of vitamin D, EFA’s, iron, zinc, calcium and magnesium. Most importantly monitor their growth, cognitive development, immune system and their behaviour. For vegan teens, attention needs to be given if puberty is delayed, especially young girls with have not started their period yet.

Is meat inflammatory?

Meat can be inflammatory, but not always. Red meat in particular beef and pork is high in arachidonic acid. This could possibly cause an increase in inflammatory markers such as C – Reactive Protein and Reactive Oxygen species. This is why some people will say that an animal protein diet is very acidic. However, animal protein can also be very healing, it depends on some important variables and the conditions that you are addressing.

Researching data on nutrition and inflammation the main points are not pointing towards a vegan diet but a general low inflammatory diet that does not promote obesity. Increased sugar and inferior low-density fats (FFA) cause an increase in inflammation. Mostly due to high blood sugars and imbalanced cholesterol ratios. Protein only slightly increase ROS, sugar and lipids caused the highest levels of inflammation.

Most common reasons for people confusing meat as being inflammatory is due to other offending details in their diet. The Standard American and Australian Diet is still so critically poor in fibre. With a lack of vegetables, legumes and an excess of processed food I believe meat has become the victim. Not everyone wants to see that it might be the sugary ketchup and brioche bun more than the meat itself in the burger.

Low inflammatory omnivore tips:

  • Limit BBQ meat: meat cooked at high temperatures does increase cyclic amines and ROS. Cooking meat slowly at lower temperatures and marinating meat reduces these inflammatory markers considerably.

  • No deep fried chicken: the combination of cheap vegetable oils and high temperatures make fried chicken one of the most inflammatory ways to eat meat.

  • Choose grass fed: meat that is grass fed is lower in arachidonic acid and is linked to lower levels of inflammation. Lamb, goat, deer and rabbit are nearly always exclusively grass fed. So if it is beef that you are trying to avoid there are other planet friendly options.

  • Limit smallgoods, bacon and processed meats: they contain nitrates, hydrogenated salt, and binding agents that are linked to increase levels of colorectal cancers. The high salt is troublesome for sensitive kidneys and hypertension.

  • Choose Jersey milk: jersey milk is grass fed, that is why it has a yellow tinge. Jersey milk and meat unlike Holstein and Angus cattle is linked to lower levels of obesity.

  • Include fermented vegetables with your meat: sauerkraut and kimchi assist in digesting and absorbing protein. Studies have shown that Koreans who ate kimchi daily had a significantly less incidence of colorectal cancers.

  • Choose free range meat, dairy and eggs: if the animals are not bred under factory farmed conditions, their nutritional profile may differ. They are allowed to be exposed to sunlight, graze naturally and grow at a normal rate. This has to vary to an animal that is fed growth promotants and never sees sunlight.

  • Enjoy sustainable fish twice a week: fish is lower in arachidonic acid and is an easily absorbed form of protein. Some sufferers of Rheumatoid Arthritis appear to have lower levels of pain on a pescatarian diet.

  • Portion control: your serving of meat should not be the size of a tomahawk steak. Your best guide is that your meat portion is divided into a quarter of your plate. Recommended portion of meat is between 150 -200 grams, slightly more for physical workers, athletes and ravenous teenagers.

  • Enjoy your meat with lots of fresh vegetables: vegetables are full of fibre and phytonutrients that will lower your inflammatory markers. Increasing fibre, both soluble and insoluble decreases your risks of colorectal cancers.

  • Enjoy pineapple, papaya and kiwifruit: pineapple has bromelain, papaya has papain and kiwifruit has actinidin. These are all proteolytic enzymes that assist in absorbing protein and reducing inflammation. They are great for the gut, sinuses and the joints.

I am supportive of any of my clients who wish to adopt a plant-based diet. My only requirement is for them to assess if it is in the long term the best option for their individual health and wellbeing.

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