SS 264 – Is Going Plant-Based A Game Changer for Athletes?

Episode 264 Show Notes


There’s a new Netflix documentary called The Game Changers that has gotten everyone talking including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Joe Rogan, and other huge personalities. An expert even came on to debunk it and had a heated argument with the filmmaker. 

Heavey makes a sensible point that many people nowadays are treating nutrition like politics. They believe they’re right and choose sides. There’s nothing that could change their mind on it. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the antithesis of the scientific process.

If you believe something as a scientist, it is your job to continually challenge that and be a skeptic. But what we’re seeing today is the opposite of that. People seek out examples and research things that support their beliefs and automatically reject those that don’t. That is not science.

[09:07] It’s Storytelling, People

These films are really about storytelling. They’re not about presenting a fair and balanced exposure to the current state of scientific evidence. They’re about telling stories in a compelling way that gets people excited about something. 

Films like The Game Changers are mostly anecdote-based. They talked about an MMA fighter who lost a match to somebody that was plant-based. Then they implied that was the thing that put him over the edge. But there are so many other elements involved, it’s crazy to make that claim.

[10:35] Plant-Based vs. Non Plant-Based

Most elite athletes are not on plant-based diets. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a non plant-based diet is best for you. Usain Bolt was quoted for eating 100 chicken nuggets a day during the Olympics when he took home gold. The fastest man in the world is on a diet of chicken nuggets. Michael Phelps even talked about having so much pizza and pasta at the time he was destroying everybody because pizza and pasta had so many calories.

You have to understand that athletes are a different breed. When you talk about nutrition to support athleticism, it’s different than nutrition to support health and general wellness. Somebody like Phelps has super high caloric needs that there’s no way he’s going to get that from eating broccoli.

[12:04] The Challenge in Research

Evaluating nutritional research is extremely difficult especially when looking at plant-based participants. Vegans and vegetarians tend to be the most health-conscious people out there. 

When you see research on people eating a plant-based diet are healthier, it’s not necessarily because of their diet. But they often have chosen a path that includes a bunch of other healthy lifestyle factors. Usually, they’re not smoking or their alcohol intake is limited and they’re exercising. To separate that out within the research is just challenging.

Also, a lot of research featured in such films is observational in nature so it’s easy to paint whatever picture you want. You could make a film on the chicken nugget diet and how that makes you the fastest man in the world! Also, saying your grandpa ate bacon every morning and lived to be a hundred is an anecdote. It’s not science. You have to be able to separate those things in order for anything to be considered a general recommendation for people.

[14:00] Challenge Yourself Too

If you are going to be persuaded by some piece of media, do a little bit of googling and look for “takedowns” of that particular thing. This way you have an opposing point of view that can challenge what you’re so compelled by. Watching or thinking about something that challenges your opinion versus reinforcing it. 

[17:45] Finding Food Sources

Heavey is 100% behind a diet dominated by fruits and vegetables. They’re very important for long-term health. There’s a reason for that because it’s diet agnostic. 

If you’re a vegan, you have to look for those nutrients from one source. If you’re not vegan, look for them in a different source. The choice to look at food from the numbers is intentional. But less people make those choices and live their own preferences relative to their diet. 

[19:10] The Downside of Exclusionary Diets

Moreover, Heavey is not a fan of diets that exclude major food groups. This is not only limited to plant-based diets but to everything. Sadly, the standard American diet is low in fruits and vegetables. 

If you eliminate major food groups, you’re making it harder on yourself because you’re taking out foods that are rich in sufficient nutrients. Meats are inarguably rich in certain nutrients that vegetables are not. You might not be able to find those nutrients in vegetables and other plant sources. It requires an extra level of expertise in order to apply an exclusionary diet especially on performance.

[21:25] The Time Component

Time is another component here. Heavey recommends that if you feel great for 30 days or 60 days, maintain an open mind about what you’re doing to be sure you don’t drain your reserves. Ultimately, you need to find a better balance.

[22:30] Is Plant-Based Diet Ideal for Athletes?

Heavey doesn’t think a plant-based diet is ideal for an athlete. Firstly, what even makes an athlete. It can be anybody. It can be Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, a basketball player, or weightlifter. To think that the same nutrition optimizes performance for each of those people is ridiculous.

Athletes consume lean protein for lean body mass and recovery. Your needs may vary depending on your sport. But in general, athletes have higher protein needs than non-athletes.

Moreover, vegans only get 14% of calories from protein. A lot of the protein sources in the vegan diet also contain a lot of carbohydrates. It is more difficult to get higher percentages of protein within the plant-based diet. This can work against athletes.

On average, vegans consume 600 less calories per day than the average person. Athletes consume lean protein for lean body mass and recovery. Your needs may vary depending on your sport. But in general, athletes have higher protein needs than non-athletes.

Moreover, vegans only get 14% of the calories on protein. A lot of the protein sources in the vegan diet can contain a lot of carbohydrates. It is more difficult to get higher percentages of protein within the plant-based diet. And this can work against athletes.

On average, vegans consume 600 less calories per day than the average person. So Michael Phelps would probably have a bit of a problem being a vegan and maintain his caloric load to support his training and competition. 

[24:50] Where Vegans Can Get Protein From

It’s wise to make sure you’re varying your protein sources when you’re on a vegan diet. Meat and dairy are complete proteins. There are some complete plant proteins but they are few and far between. For instance, soy is a complete protein. 

If you’re plant-based and you’re willing to have dairy this is the top choice. Otherwise, the second-best is a combination of pea and rice protein. This has a similar amino acid profile to whey. Again, vary your proteins more to make sure you get solid exposure to all of the essential amino acids. 

[26:45] Protein Absorbing Capacity: Meat-Eater vs. Plant-Eaters

When you eat plants, protein is less readily available and it’s harder for your body to absorb. For example, if a meat-eater eats one gram of protein, they might absorb 90% of it. But if a plant-eater eats one gram of protein, they might only absorb about 80% of it. This is something to also consider because not only are vegans getting less protein than non-vegans, but the protein they’re getting is less bioavailable so they need more of it than meat-eaters.

That being said, you need protein as an athlete and it’s harder to get if you’re a plant-based dieter. That’s the bottom line.

[28:05] Muscle Glycogen and Other Nutrients

Muscle glycogen is another important topic that has been talked about a lot in The Game Changers documentary. You can easily get that on a plant-based diet. It’s carbohydrates. 

But they seem to be equating the non plant-based diet with a low carbohydrate diet which doesn’t have to be true. You can say a plant-based diet is healthy but that doesn’t mean it’s the healthiest diet. 

There are also some nutrients that are tougher to get on a plant-based diet. This depends on what kind of diet you’re on. There are the vegans, vegetarians, and the pescatarians, etc. So a plant-based diet means something different for different people.

Other nutrients you should be thinking about when you’re on a plant-based diet include creatine, carnitine, EPA and DHA. These are actually deficient in plant-based diets unless you’re a pescatarian. 

Whichever iteration of the diet you’re on, you should examine those nutrients and see how you’re getting them. Make sure you’re getting them. Continue to check in with yourself on your performance because it can vary anytime. As mentioned above, you might feel great for the first 30 days but some people might not be able to carry that through.

[31:45] So How Are Those High-Level Athletes on a Plant-Based Diet?

There are indeed athletes that are on a plant-based diet. First, they may have access to nutritionists and dietitians that can help them out with optimizing a plant-based diet for their athleticism. 

Secondly, there are many genetic freaks like most professional athletes are where it doesn’t matter if you ate a hundred nuggets and still be the highest level athlete in the world. So there are crazy freaks that could do fine on nuggets and those that do fine on vegan diets.

Grant points out that being healthy for yourself is somewhere in the middle with a moderate diet, taking in nutrients from every source.

[35:05] A Bodybuilder on a Plant-Based Diet? How the Heck is That?

As mentioned time and time again on this podcast, the protein requirement for people, in general, is one gram per pound of bodyweight if you’re looking to maximize your muscle gains.

In that study, on the low end, there were people that thrived just as well as one gram per pound that had half that intake. So there are people that are at a half gram per pound level that would do just as well as people on a one gram per pound level solely based upon their genetics.

[37:28] Whiskey Time: Week 3 of Arran 

Arran is from the Islands region where there are only a handful of distilleries. Geographically, it’s the most diverse collection. Arran is the southernmost distillery represented in Scotland. Another very famous Island distillery is Highland Park from the Orkney Islands in the northernmost part of Scotland. 

Scotch ages for so long and sits in porous containers where various factors account for their differences such as their closeness to the sea and the brightness of the air. As a result, we have a collection of distilleries that are similar on some level.

Taste profile-wise, they’re not as diverse. In fact, there are a lot of similarities between them, another reason they’re grouped together. They’re all medium peat compared to Islay which has this massive peat profile. Most of the Highlands and Speyside are either relatively or completely unpeated.

Some of the best scotch you can gift people come from the Islands region. They can be complex without being too heavy one way or another. Give someone a bottle of Talisker and they’re going to be happy whether they love peat or not. 

The different Island distilleries include Arran, Highland Park, Jura, Scapa, Talisker, and Tobermory. If you’re still figuring out your way in scotch and you think you like a little bit of everything, explore these distilleries just listed.


Evidence Based Athlete

Check out the gear page for everything Strength & Scotch! You’ll find a listing of all the supplements and other programs we’ve discussed on the show as well as our killer t-shirts!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *