When James Wilks found out that Roman gladiators were mostly vegetarian it blew his mind – he spent the next seven years researching the science and talking to men who require muscle, from fire fighters, to MMA warriors, to military soldiers, to athletes and even Arnold Schwarzenegger, in order to make the documentary ‘Gamechangers’.
It’s always a good idea to ask yourself how much of what you know about food is based on fact, and how much on the marketing that we are all fed – it turns out that what Wilks discovered may make you change your mind about plant-based food and muscle…
RSNG What was your reaction when you first found out that Roman gladiators were mostly vegetarian?
JAMES WILKS, MMA TRAINER & FILMMAKER ‘To be honest I didn't believe it, since I firmly believed that you needed animal protein to be big and strong. That's why I insisted on traveling to Vienna to meet/ interview with the researchers and find out more about exactly how they came to what was, for me, a very shocking discovery.’
RSNG What has been the most surprising plant-based benefit to athletic performance that you have found in your own journey?
JW ‘The dramatic reduction in inflammation that a plant-based diet can offer. As a professional fighter, I was already aware of how much inflammation can impair recovery, not only between workouts, but for injuries as well.’
‘As a result, all of the fighters I knew took large doses of "vitamin I" (ibuprofen) daily. I had no idea that the food I was eating was creating more inflammation, or that a plant-based foods could be even more powerful than pharmaceuticals to reduce both acute and chronic inflammation.’
‘Switching to a plant-based diet can reduce markers of inflammation by 29% in just three weeks’
‘One of the studies featured in our film revealed that switching to a plant-based diet can reduce markers of inflammation by 29% in just three weeks. That is just massive.’
‘The most consistent thing we heard from plant-based athletes across a wide range of sports was how much it reduced their inflammation and sped up their recovery, even allowing their bodies to heal from injuries that had plagued them, and kept them off the field, for years. This was shocking and surprising (and of course inspiring) to say the very least.’
RSNG Can you illuminate the complete protein/ amino acid debate for us and explain how to get the correct mix of amino acids from plant-based foods?
JW ‘The animal foods industry has done a great job of convincing folks that animal protein is the only source of essential amino acids, but this simply isn't true. The protein that the farm animals eat originates in plants, which contain all nine essential amino acids, in varying proportions.’
‘Several decades ago, a theory was postulated that in order to get the proper balance of amino acids from plant foods, you needed to combine certain foods, like beans and rice, at every meal.’
‘But that theory was proven false and we now know that this isn't necessary since our bodies break protein down into individual amino acids so that the appropriate proteins can be built at the necessary times.’
‘This is why research comparing plant and animal protein has shown that, for building muscle and strength, the source is irrelevant – as long as the right amount of amino acids are consumed.’
RSNG Did you expect to ever hear some of the responses in the movie – such as Arnie talking about meat marketing?
JW ‘No, not at all. If there's one thing I learned from making this film, it's to not judge a book by it's cover.’
‘In the seven years of making this film, I met world champion athletes including fighters, powerlifters and strongmen, service members on the front lines including soldiers, fire fighters, and police officers, as well as numerous other men who occupy traditionally ‘male’ careers, many of whom shared similar thoughts about meat, marketing, and pseudo-masculinity as Arnold so eloquently expressed in his interview.’
RSNG Do you find that some vegan restrictions are overly pedantic – for instance honey from bees when we need to restore crashing bee populations however possible, in order to preserve plant pollination?
JW ‘Since the film focuses on optimizing athletic performance and health, we didn't delve into the ethical motivations some people have for adopting a plant-based diet, which I think are very compelling in their own right.’
‘To answer your question a bit more directly: I do think that the vegan community can sometimes focus a bit too much on purity of action and lose sight of the bigger picture. For example, in order to grow rice, fields are typically flooded, which no doubt takes a toll on the animals living there. But I don't know many vegans who avoid eating rice for this reason.’
‘I also think it's important to remember that people seldom go plant-based overnight, and should be given space to make their own decisions about how far they want to go with it, and at what pace. There's nothing wrong with sharing your point of view, but I think that's best done with as little judgment and self-righteousness as possible.’
RSNG Do you have any advice for people trying to eat more plant-based protein but having trouble digesting the additional volume of food required to match their macros?
JW ‘Since animal foods are usually more calorically dense than plant foods, switching to food that is higher in fiber and water (like most plant-based foods) usually leaves people feeling full sooner. This is normally a good thing; research shows people on a plant-based diet tend to have lower body fat percentages for this very reason.’
‘However, if you're trying to gain muscle and need to be in a caloric surplus, the best way to match higher macro requirements is to focus on the most calorie-dense plant foods, including soy-based products like tofu, tempeh, and soy milk; more grains and beans, nuts and nut butters, avocados, dried fruits, and so on.’
‘You can also include plant-based meats, plant-based protein powders, plant-based protein/ energy bars, etc; whatever it takes to get hit the necessary macros.’
‘Nitrate-rich plant foods have been shown to help athletes increase endurance by 22% and total weight lifting volume by 19%’
RSNG Explain to us how blood vessel health is linked to athletic performance and diet?
JW ‘Exercise requires increased blood flow in order to bring more oxygen and nutrients to our muscles, brain and the rest of our body. As such, any opportunity to increase blood flow, or prevent it from being impaired, is critical for optimized athletic performance.’
‘In the film we conducted a couple of experiments on athletes to demonstrate how a single animal-based meal can quickly thicken our blood and impair blood flow. The same experiments showed the opposite effect from the plant-based meal.’
‘The science backing this up is quite clear: research has shown that just two hours after eating a heavy animal-based meal, arteries can constrict by 40%, slowing blood flow. A calorie-matched plant-based meal allow blood to remain fluid and flow quickly to its destination.’
‘But it isn’t just the lack of “baggage” in plant foods that help keep our blood flowing quickly; there is also a common ingredient found in plant-based foods like arugula, spinach, and beets that tell our blood vessels to open. This ingredient is nitrates which, unlike the cancer-causing nitrates in cured meats like bacon, can not only help our arteries to dilate properly, but also help our muscles work more efficiently.’
‘Nitrate-rich plant foods are so powerful that they have been shown to help athletes increase endurance by 22% and total lift volume (like bench press) by 19%.’
RSNG People talk about getting more energy from plant based diets but do you know if there is a scientific basis for that?
JW ‘All of the plant-based athletes we interviewed reported increased energy levels. This could be as a result of consuming more carbohydrates — the preferred fuel for hard-working muscles, as well as our brains — which are often displaced by animal foods in a meat-based diet.’
‘It could also be because plant foods tend to be easier to digest because of their increased fibre and water content, which leaves athletes feeling less "heavy" after a meal.’
‘Improvements in blood flow, as illustrated above, could also be responsible. However, even without deliberately emphasizing nitrate-rich vegetables, eating plants has been shown to combat fatigue.’
‘In one study, recreational runners were able to shave 6% off their 5K run times just four days after switching to a plant-based diet. Researchers hypothesized that the anti-inflammatory nature of the antioxidant-rich plant foods also contributed to the faster run times.’
RSNG Could it be that some people are genetically disposed to a plant-based diet and that the opposite is also true?
JW ‘In the seven years it took to make this film, which included interviews with some of the world's leading geneticists and anthropologists, all of the evidence we found pointed to the fact that humans are best-suited to a diet centered around plants.’
‘Diets based on blood or body type, for example, have been shown to have no basis in science.’
RSNG Do you think that perhaps we need to get past the tribalism of vegan/vegetarian vs meat eaters in order for everyone (and our planet) to enjoy the benefits of eating more whole and plant foods?
JW ‘Absolutely. I don't think it serves anyone to create an 'us vs them' mentality around food, especially given that I don't believe the way most people eat is their fault.’
‘As we reveal in the film, the animal foods industry is incredibly powerful and spends literally billions of dollars a year in marketing, lobbying, and self-funded research to keep the public consuming as many of their products as possible.’
‘The only direction any finger should be pointed is towards the massive meat, dairy and egg conglomerates, who have done everything in their power to conceal the truth about the dangers of their products.’
RSNG In terms of post-exercise recovery, which plant foods should we be looking to in particular? Is there a post-workout plant shake that you have found works really well for you?
JW ‘The post workout window isn’t as narrow as people tend to believe, but I still usually like to have a smoothie for its taste and convenience. For me, that would I include a plant-based milk like soy or oat, blended with bananas, berries, kale, dates, maybe some almond butter, plus 25-30 grams of plant-based protein powder.’
‘I’ll often replace the protein powder with more whole plant-based foods and still get all the amino acids I need.’
WHAT NEXT? For more on Arnie’s plant-based diet, read RSNG’s exclusive interview with the Terminator star.
Watch the trailer for James Wilks’s Gamechangers*
The Game Changers is available for digital download on Apple TV (formerly iTunes) and other major platforms now
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Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.