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by Alan McCubbin
November 21, 2019
Photography by Edgar Castrejon
If there’s anything that’s captured public opinion in the nutrition and diet space in the last month or so, it’s The Game Changers film. It’s the latest in a long line of diet “documentaries”, promoting a specific way of eating for optimal health or athletic performance, based around the stories and experiences of an individual. In this case it’s all about the benefits of a plant-based diet.
Since its release there’s been plenty of online chatter about the film’s scientific accuracy, and about the journalistic integrity and potential conflicts of interest of those involved in the film, not least Executive Producer James Cameron who is the founder and CEO of a vegan protein powder company.
Plenty of people in nutrition science circles have weighed in on The Game Changers, providing commentary, fact-checking and analysis (just a few examples can be found here, here and here). My goal here is not to reproduce these, or to criticise plant-based diets for health or cycling performance. There are plenty of perfectly healthy, high-level riders that follow a plant-based diet, and a good proportion of athletes I work with eat this way by choice.
My role as a sports dietitian is to stay diet agnostic, supporting my clients to optimise their health and performance regardless of their philosophical, cultural, religious, or other food choices. Instead, my interest in The Game Changers centres on how we cyclists, pushers of pedals and consumers of food, relate to what and how we eat.
Think back just a few years. From 2010 to 2016, you’d be forgiven for thinking grains, cereals and legumes were poison. So were apples. The low carb, high fat (LCHF) phenomenon, one of the first of the post-Twitter era, rode the wave of popularity, with people revolting against traditional dietary advice with reckless abandon.
Sticks of butter, or tubs of cream, were poured into the morning coffee. Bacon and blocks of cheese became mid-meal snacks, and the bigger the steak for dinner, the better. Movies like Cereal Killers went gangbusters. Chris Froome, so the story went, won the Tour de France eating a low carb diet (this was subsequently debunked by Froome, and then Team Sky nutritionist James Morton).
But then something changed. The LCHF community still ticks along, but it’s now seemingly in the background, with only the most devoted followers still tuning in. We’ve previously discussed the effect of LCHF diets for cyclists. In summary, whilst LCHF diets can help some people eat less and reduce their weight, the trade-off is that higher intensities of exercise may be impaired.
Since that post, new research has emerged, demonstrating how more oxygen is required to produce the same power output on a LCHF diet, and confirming at exercise intensities relevant to competitive cycling that this can be a performance killer.
But back to the present: meat is now poison, and lentils reign supreme. Some folks, eager not to abandon one ship to sail the next, have even jumped aboard the LCHF/vegan lovechild, keto-vegan. But for the most part, the keto tribe still love their meat and hate their grains, and vegans the opposite. How can the doctors, scientists, athletes and influencers who endorse these trends all be right about two diets that are so polar opposite?
Image: Victoria Shes
I’m not particularly interested in who’s right or wrong in this story. A lot of people think we should lock the plant-based and keto people in a room and let them duke it out. In case you’re wondering, the general consensus (outside those in the media) is that any dietary pattern can achieve better health and a lower body weight, provided you eat less and can do it consistently. In other words, the most effective dietary pattern for you is probably the one you find easiest and most enjoyable to live with.
What’s our fascination with diet trends? Is it the promise of a solution to what we perceive as a major problem? The feeling that the status quo isn’t working, so it’s time to shake things up? Or is it the sense of belonging to a tribe, a movement that sweeps the web gathering up followers, united in a philosophical belief, armed with cookbooks and products from the health food aisle?
Many people have likened diets and their followers to religions, highlighting a substantial element of faith, particularly since a significant portion of the population lack the scientific literacy to accurately interpret, let alone access (thanks to paywalls) scientific publications. Perhaps it’s all part of the backlash against experts that’s dominated discussion in local and global affairs (dietary guidelines in most countries, and their creators, have certainly copped a pounding in recent times).
To be clear, the tribalism aspect of nutrition and diets comes with significant positives too. Twenty years ago if you wanted to go plant-based, you’d have to find a book to buy, or often go it alone and try to figure it out. Today, there are whole communities of people, online and in person, there to support you and cheer you on, share tips and recipes, and to provide that feeling you get from being part of something. The downside is when tribes interact, and these interactions turn judgemental.
Banter between football supporters is usually pretty harmless, but the search for scientific truths in dietary tribalism seems to bring out the worst in people. Whatever the reason, this is not a new phenomenon – diet trends in one form or another well and truly pre-date the personal computer, let alone the internet. Smartphones, and social media, have no doubt increased the number of voices, and provided an echo chamber in which to amplify these discussions, but we should remember that these technologies weren’t the beginning of dietary identity.
Image: Rustic Vegan
So what’s the solution? On a recent podcast discussing this phenomenon, Dr John Berardi (of Precision Nutrition fame) discussed the importance of looking in the mirror at our own attitudes to nutrition ideology. Whenever there’s a clash of ideas, it’s always the other tribe that’s wrong, that’s made an intellectual bungle and misinterpreted the science, that has an axe to grind with us, or that has an undisclosed conflict of interest. Because unbeknownst to them, we’re right and they’re not.
“For me, everything comes back to ‘I cannot fix the tribalism of the world, but I can work on being more objective myself. And if I do that, my life will be markedly better, and perhaps that will rub off on the people around me’. The other pathway feels like it might be more impactful: ‘Give me a big megaphone and I’ll talk about the evils of this’. But it rarely ever produces anything but more arguments and more tribalism.”
So coming back to nutrition, what should we do about eating better, for both health and performance on the bike? How about flipping the usual conversation on its head? We’re conditioned to look for differences in opinion; be it politics, religion, sport, or diets. But imagine if we instead looked at the common ground? Is there a space in the middle of a venn diagram where keto, plant-based, national dietary guidelines and many others intersect? Can the corporate sell-outs, the hippies, and the carnivores actually agree on some things?
I’ve drawn up such a diagram, showing these three eating patterns and many of their key features (many people will no doubt debate where things sit on this diagram – each dietary following has its own factions). You could add dozens more popular diets to this diagram, and the concept would still work. Right in the middle is a collection of foods that almost everyone would include in a healthy diet. Vegetables (of the non-starchy variety), berries or other low-sugar fruits, nuts and seeds, olive oil, water as the main drink of choice, and a reduction in the consumption of high sugar, processed foods, and alcohol.
Regardless of your dietary persuasion, if people focussed on eating more of these, and less on what they should restrict or exclude from their life, they may find their eating less stressful, and more beneficial to their health, regardless of weight.
On the performance side of things, we know that for most competitive cyclists there will always be at least some degree of high-intensity effort that is important to them. To that end, carbohydrate, regardless of the food from which it’s consumed, will form an important part of the picture, and as previously discussed, we shouldn’t discount the importance of protein either.
But training isn’t the same every day, and neither are our nutritional needs. As far back as 2012 I wrote about the concept of periodised nutrition, particularly in relation to matching carbohydrate to training load. Since that time this concept has been taken a step further, using the catchy title (by academic standards) of “fuel for the work required”. This concept underpins how most modern sports nutritionists have advised athletes about carbohydrate for the past decade, and to some extent, what many athletes were already doing without realising it.
If I were to summarise my thoughts on The Game Changers, or Cereal Killers, and the followings they have, it would be this: human physiology hasn’t changed in the last five years, but you could be mistaken for thinking it has, based on the media. Everyone wants to feel a part of something, connected to others, and for many this includes their food choices.
That’s absolutely fine if it’s working for you; if you’re healthy, happy, and supported by your tribe. But for me, a line is crossed when people push their opinions onto others, or when they try to tear down people or organisations with views about food that are different to their own.
Just like performance-enhancing drugs in sport, dietary tribalism merely reflects how we behave in society as a whole. Instead, let’s enjoy what we choose to eat, without feeling the need to judge others for their own choices. Maybe one day we can even sit down together for a nice meal. There’ll be plenty of non-starchy veggies, berries and nuts on the table, maybe even some carbohydrate-containing foods if we want to go bike racing. And a couple of beers too, because life’s there to be enjoyed.
Alan McCubbin is an Accredited Sports Dietitian, Accredited Practicing Dietitian and past president of Sports Dietitians Australia. He recently completed his PhD in sports nutrition at Monash University. He is also the founder of Next Level Nutrition, an online sports nutrition consultancy through which he works with a range of athletes from recreational to Olympians.