Deconstructing An Underdog Story: Chris Paul, The Game Changers, and the Plant Based Diet.
Food has become a battlefield. To be precise, an ideological war is being waged in order to determine what is not only the ideal diet to promote human health, well-being, and performance, but also to enable humanity to live its most moral and best existence. Whether they know it or not, professional athletes are being used as propaganda weapons in this war.
In the last several years, it has become fashionable for the vegan movement to promote athletes as shining examples of not only how their diet is supposedly the most moral way of living, but also one that is ideal for human performance. To that end, much has been made about the ostensible results that have been achieved by professional athletes that have switched to either vegan or plant-based diets.
One of the most prominent examples of this in recent years was the documentary film The Game Changers, which was released in September 2019 and backed by a host of heavy hitters from Hollywood, the sports world, and even the world of politics. These included legendary director James Cameron (who advocates for “a meatless world in 20 years”), film star and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and action film legend Jackie Chan.
From the sports world, executive producers include Formula 1 racer Lewis Hamilton, tennis world no.1 Novak Djokovic (who, according to an interview with his longtime coach Marian Vajda, had to reintroduce fish to his diet in order to “recover his lost strength” despite his personal preference for eating vegetables) and, the subject of much of this article, NBA point guard Chris Paul. The film’s central premise is that not only can athletes reach new levels of elite performance through embracing a plant-based, carbohydrate-heavy diet, but that such a diet is in fact the ideal one for peak human performance in general.
The film premiered at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival to much fanfare and acclaim, especially in plant-based circles. However, almost immediately questions were raised about the accuracy of the documentary- whether from advocates of a primarily animal-based diet such as Dr. Shawn Baker and Dr. Paul Saladino, those who take a relatively neutral stance such as the popular fitness coach and bodybuilder Layne Norton or the writer and dietician SaVanna Shoemaker. The filmmakers and their supporters have hit back at many of these claims, including a debate on the popular podcast The Joe Rogan Experience, pitting Game Changers producer James Wilks against functional medicine practicioner and author Chris Kresser.
Those interested in this issue, whether athletes or just regular people seeking to stay in peak health and fitness, should investigate both sides of this controversy and educate themselves as best as possible as to what works best for them, not just by reading but also by trying different foods and combinations of foods that work best for them. However, here we will examine how the narrative around at least one of the major athletes associated with this film and plant-based diet in general is either intentionally or unintentionally misleading.
Aside from the general debate and controversy over The Game Changers, Chris Paul has been one of the major sports success stories of the past year. Paul was picked fourth overall by the New Orleans Hornets in the 2005 NBA Draft, and ever since then has been one of the NBA’s most elite point guards. He has been selected for the NBA All Star game ten times and the end of year All NBA team nine times. In 2008, he finished second in MVP voting only to Kobe Bryant. When his career is over, he will without question be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame and remembered as one of the greatest point guards playmakers in the history of the sport.
However, before the 2019–20 NBA season began, it was generally believed that Paul had entered the twilight of his storied career. At thirty-four years old, he could still put up strong numbers when he was on the court, but had started to develop a pattern of missing a number of games due to injury. Signed to a contract that paid him nearly $40 million per season, his team, the Houston Rockets, viewed him as no longer being worth that sum considering how much space that deal occupied on their salary cap.
During the 2019 offseason, the Rockets traded Paul to the Oklahoma City Thunder, along with two first round draft picks, in order to acquire Russell Westbrook. With the Thunder trading Westbrook to the Rockets and fellow superstar Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers, the expectation was that they would enter a period of rebuilding. After all, the past his prime and (presumably) increasingly injury prone Paul could not possibly be the centerpiece of a playoff team, especially not in the NBA’s tough Western Conference. At least, that was the conventional wisdom heading into the season.
Paul and the Thunder then proceeded to prove their doubters wrong in spectacular fashion. Paul quickly established himself as the leader of a young Thunder team, setting the culture and expectations that the team would continue to win, which they did. The team’s young players, especially Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, performed well, as did other established veterans such as Steven Adams and Danilo Galinari. But Paul was the standout on the court, not only putting up excellent numbers but maintaining excellent health, playing his most games in a season since 2016.
Paul publicly attributed his success to his plant-based diet, and the media seemed to agree, particularly vegan or plant-based outlets such as Totally Vegan Buzz or Plant Based News. Paul’s success, coming on the heels of The Game Changers, seems to be yet another indication of the fact that going plant based is the ideal for health and performance, an ideal that most people should move towards in order to achieve these goals. But is that really true, or is that merely the over-simplified version of what is actually a more complex and nuanced story?
That Chris Paul has had increased performance and on-court health since adopting his new diet is clear, but that does not mean that no questions remain about the narrative that is advanced around his way of eating. First of all, does Paul’s diet actually fit the rigorous standards that vegans (who, in general, stress that first and foremost their diet is about moral and ethical principle rather than mere health benefits for humans) expect from a “plant based” lifestyle? And second, is there an alternative explanation for Paul’s increased health and performance besides the elimination of animal proteins?
We can begin to answer this question by examining an article in USA Today that breaks down what Paul actually eats on a daily basis, as laid out by his personal chef, Seong Hwang. This interview reveals that Paul does not meet the vegan moral standard despite pro-vegan media being happy to use him to bolster their narrative. According to Paul’s chef, fish is one of Paul’s go to dinner options. This is an immediate and obvious no-no as far as vegan moral/ethical philosophy goes.
The second major insight from the article is what Paul eliminated from his diet besides animal foods (and, as we just saw, he did not in fact eliminate those ). According to Hwang, “when I met Chris, he had a large sugar consumption. Sprite was his go-to. He’s slowly weaned off that.”
When it comes to what foods are best to eat and not eat, there are few things that plant and animal based diet advocates can easily find common ground on. One of the few exceptions to this rule would be the importance of eliminating or at the very least dramatically reducing consumption of sugar, especially processed sugar or high fructose corn syrup of the variety found in sodas such as Sprite.
In his landmark 1939 book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, dentist Weston A. Price traveled around the world visiting various people groups that were still consuming their ancestral diets, uncorrupted by the invasion of processsed modern foods. The diverse peoples he visited included isolated mountain villagers in Switzerland, the Masai tribes of Africa, indigenous peoples of the Americas, and more. Their ancestral diets varied in how much they were based on plants vs. animal foods, although none were entirely plant-based nor were all entirely animal-based (though some came close to the latter).
When it came to their animal protein of choice, some of these peoples(such as the islanders of Polynesia) used fish as their staple, while others (such as the First Nations of the upper Canadian Rocky Mountains) mainly ate game such as elk and caribou, with each group gravitating towards what was readily available in their environment. As an aside, it tended to be peoples in this latter part of the world, such as these First Nations people, the Inuit, the Sami of Scandinavia and others, who came the closest to eating an animal foods-only diet, with their plant consumption generally limited to fruits such as berries when in season.
One thing united all of these people across the world- when living off of their ancestral diets, they uniformly maintained spectacular levels of health, with Price (as a dentist) being drawn in particular to their perfect teeth, which he documented in the book’s many photographic illustrations. What Price found, however, is that in every case where these peoples were exposed to the staple foods of modern man, particularly processed white flour and sugar, their health took a drastic downturn. Not only did cases of tooth decay (or dental caries) drastically increase, but so did cases of tuberculosis, mental illness, Ricketts, and other various maladies.
In the eighty years since Price published his landmark work, other writers and investigators have attempted to zero in on sugar as a singularly unhealthy food for human consumption. At times, these writers ran afoul of the increasingly powerful business interests who depend on sugar to make products that net them billions of dollars each year. These corporations used a variety of dubious means in order to advance a narrative that protected their source of profits.
When John Yudkin wrote his 1972 book Pure, White and Deadly, a scathing attack on sugar as the primary cause of heart disease, his reputation was destroyed and his findings were banished to obscurity for years afterwards. Saturated fat was advanced as being an alternative culprit for heart disease, although in recent years fat’s guilt is being questioned by advocates for a low or zero-carbohydrate, animal-based diet. In recent years, others such as investigative journalist Gary Taubes have revisited the anti-sugar thesis in his 2017 book The Case Against Sugar.
Is this enough to say whether or not Chris Paul’s improvement in health and on-court performance is due to his largely cutting out processed sugar (with sodas being a particularly bad form of this )? Maybe not definitively, but it can call into question the idea that his improvements are primarily due to no longer eating animal foods, especially combined with the fact that the USA Today article outlines how he still eats some animal foods.
More information would certainly be needed from Paul as well as his chef, nutritional team, trainer, etc. in order to properly investigate this issue and come to a definitive conclusion. Such cooperation might be difficult for an interested researcher to obtain- as Paul has personally invested in companies such as Beyond Meat, he now has a direct financial stake in promoting the plant-based diet as the means of his continued athletic success.
As a complement to the idea of plant-based or vegan being the ideal diet, an undercurrent of the film The Game Changers and the narrative advanced by its proponents is that plant-based and vegan advocates are a ragtag band of underdogs, and that any evidence to the contrary is pushed on the public by powerful and well-funded meat and dairy lobbies. This claim is, to put it bluntly, laughable.
Yes, producers of meat and dairy do have advocacy groups that push back against, as an example, the idea that saturated fat is unhealthy. Witness this video from a popular vegan Youtuber attacking Dr. Nina Teicholz, a proponent of saturated fat’s health benefits, of being in the pay of “fat industry” organizations such as the National Dairy Council.
As a 501(c3) non-profit, the NDC is required to make its annual financial statements available to the public. According to ProPublica’s records of its form 990 filings from December 2018 (the most recent available on the site), the organization’s net assets at the end of that year totaled $599,138. The total revenue of The Nutrition Coalition, of which Dr. Teicholz serves as Executive Director, in 2018 was $525,790.
Critics of Teicholz and her group say that it is “bankrolled by billionaire Houston philanthropists,” to quote this Politico article . Those words are meant to conjure up a mental image out of a 1980s soap opera, an image of nefarious men chewing cigars in a smoke filled room, tossing briefcases full of oil money on the table. But proper context shows this “Houston billionaire” funding to be pocket change compared to the money that goes into plant-based and vegan advocacy today.
According to its 2019 financial statements, the total revenue for the famous (some would say infamous) “anti-animal cruelty” organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which of course heavily promotes veganism, was $50,871,312, roughly one hundred times the revenue of The Nutrition Coalition. Not incidentally, PETA has also been criticized for the misuse of these funds. In the fourth quarter of 2019, Beyond Meat (producer of the “plant-based” Beyond Burger and Beyond Sausage), valued at over $13 billion, posted net revenue of $92 million. In the SEC filing documents from its initial public offering, the company estimates that from its proceeds, it will use “$50 to $60 million to expand our research and development and sales and marketing capabilities.”
Even the big corporations that one might expect to make up the ranks of “big meat” lobbying against the “underdog” plant based advocates like James Cameron, Chris Paul and Arnold Schwarzenegger are, instead, happy to get on board with the bandwagon of plant-based meat. Burger King has formed a national partnership with “plant-based meat” company Impossible Foods (estimated revenue $130.1 million), and together they rolled out the “Impossible Whopper” to great fanfare.
The truth is that it is far easier for big food companies to go along with the plant-based trend than to oppose it- given the media environment that promotes films such as The Game Changers and lauds athletes like Chris Paul, it is an easy way for these companies to get good publicity and generate further profits. Writing in The Financial Times, journalist Merryn Webb pegs this phenomenon exactly: “This is a marketing greenwash opportunity to beat all others. Create a good vegan product and not only can you virtue signal about it relentlessly but you can charge a feel-good premium, too.”
There is no equivalent to The Game Changers out there slickly promoting athletes who eat an animal foods based diet, and indeed there seem to be no athletes on the level of fame of a Chris Paul who promotes, or is being promoted as an example of, the high performance effects of a carnivore diet. But that may change at some point in the future. Dr. Shawn Baker, a popular advocate of the “carnivore diet,” has broken world rowing records in his age group. And the Sydney Morning Herald recently profiled some athletes in Australia who seem to be benefiting from the animal-based approach, such as professional rugby player Curtis Sironen, who has used it to overcome chronic injuries that had repeatedly kept him off the pitch.
In the years to come, we may yet see prominent athletes in the major North American sports emulate the example of those like Sironen who are experimenting with the diet Down Under. Perhaps there are some who are already practicing such a diet, but if so, they are doing it under the radar, with no fanfare or media promotion. It will be interesting to see how the first major American sports star to “come out” as eating an animal based diet will be received by the media compared to Chris Paul.
The goal of pointing this out is not to shame anyone for eating an Impossible Whopper at Burger King, although if one is simply turning to that as a healthier option, they should be aware that it may not in fact be healthier than a beef burger. On a larger scale, there is a reasonable debate to be had over the ideal diet for human health, which in many cases depends on the individual’s unique background, medical history, and biochemistry.
The point of these last several paragraphs is to show that the narrative promoted by vegan and plant-based advocacy that they are the David to the Goliath of “big meat” is, plain and simply, false. Whether it is a consciously promoted or unconsciously promoted falsehood, it does not hold up to any real scrutiny either way. The last several paragraphs plainly show that the numbers do not add up in their favor on this issue.
To return to Chris Paul, he likely has benefited from the change in his diet to emphasize plant-based whole foods (along with fish) over processed foods, along with the elimination of his destructive habit of regularly consuming soda. We can wish him continued health and success in his life and on-court career. However, it is a misrepresentation to use him to promote the narrative that the plant-based diet is ideal for both health and athletic performance.
Sports stories, and American culture in general, have an obsession with the idea of the underdog who overcomes all odds and achieves a stunning victory. Plant-based advocates in the sports and health world surely recognize the power of this idea, but unfortunately for them, the reality is that it does not apply in their case even though they may want it to. Simply put, in that aspect of the diet debate, the scoreboard of money and institutional backing prevents them from being able to honestly claim that label. With that put to rest, only then can the debate over diet continue on a truly level plying field.