The Game Changers’ James Wilks on Plant-Based Diets

Inspired by my recent viewing of The Game Changers, I sent producer, elite special forces trainer and winner of The Ultimate Fighter and combative expert, James Wilks my burning questions about the movie and about plant-based diets. Check out our interview and leave a comment for a chance to win two tickets to watch The Game Changers on May 5 at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival!

Lianne Phillipson: James – I understand that you were badly injured in 2011 and this started you on your journey to find the optimal diet for recovery. I’m curious, what traditional recovery methods were you practicing before you discovered the study about Roman Gladiators. Were they all traditional medical/chemical? Were you following any alternative medicine recovery methods? What were your original diet plans for recovery?

James Wilks: Like most athletes who get injured, I focused on rest, physical therapy, and ibuprofen; I didn’t really think diet had much to do with recovery. Then I found out about the so-called Paleo diet and decided to give it a try, switching to a diet centered around grass-fed beef and organic chicken and eggs, with limited beans, whole grains and a pretty narrow selection of fruits and vegetables. This high-meat diet only made me feel worse. Thankfully I discovered the Roman Gladiator around that time and my deeper dive into nutrition got underway.

LP: When you started to eat a plant-based diet yourself, did you throw all the meat out like James Cameron or was it a gradual shift? What would you recommend based on your experience and that of the cast?

JW: My transition to a fully plant-based diet was pretty gradual, based entirely on the evidence I was uncovering as I dug deeper and deeper into nutrition. Meat (including chicken, and fish) was the first to go, followed by dairy about a month later, and then eggs a couple months after that.

What I discovered in the making of this film is that most people, including the athletes we filmed, tend to go plant-based in stages; very few do it all at once. I think part of the reason it’s usually a good idea to take it slow is to give yourself enough time to discover plant-based foods and meals you really enjoy, so you don’t end up feeling deprived in any way. It also gives your palette the chance to readjust to all of the new textures and flavours.

That said, if you’re motivated to make the switch all at once and are confident you can stick with it, there’s nothing wrong with that. The most important thing is to make sure you really like what you’re eating and not be hard on yourself.

LP: How long did it take you to feel a difference as you switched to eating a plant-based diet? What did you notice the most?

JW: I noticed the difference right away, in just a matter of days. My asthma improved and I had way more energy. Two weeks after I went plant-based I hit a new PR for the dumbbell bench press, going from five reps with 105lb dumbbells to six reps with 115s. Four weeks after that I hit a new PR in the battling ropes, going from 8 minutes total to more than 60, which smashed the gym record.

LP: How do you define plant based in the documentary? Is it a traditional vegan diet or did any of the main cast include some meat, dairy, eggs and fish?

JW: Plant-based is a broad term used to describe diets that range from all plants to mainly plants. All of the athletes we featured in the film eat only plants; no meat, fish, eggs or dairy. We did this to make sure the audience wasn’t left thinking, “Okay, but they still eat eggs and/or whey protein, so that’s where they’re getting their protein.” We didn’t want any doubts about a plant-based diet being “complete” in and of itself.

LP: In the experiment with the Brooklyn Firefighters following a plant-based diet for 7 days, I found the results incredible. Do you think that anyone could expect to find similar results if they changed their diet for 7 days? What did you find the most profound change?

JW: The seven-day challenge in which the FDNY firefighters ate only plants has been replicated dozens of times by Rip Esselstyn, the former firefighter/triathlete who led the study, and the results in Brooklyn were actually quite typical. On average, the firefighters lost 6 pounds of fat and lowered their cholesterol 21 points, all in just one week. But the most dramatic result was from a young, active firefighter whose cholesterol dropped 107 points; he essentially went from high cardiovascular risk to low risk simply by changing his diet.

LP: I heard during the Q&A on Friday that there were hundreds of hours of extra footage to cut down to make the movie’s runtime in keeping with a feature documentary. It must have been really hard to edit out some of the material. If you could have included any other success stories or subject matter, does anything come to mind that you wish you could have shown your audience to further reinforce your message?

JW: We’re actually moving into our final edit right now and there are some athletes we’ll be reintroducing for the final cut, including an international soccer player and a world champion parkour athlete. Science-wise, I wish we’d had more time to dig into paleoanthropology because I’m really fascinated by what early humans ate and how that ties in with the findings of modern day nutritional biochemistry and epidemiology.

LP: Since completing the film, have you come across any other new or updated information or any other success stories about plant-based diets that you wish you could include in the project?

JW: We recently filmed 10 members of the defensive line of the Tennessee Titans, who started eating plant-based last year and had an incredible season. Their story will be included in the final cut.

There have also been several groundbreaking new studies released in the past few months that we’re excited to include.

LP: Plant-based diet vs Viagra: in the overnight erection experiment, what were the results of the night that they ate the grass fed beef, pork and chicken burrito and the next night that they ate the plant based burrito?

JW: The Rigiscan device measured how hard the test subjects erections were and how long they lasted. The average increase after eating the plant-based burrito was about 10% for circumference, and 300-400% for duration.

LP: For most bodybuilders, eating at least their weight in protein is common practice. How do those in the film achieve that while on a plant-based diet and not live on protein powder?

JW: For starters, the vast majority of the bodybuilders I know already consume protein powder on a daily basis, typically in the form of whey protein they add to a shake or smoothie. Plant-based bodybuilders usually do the same thing, except they use a plant-based protein powder instead.

For the rest of their protein needs, plant-based bodybuilders and strength athletes just make sure they’re getting a healthy dose of protein at every meal, where it’s from meat substitutes like veggie burgers or from whole foods like lentils, tofu or peanut butter. A couple of peanut butter sandwiches, for example, can have 30-40 grams of protein.

LP: In the documentary, there were numerous stories of how people benefitted from eating plant-based foods. What was the one that has had the most interest?

JW: World record-holding Patrik Baboumian seems to generate the most interest, probably because he looks like the kind of guy who eats steak and sausages all day long. Patrik went plant-based for ethical reasons and fully expected it to end his strongman career. But the opposite happened: he gained more than 50 pounds and set four world records, completely crushing the stereotype that you can’t get big and strong on a 100% plant-based diet. In the film Patrik also shared a very personal story from his childhood about why he dedicated his entire life to being strong; I think this story really helped the audience identify with Patrik, making them that much more interested in his journey.

Thank you so much for making this incredibly inspiring movie and for answering my questions, James!

Remember to comment below by midnight on May 4th for your chance to watch this absolutely eye-opening film at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival!

For more of my take on of The Game Changers, read this. To listen to my radio segment with Jerry Agar on NewsTalk 1010, click here. Or to watch my talk on CP24, click here.

3 Comments

  1. My wife and I have been eating a Whole Foods, Plant Based diet now for several months. We have our good and bad weeks but have largely been successful.

    We are looking to bring my wife’s twin sister and her partner along this journey and would love the tickets to help make that possible. He’s currently having health issues that we firmly believe a plant based diet would help him dealing with.

  2. Enjoyed your piece on CP24 today and this article. Thank you!

    I’d love to attend this movie. I’m a volunteer with The Climate Reality Project and love learning about more sustainable ways individuals are living.

  3. Tracey Goldfinch

    Great interview. I’m a recreational athlete (with lots of aches and pains haha) and a 3/4 time vegetarian. Would love to see the documentary! Have always been interested in fitness and nutrition. Thanks for the great info!