Can going vegan improve your sex life? Yes it can, says “The Game Changers”, a new documentary backed by James Cameron that portrays plant-based diets as the height of cool. Forget scrawny celery-munchers, the vegan sportsmen profiled here are superhumanly strong, ripped and – yes – having awesome sex. Three college athletes wear machines that measure their night-time erections, and discover they are both longer and fuller after a no-animal meal. “So really, the guy eating the big steak is soft?” says one, processing the revelation. All resolve to go vegan on future dates.
If you thought veganism was all about saving animals and stopping global warming, you’re hopelessly old-fashioned. The new brand of macho veganism promoted by “The Game Changers”, which is fronted by a mixed-martial-arts fighter called James Wilks, is essentially amoral. Wilks took up the diet for health reasons: while out with an injury, he read a study that claimed that Roman gladiators ate little to no meat. It’s a similar narrative to “From the Ground Up”, a documentary which came out last year that followed Santino Panico, an American-football player, as he sought to improve his performance with the help of a plant-based diet. Also released last year was the controversial Netflix shock-doc “What the Health”, which concluded its investigation into the dangers of eating meat and dairy (sample dubious claim: eating one egg a day is as bad as smoking five cigarettes) with a montage of elite athletes using veganism to “heal injuries, speed recovery times and enhance their performance”.
If there are health benefits to veganism, it is a more complicated story than the one presented by these evangelical films, which are an unscientific mix of personal anecdote, cherry-picked expert testimony and – with surprising frequency – archaeology. We do not hear any dissenting voices, and the film-makers gloss over the hard work that goes in to maintaining a healthy high-calorie diet. Sure, call-to-action documentaries are not known for editorial balance. But what’s striking is how the means of persuasion have changed. Traditional pro-veganism films, like “Cowspiracy” (2014) and “Earthlings” (2005), with their focus on global conspiracies against animal-rights activists and their relentless footage of slaughterhouse gore, could be mistaken for horror movies. In these new documentaries the message has been attractively repackaged: eat sprouts, sprout a six pack!
This is pragmatic activism. James Cameron is really an old-fashioned sort of vegan: he talks about carbon footprints, water footprints and moral responsibility. But the man behind “Titanic” and “Avatar” still has a nose for the zeitgeist. This is the age of online influencers, and all ideas must now do battle in a highly visual economy. Veganism is on the up among the young and urban, and they have not been converted by gruesome pamphlets about battery-cage chickens. It was no accident that when The Vegan Society reported that the number of vegans in Britain had increased by 360% in the decade leading up to 2016, it described it as a “lifestyle movement”. Hygge is a lifestyle movement. So is minimalism. Veganism – once considered extreme, even by its advocates – has found its way in from the cold.
Only a nutritional luddite would argue with the idea that we should eat less meat. But there’s something about these new documentaries that feels itchingly familiar. Over and over, they tell of miraculous transformations – like David Carter, the ex-NFL lineman whose tendonitis and high blood pressure vanished when he switched his diet, and ultra-endurance athlete Rich Roll, who used to struggle climbing the stairs but now feels “like a 20-year-old” despite being born in 1965. Many women will recognise these sorts of stories from a few years back, when the “clean eating” movement, driven by social media, was at its height. Anthony Warner, a food writer who was sceptical about clean eating, laid out what he described as the “health blogger template”: the identikit stories of glamorous young women who had improved their health through diets that centred on eating un-processed foods. Clean eating fell out of fashion as a consensus grew that it was selling women fad diets by another name, and often masking eating disorders.
Wavering omnivores after food for thought are better off turning to fiction. “Carnage” (2017), directed by Simon Amstell, is a witty, never preachy mockumentary set in a near-future Britain where everyone is vegan and feels terribly guilty about their carnivorous past. There’s also “Ojka”, a Korean fantasy film released last year, which tells the story of a giant pig born in a lab and raised for slaughter. The activists trying to free Okja are often ridiculous, and their actions riddled with the contradictions that characterise all attempts at puritanism (one of them refuses to eat because “all food is exploitation”, making him a faint-prone liability on missions). As Jon Ronson, who co-wrote the script, explained in an interview: “I always find it a bit of a turnoff when you make the heroic people just so heroic.” If you’ve watched a documentary featuring men in gym vests with slogans like “vegan badass” and “vaggressive”, you’ll know what he means.
The Game Changers premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2018. Its general release date is yet to be confirmed