With football season comes a bombardment of television ads for “manly man” foods — the triple-decker burgers, racks of ribs, Buffalo wings, mighty meaty pizzas galore. For those of us who are trying to eat healthier, seeing the artery-clogging junk fare during commercial breaks detracts from the game — and sometimes, even more regrettably, tempts the eyes.
Call it a personal foul.
Anyone still clinging to the “eat like a man” messaging would do well to see a new film, due out next week, called “The Game Changers.” The documentary follows James Wilks, a mixed martial arts fighter and former combat trainer for the U.S. military, as he searches for an optimal diet to help him recover from a serious injury sustained while training.
“Many men have been led to believe that eating meat gives you a lot more energy and virility,” Wilks told me. “But those things are actually inhibited by eating animal-based products.” By the end of the film, Wilks is not just fully recovered, he’s stronger and faster than ever. And he owes a big part of it to a plant-based diet.
Wilks said his interest in plant-based foods began after he read a study about the eating habits of Roman gladiators. The study concluded that the ancient fighters had trained and competed while eating mostly plants. They ate little or no meat, he said. That led Wilks to begin interviewing scores of nutritionists and medical experts, as well as modern-day athletes who had achieved success on similar diets that were free of animal products.
Among those featured in the film are Kendrick Farris, the U.S. record-holding weightlifter and the only American weightlifter to compete in the past three Olympic Games. There’s ultramarathoner Scott Jurek, who has won the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run seven times back to back.
And there’s Bryant Jennings, a world heavyweight title contender from Philadelphia with a 24-4 record.
“Going plant-based, your thinking process improves,” Jennings told me during a recent visit to his home. “Your body operates better because it’s not under the influence of meat. When you eat the meat of an animal that was mistreated, stressed out and slaughtered, you mistreat your own body, and you become stressed out. That’s because you are what you eat.”
Jennings, 35, looks young for his age. You’d never know he was a boxer. Not a mark on his face. Eating plant-based foods helps him recover faster, heal quicker, he said. He stands about 6-foot-3, ripped. Weighs 225. “Same size as I was in high school,” he said.
Going plant-based had not resulted in loss of muscle or energy. He had gained speed and power.
I had stopped eating animal products back in January. No problem so far. But football season could be tricky. I had memories of some good times watching games on a nice fall afternoon with friends who knew how to lay out a spread. Ribs, barbecue chicken, half smokes, hot dogs, cheeseburgers, cakes and pies. I not only caught myself wondering who might be playing this Thanksgiving, but who’d be cooking what?
Spending time with people like Jennings helped shore up my resolve. No man is an island when it comes to changing bad habits.
He’d been plant-based since 2015. And he was sticking with the eating plan whether it was a holiday or a workout, a victory or a defeat. “It’s a way of life,” he said.
The film also features a segment on the dramatic improvement in the Tennessee Titans football team after several defensive players turned to a plant-based diet. (Those improvements appear to be continuing, judging from the Titans’ 43-13 season opener against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.)
Although the film sets out to dispel the myths about meat and masculinity, two inspiring female athletes are also featured: Morgan Mitchell, a two-time Australian 400-meter sprinting champion who is set to represent the country in the 800-meter sprint at the Tokyo Olympics next year, and Dotsie Bausch, an eight-time U.S. national cycling champion who triumphed over eating disorders to become, at age 40, the oldest person in the history of her cycling event to win an Olympic medal.
Executive producers of the film include notable advocates of plant-based diets such as filmmaker James Cameron, tennis champion Novak Djokovic, Houston Rockets basketball star Chris Paul and, closer to home, Gwyn Whittaker, CEO of GreenFare Organic Cafe in Herndon, Va.
“The film shatters the myth that people need animal protein for muscle and calcium for bone health, and [shows] that people actually thrive when they take those things out of their diets and replace them with a whole foods, plant-based diet,” Whittaker told me. “That’s the game-changer — the competitive advantage you get from knowing what you are supposed to eat instead of eating things that cause degradation of our performance.”
Hopefully, the audience will be as diverse as those who joined to bring this important film to the screen, which is opening at 1,000 theaters on Sept 16.
There’s much to be learned from the experts and athletes featured.
Jennings is my favorite. Fried chicken used to be his favorite food. But once he made up his mind to go plant-based, he let it go. Now beets are a favorite food. “Good for the blood circulation,” he said. He holds them like he would an apple and takes big, juicy bites.
“People look at me and see the benefits,” Jennings said. “But they still say, ‘I can’t give up the meat. YOLO.’ ” Meaning, you only live once.
“Then somebody will have a heart attack. And if they survive, I’ll get a call. ‘Can you tell me about that plant-based diet again?’ ”
But you need not wait until it’s time to call 911, fellows. Eat that kale, leave that pork alone.
Man up. YOLO.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.