James Wilks is a producer, as well as narrator and chief instigator of The Game Changers, already the bestselling documentary of all time on iTunes.
He got his nickname “Lightning” during his career as a mixed martial artist (which, as far as I can tell, means that he can kill me in at least a dozen ways using just a box of toothpicks and a birthday candle), the highlight of which was winning season 9 of The Ultimate Fighter in 2009.
As good a fighter as he was, the sport had taken its toll on his body. He had enough cracked bones that his doctors told him that continuing to fight would probably lead to paralysis.
Following his retirement from MMA in 2012, James spent several years learning how to rehabilitate himself. That's when he discovered that diet can play a significant role in healing and human performance.
James then became a combatives instructor, teaching military personnel how to survive and prevail in hand to hand combat.
And also in 2012, he began working on what turned into The Game Changers: a film that would blow away the illusion that manliness and stellar athletic performance required a meat-heavy diet.
I met James and his co-producer Joseph Pace in 2014, when the film was “almost done” (I got to watch a 10-minute promo trailer at an Engine 2 event). They didn't want to do any podcast or other interviews, citing a desire to fly under the radar and not tip off “the opposition” that a vegan-friendly sports movie was on the way.
I didn't get it, frankly. I thought they were being unnecessarily paranoid (and I wanted my scoop, dammit ;).
Years past, and every so often I'd see another iteration of the film, and every year it wasn't quite ready. Every year another cinema big-shot would join the team: Louie Psihoyos, director of the Oscar-winning The Cove; James Cameron, director of Titanic and Avatar and The Terminator; and more and more big-time athletes were being converted to the plant-based lifestyle.
I kind of thought that this might turn into the Greatest Movie Never Made.
[Here's the video of our conversation]
But as it turns out, James and his team had the foresight and understanding and patience to slog away until they made a good enough movie. Not just good enough for the converted like me, but good enough to move the needle on society as a whole.
They needed impeccable science and a damn good story, well told.
And the film has done just that.
Take a look at the Google search trend for the term “plant-based” from 2004 to the present in the United States:
That huge spike at the far right is the “Game Changers Effect” – essentially an instant doubling of what was already an increasingly ravenous interest.
Globally, the effect is even stronger. Check out New Zealand:
While I understood that this movie is a big deal, I wasn't particularly interested in the online debates over the science. After working on Proteinaholic with Garth Davis, MD, and Whole, with T. Colin Campbell, PhD, I had discovered that I'm not really into debating.
I'd rather just assume that a whole food, plant-based diet is the gold standard, and just coach and guide and empower people to get as close to it as they desired.
And I certainly had no wish to pay attention to the “haters” – the paleo and carnivore marketers who either don't understand science or find the science so inconvenient to their businesses that they have no choice but to ignore or discredit it.
And then came the Joe Rogan podcast with Chris Kresser.
My plant-based friends were outraged over the episode, a 3-hour “debunking” of The Game Changers by Kresser, an acupuncturist “with masters-level training in nutrition,” which apparently meant that he took a nutrition class during his acupuncture education, which means that I can claim to have masters-level training in epidemiology, biostatistics, sociology, archeology, theology, and Aramaic.
I had no interest in this debate. Until the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, when I went to a pickup Ultimate Frisbee game in Asheville, NC.
I was warming up, tossing the disc with a couple of young people I did not know, when they began a discuss of plant-based eating. The guy mentioned that he was mostly plant-based. The gal said that she had been interested, because of this new movie that she had heard about, but then it turned out that the whole movie was a load of bullshit and had been totally debunked by this really smart guy on the Joe Rogan show.
At this point, I had to open my mouth and point out that the really smart guy actually wasn't, and that I had written several books on the topic and that the science in the film was completely sound. Maybe it helped, I dunno.
But it was at that moment that I understood what was at stake here. Joe Rogan, for some reason, has become the arbiter of truth for a scarily large segment of the population.
In our conversation, James estimated that Joe gets 15 million downloads of each episode of his podcast.
This show, in comparison, gets between 5k-10k downloads per episode.
And so when I then heard that James Wilks had been invited to rebut the debunking, I understood that this was serious business.
It was hard for me to watch. I'm weary of the debate not just because I think it's a waste of time, but because – honestly – I'm not good with conflict. It makes me uncomfortable.
And the almost 4-hour Joe Rogan debate between Chris and James was highly conflictual. I had to pause dozens of times to check my pulse, slow my breathing, and force myself to smile beatifically.
I made it through because I understood what was at stake.
And I watched it less as a researcher, and more as a student of martial arts.
Because what James did on that podcast is what anyone would do if they had the skill and the will to defend what is most precious to them.
For James, it was the last seven years of his life.
And it was also the health of millions of people.
And the very survival of the planet.
James came prepared, as if he were stepping into an MMA octagon.
And he crushed it.
Not without difficulties – he's said several times that the first 45 minutes were not his best work. And rewatching the podcast, he felt that at times he was too combative.
But the overall effect was to sway Joe, who in this format was the judge whose opinion mattered.
And to show Chris Kresser for the nutritional dilettante that he is.
I'm so thrilled to have James on Plant Yourself, just days after what arguably was the most important match of his career.
And I'm especially grateful to James for continuing to support the work of people like me, with far less reach and direct influence than Joe Rogan, by lending his star power to our platforms.
Enjoy, add your voice to the conversation via the comment box below, and please share – that's how we spread our message and spread our roots.
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The Plant Yourself Podcast theme music, “Dance of Peace (Sabali Don),” is generously provided by Will Ridenour, a kora player from North Carolina who has trained with top Senegalese musicians.
It can be found on his first CD, titled Will Ridenour.
You can learn about Will, listen to more tracks, and buy music on his website, WillRidenour.com.
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