Vegetarians vs. omnivores. Plant protein vs. animal protein. This vs. that. In our either/or, black and white world, there are plenty of articles and studies pointing towards all or nothing approaches that make one diet wrong and the other right.
Another of these came my way today–“Animal protein rich diets could be as harmful to health as smoking” on the guardian–which suggested that “people under 65 who eat a lot of meat, eggs and dairy are four times as likely to die from cancer or diabetes, study suggests.” In classic fashion, the study tried to replace the diet flavour of the day with a new one:
“The study throws doubt on the long-term health effects of the popular Atkins and Paleo diets that are rich in protein. Instead, it suggests people should eat a low-protein diet until old age when they start to lose weight and become frail, and then boost the body’s protein intake to stay healthy.
People need to switch to a diet where only around nine or ten percent of their calories come from protein, and the ideal sources are plant-based,” Longo told the Guardian. “We are not saying go and do some crazy diet we came up with. If we are wrong, there is no harm done, but if we are right you are looking at an incredible effect that in general is about as bad as smoking.”
The same guy says that he skips lunch altogether to “control his calorie and protein intake,” so I’m not sure I want to jump on his diet bandwagon. Do people need to be scared of “animal protein”? What did the people in the study actually eat and is it the fact that they ate more than 0.8g/kg body weight of protein that is making the difference? Did the calorie reduction piece of it matter? Would food quality make a difference? Maybe they ate really “unhealthy” sources as opposed to something like a grass fed beef or wild caught fish? Maybe it’s not the amount of protein but the type of it (they suggest eating and favouring but still limiting plant protein). Further, should we really compare choosing to eat or not eat (lots of) meat to the choice to smoke?
Thankfully, the piece on the guardian did offer a bit of caution and insight into all of these possibilities for taking the study in the wrong way:
“Teasing out the health effects of individual nutrients is notoriously difficult. The apparently harmful effects of a high-protein diet might be down to one or more other substances in meat, or driven by lifestyle factors that are more common in regular red meat eaters versus vegetarians. Other factors can skew results too: a person on the study who got ill might have gone off their food, and seen a proportional rise in the amount of calories they get from protein. In that case, it would be the illness driving the diet, not the other way round.”
What I worry about with this is that the headlines flying around–in this case, “Animal protein-rich diets could be as harmful to health as smoking”–and the surface level look at a single study that are so characteristic of nutrition reporting just confuse the already struggling population even more about what they should be eating. I’m almost positive I’m going to see this one criticized, applauded, and certainly discussed on social media. I just hope that when it comes to talking about these kinds of articles and these kinds of research, we can take a step back and really consider where they’re coming from and what they might really “mean” before we start taking them as fact or letting them drive ourselves crazy.
Did you see this article? What did you think?