Thursday, March 6, 2014

Protein as bad as smoking? Um not so fast.

We give research a lot of credit. “This study said” is going to give what follows it a little more authority. The problem is that scientists want their work to get attention, may have hidden agendas and can twist their “data” in ways not all that different from my husband telling me “I need to go with these guys from work to the Ranger game, it’s important for business.” There’s more to that story and more to the latest “animal protein is as bad as smoking” headline too.

The background
The study garnering a lot of attention is from the journal Cell Metabolism. They looked at self-reported diet data from NHANES. Over 6,000 men and women were tracked over 18 years. The researchers zeroed in on protein intake and concluded those with the highest protein intake had higher relative risk for cancer and cardiovascular disease from ages 50 to 65. Their hypothesis is that protein increases a hormone IGF-1 and that this increases disease risk but it’s not as clear-cut as it sounds. Remember my husband and the hockey/business conclusion?

All protein isn’t created equal
The headlines zeroed in on meat, cheese and milk not exactly the foods any nutritionist worth his or her degree is going to base a food plan on. We have also seen data showing that fish and poultry reduce relative risk. And the current study found plant sources of protein (legumes and nuts) didn’t raise relative risk (in humans more on that later). So it’s clear that all protein isn’t created equal. I would go further to say not only is red meat different from plant protein but how do we lump McDonalds in with grass-fed organic meat? Foods are not simply protein or carbohydrates but combinations with some components heathy and others harmful. 

It’s dangerous at one age, beneficial at another?
Two other parts of this study sort of put the simple conclusion that protein is bad on its head. First, you turn 65 and protein isn’t only OK- this study showed that the low protein group is more likely to die of cancer after your 65th birthday. Then a rodent study was thrown in. We read about mice with higher protein diets (and implanted with melanoma cells) having a higher risk of death than lower protein but here’s the catch in the critters.. animal and plant protein had similar results here.

What to do
First, let’s remind ourselves that when it comes to body composition and weight, recovery from illness and growth protein is beneficial (I have “research” to show you if you’d like). My advice for clients who are concerned is that we need protein in our diets but it should come from good sources. Protein at breakfast is crucial for appetite control, it's also helpful at lunch but dinner? We don't need animal protein there and that's a great time for a good carb (quinoa, sweet potato) and a copious amount of veggies. Aside from the hoopla about raw kale and thyroid function, vegetables are always good. Also. be aware of restaurant protein portions- you and the 6 foot 6 man get the same amount, leave some over or take it home keep protein to the size of an iPhone max. 

As for the scientists I mentioned earlier, the smoking comparison was purely hype. No part of this study compares the protein data to the smoking research so that’s questionable even irresponsible. And one of the lead researchers on this study Dr Longo is involved with a company that makes meat replacement products. So much for credibility.
Did you hear about this study? Did it make you reconsider your protein intake? What sources of protein do you include in your diet?


  1. Humans are omnivores and were evolved to eat all types of food, but as you say, some types are better for you than others. I'm also an omnivore although I don't eat as much meat as some. There are entire weeks that I go without it (not on purpose), or sometimes I might have a dish that includes just a little bit of bacon on top, or some chicken sausage. At home I eat a lot of eggs, quinoa, and dairy. I don't cook that much meat at home, I usually eat it when we go out. You're right about those restaurant portions - the PETITE filet mignon is typically 8 oz!

  2. so glad you point out paying close attention to details of studies. I think this is why nutrition can be so confusing for people!! It is too extreme to compare protein to smoking, let's try not to send the wrong message to the public or maybe the public needs be reminded (or taught!) to look at research with a more critical eye.

  3. This study reminds me a little of that old adage: There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics. Seems like they were out to grab alarmist headline. Came here today because I knew you would be discussing it. Thanks!

    Here's another good review of the study.

  4. Yes, I heard about the study and a lot of my vegan friends are sharing it enthusiastically... My first thought was that not all protein is created equal. As you point out, I would think that eating Big Macs will probably have a very different effect than eating some grass-fed beef on top of lots of veggies. And there are all the other problems you mention. Plus, I didn't appreciate the title of the study (too attention-grabbing just for the sake of it)...

    The study doesn't change the way I eat. I eat some yogurt, try to keep my cheese intake low (that one is hard), and eat small amounts of grass-fed beef, various types of fish, and organic chicken. The main part of my meals are always vegetables, and I see no reason to change that.

  5. That bothers me too, see "meat is baaaad". If you want to make the vegan argument use meaningful, conclusive data not this. Yes an antibioticy crap burger that makes you resistant to antibiotics and disrupts your hormones or omega 3's in a grass fed, humanely raised version- worlds apart.

  6. And I promise you will get some people saying- I'll keep on smoking because it's the same as having chicken with dinner. However, once they stopped to the insane headline, I knew they wanted attention.

  7. Loved the other review and I hadn't thought of the exercise variable. And I didn't know the adage Pierre so you're helping me way more than this study did already. There was a quote about relative risk that say if you buy 2 lottery tickets you double your chances of winning the lottery but seriously you're still not going to win...interesting they didn't include absolute risk/real numbers here.

  8. For one thing- when you're dealing with self reported food data, question the findings. I was just out of grad school and I was killing myself trying to figure out why a client wasn't losing based on their eating. The nutritionist I worked for said "has it occurred to you they're lying?" It hadn't but now it does.

  9. Thanks for commenting Jen. Yes, petite filet isn't so petite but I love the concept of a smaller option. I would love to smallersize it all the time.

  10. I don't eat enough protein, especially at breakfast. But have you discovered the organic blackened salmon at Fairway? I am addicted. So so good. That's helping me with my intake. The lines at Fairway ... not so much.

  11. Great round up Lauren. I don't eat dairy or meat and I am allergic to nuts but enjoy fish and eggs. I tried to make a quinoa porridge this morning (cooked quinoa plus hemp/almond milk) and I was ravenous - RAVENOUS - after 10 minutes. And I have not been able to feel satisfied since. I have eaten at least three times what I normally would. Do you know why this would be?? Could it be the 'protein' factor (or lack there of?)
    Also, do you think that lentils, chickpeas etc. in a salad constitute enough protein at lunch time (a fist size, I remember!)? I am quite over eating cooked eggs/fish..