Have you seen the latest sensationalized headline?
"High-protein diet 'as bad for health as smoking"
Research finds that people who eat diet rich in animal protein carry similar cancer risk to those who smoke 20 cigarettes each day
I mean, it is pretty hard to become more head-turning than that...yet, unfortunately, that is what our society has become - sensationalized headlines. Majority of individuals will either hear that "study headline" on the TV or radio, or maybe they will even read it on the internet. This will ultimately result in a quick knee-jerk reaction something akin to, "See, see, see, I told you high protein diets are bad for you! That guy George down at the gym keeps telling me that I should eat more protein, but I am certain it is no good for my kidneys...."
I will admit, there is far too much content for any one individual to take in on a daily basis, now with such a connected world and "news" coming in from various sources, it is hard to read through everything that comes at you on a daily basis. So, in an attempt to gain as many readers as possible, catchy or polarizing headlines are now the 'norm' to catch as much attention as possible. The only problem here, and trust me, it's a big one, is that most people don't actually read the article, they just "gain their knowledge" from just the headline alone.
I can't believe I actually have to say this, but protein does not cause cancer...far from it. Not only that, but eating protein should never be compared to smoking...holy crap!
The biggest problem with any diet and lifestyle study is this simple fact: correlation does not mean causality.
Just because someone ate a higher protein diet over their lifetime and ended up dying prematurely due to cancer, one should not jump to any conclusions that it was the protein that in fact caused the cancer. Fair enough, so what should we study?
Well, the next logical step is to view overall trends. Fair enough, that is what this study attempted to do. However, even when studying overall trends, you need to account for variations in other dietary factors and lifestyles, i.e. exercise (something this study failed to factor in, by the way) which is essentially impossible to do with nearly infinite variations in day-to-day lifestyle and diet choices from one individual to the next.
To create the best possible scientific study, one would need to take a human being from birth, lock them in a room and only allow them to eat or drink one specific item for the duration of their life to study its individual effects over a long term. Of course this is impossible due to, well, you know, human ethics obstacles.
Not only that, but a diet that revolves around one single item or food category is not good for us anyways. It is best for us to have well-rounded diets rather than whatever is 'catchy' that week, month, or year. Specific diets may be extremely successful in helping you lose weight or get lean, but that does not necessarily mean that you are giving your body all of the vitamins and nutrients that it needs.
If you can, head on over to this article to read a fantastic summary of the study. Here is their summary:
This study has found a link between high protein intake and increased risk of death among people aged 50-65, but not older adults. There are some important points to bear in mind when thinking about these results:
- The human data used was not specifically collected for the purpose of the current study. This meant that the researchers had to rely on the completeness of, for example, national data on deaths and causes of death. This may mean that deaths of some participants may have been missed.
- Information on food intake was only collected for one 24-hour period, and this may not be representative of what people ate over time. Most people (93%) reported that it was typical of their diet at the time, but this may have changed over the 18 years of follow up.
- The researchers took into account some factors that could affect results, but not others, such as physical activity.
- Although the study was reasonably large, numbers in some comparisons were relatively low, for example, there were not many diabetes-related deaths and only 437 people overall ate a low protein diet. The broad confidence intervals for some of the results reflect this.
- Many news sources have suggested that a high protein diet is “as bad for you” as smoking. This is not a comparison that is made in the research paper, therefore its basis is unclear. While we do need some protein in our diets, we don’t need to smoke, so this is not a helpful comparison.
- While the authors suggested that people eat a low protein diet in middle age and switch to a high protein diet once they get older, it is not possible to say from the study whether this is what the older participants actually did, as their diets were only assessed once.
- Ideally the findings need to be confirmed in other studies set up to specifically address the effects of higher protein diets, particularly the strikingly different results for different age groups.