Commentary: Smoking or meat-eating?

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A new study argues that eating meat in ‘old age’ may be as deadly as smoking cigarettes — only animal protein also seems to protect people from heart disease. Confusing? In a word, yes.

Headlines suck.

That’s because in our world of multimedia, 24-7 news cycles churning in an ocean of “infoglut” — the irrelevant, useless factoids in which we’re daily immersed — most of us never get past them.

We scan the websites, blog posts and, if you’re a real dinosaur, the newspaper, and absorb a few quick items without a whole lot of time or effort devoted to digging any deeper. That’s not a criticism of anyone’s intellectual curiosity, but rather a recognition of the sheer volume of information that confronts us each day.

Here’s a great example of how headlines can be misleading, this from CBS News online yesterday: “Meat, dairy may be as detrimental to your health as smoking cigarettes, study says.”

If you stopped right there, the implication is that bacon and eggs for breakfast, or a burger for lunch, is no different from firing up a pack of smokes. Indulge in either one, and you’re as good as dead.

The study, which was published in the journal Cell Metabolism earlier this week, claimed that middle-aged people who eat a diet high in animal proteins from milk, meat and cheese are more likely to die of cancer than someone eating a low-protein diet. The researchers further contended that people who ate lots of meat and dairy were more likely to die at an earlier age.

“The question is not whether a certain diet allows you to do well for three days, but can it help you survive to be 100?” the study’s co-author, Valter Longo, Edna M. Jones professor of bio-gerontology at the University of Southern California’s Davis School of Gerontology and director of the USC Longevity Institute, stated in a news release.

Of course, there’s more, much more, to the story.

Confusion and complications

Prof. Longo researches a protein that controls a growth hormone called IGF-I, which supports physiological anabolism—what we call “growth.” Highly elevated levels of IGF-I have been associated with an increased cancer risk, which makes sense, since cancer basically involves cells growing out of control.

Fine. But now here’s where it gets complicated. Allow me to quote from the study’s actual abstract to illustrate the complexity the news story’s headline utterly failed to capture:

“Mice and humans with growth hormone receptor/IGF-1 deficiencies display major reductions in age-related diseases. Because protein restriction reduces GHR-IGF-1 activity, we examined links between protein intake and mortality. Respondents aged 50–65 reporting high protein intake had a 75 percent increase in overall mortality and a 4-fold increase in cancer death risk during the following 18 years. These associations were either abolished or attenuated if the proteins were plant-derived.

That much of the abstract explains the headline, “Meat, dairy may be as detrimental to your health as smoking cigarettes.” A four-fold increase in the risk of death by cancer is nothing to take lightly, whether it’s from eating meat (allegedly) or sucking down cigarettes.

But let’s continue with the rest of the abstract, and see if you’re still crystal clear on what this research is actually suggesting, diet-wise:

“Conversely, high protein intake was associated with reduced cancer and overall mortality in respondents over 65, but a 5-fold increase in diabetes mortality across all ages. Mouse studies [also] confirmed the . . . detrimental effects of a low-protein diet in the very old. These results suggest that low protein intake during middle age, followed by moderate to high protein consumption in old adults, may optimize healthspan (sic) and longevity.”

So eating meat is bad, until you start cashing your Social Security checks. Then you should start spending that cash on all the meat and dairy products you used to try to avoid.

Does that advice make any sense? Foods that are unhealthy when you’re young and healthy suddenly become healthier as you become less healthy in old age? Really?

Granted, people tend to produce significantly less growth hormones after the age of 65, which is why many seniors tend to lose muscle mass over time. But what would you suppose might mitigate that loss of muscle tissue and the resulting decline in functional strength and mobility that accompanies it?

Eating a diet high in animal proteins, of course, as Longo himself acknowledged.

And here’s one more complication that renders meaningful conclusions so suspect.

In the study, the researchers reviewed 6,318 adults older than 50. On average, about 16 percent of their total daily calories came from protein. The “high-protein” eaters, the people supposedly four times more likely to die young, derived 20 percent of their daily calories from protein foods.

But what exactly is “high protein?” The Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences, recommends that adults consume 15 percent of calories from protein. Furthermore, resent research from the Institute showed that, “Increasing protein intake to 20 percent to 25 percent of calories can reduce the risk of heart disease, if the extra protein replaces refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, white rice, or sugary drinks. Higher protein diets can also be beneficial for weight loss, in conjunction with a reduced-calorie diet.”

So which is it? Eat more protein and avoid heart disease, still the No. 1 killer of American adults? Or cut down on protein and reduce the risk of cancer? Is that really the choice.

No, it’s not. Like all such consumption studies of “meat” or “dairy” or other broad dietary categories, the data are not only flawed by people’s skewed recollections of what they say they eat and what they actually consume, but “meat” doesn’t necessarily mean a serving of whole-muscle beef or pork sitting on a plate. Meat-eating typically means burgers or hot dogs in buns (and with fries) or deli meat in sandwiches with condiments — all involving the refined starches and added fats and sweeteners the Institute of Medicine recommends avoiding.

Not to mention all the tacos, pizza and fried chicken that people identify as “meat,” which are all loaded with those same fats and starches known to create health problems.

In the end, common sense makes the most sense, and pretending that otherwise healthy, nutritious foods people are encouraged to consume later in life could at the same time be bad news for younger, healthier people is, to cite a “meaty” example, baloney.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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MeatEqualsDeath    
Utopia  |  March, 09, 2014 at 04:51 AM

Take a look at the research. The choice is yours. You're living in complete denial. Educate yourself just a little. Meat is now linked to a higher risk of Heart Disease, Colon Cancer, Prostate Cancer, Bowl Cancer, Dementia, Alzheimers, Diabetes... You are what you eat. Not to mention the rape, abuse, mutilation and slaughter of sentient beings. And who are one of the biggest polluters of the planet? Any guesses? What goes around comes around. Dump beef. Dump dairy. There is an alternative. Take off the blinkers. Open your mind. The only reason that you feast on the butchered flesh of another species is your own gratification. The truth is out there, the profiteering propaganda makers of the meat and dairy industry just don't want you to know about it. Meat = Death.

DG    
Oregon  |  March, 10, 2014 at 09:38 AM

You're the one with blinders, unfortunately. I suggest you open your mind - and attempt to gain a grasp on reality. Your post is both overly dramatic and ill-informed. Perhaps your day job is working for some news agency? Meat and associated meat products are a source of life - life, not death - for billions of human beings around the world. Do you enjoy your organic quinoa and your vegan market? Good for you. Your body is receiving less essential nutrients than someone who consumes a balanced diet that includes proteins derived from meat. Meanwhile, studies show that children in Sub-Saharan Africa, lacking access to red meat proteins, are developing essential brain functions at slower rates than children with access to red meat protein. Based on your post, you feel it is a worth cause - something that drives you to wake up each morning - to preach your anti-meat agenda. When you do this, remember the human lives at stake. Human lives.

Larry    
Minnesota  |  March, 11, 2014 at 09:16 AM

From the comments from published study; "Indeed. The fact that the only trend in crude mortality was for diabetes (the other results relied on torturing the data) suggests confounding. There were numerous uncontrolled factors - alcohol, veg/fruit consumption, composition of dietary fat (saturated/trans/unsaturated), level of education and/or income (not causative but strongly associated with most health outcomes and therefore worth testing for as an indicator of other unrecognised confounders) - but the ones I suspect the most are sugar (as distinct from total carbohydrates) and possibly physical activity, since these are strongly related to diabetes. In this respect it's interesting to look at the total calories data in table S1. Variation was wide, as you'd expect, but means were 1965.6, 1862.5 and 1593.6 respectively for the low, moderate and high protein groups. Moreover, 15.2% of the low protein group reported eating less than usual on the study day, compared with 4.7% and 3.3% of the other groups, suggesting that the trend for a typical day would have been stronger. This suggests a systematic trend towards more severe under-reporting of total food intake with increasing protein. And what is the food most likely to be under-reported? Well, sugar, probably. On the other hand, if the data are accurate (on the face of it, improbable) the high protein group would have to be VERY physically inactive to subsist on less than 1600 calories/day. It's slightly more complicated than that because protein intake itself was (weirdly) measured as a proportion of total calories rather than grams per kilo of body weight. So mis-reporting of total calories could result in misclassification of protein consumption."

michael    
kansas  |  March, 11, 2014 at 01:00 PM

DG - You waste your breath and intellect making a reasonable argument to an unreasonable, and more than a little Psychotic Troll from Utopia. His use of the central catch-phrase, "The truth is out there" - from the X-Files TV show (about alien invaders) sets the tone when he accuses YOU of animal "rape" and butchery for YOUR sick personal "gratification". The only proper response to such deranged zealotry is scorn and derision - lots of it... and possibly the name and phone number for a really good psychiatrist or mental health clinic. Save your reasoning, science and regard for humanity for someone capable of comprehending.

maxine    
SD  |  March, 14, 2014 at 06:59 PM

It would be intesting to know how the 'recommended' amounts of protein fits the picture painted by the researchers. Isn't five to seven ounces of meat, not including the bun or other carbohydrates often accompanying the 'meat' serving, is often seen as the ideal amount. The fact is, protein is the ONLY food GENERALLY consumed at, or LESS THAN the daily recommendations. But, meat, especially beef, seems to be a magnet for the paranoid, and those with an agenda, such as HSUS and some promting the vegan religions to attack.


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