Date: 19 December 2013, Zana Morris
Death, danger, protein and cigarettes - how to read the paper without being put off your food.
High protein diet as dangerous as smoking "Too much meat and cheese in your middle age is a recipe for early death." "Does that chicken breast equal a cigarette?" "People under 65 who eat animal proteins are 4 times more likely to die." "Dairy products are also dangerous." Are we were suffering from a rash of tabloid journalism more than from an actual health emergency? Just look at the language being used in the latest nutrition free-for-all. And coming from what were once our broadsheet newspapers - all very dramatic, these scare tactic headlines. It takes a moment, even when you work in the nutrition and fitness industry, to take a step back and apply some due diligence to an article that relies on shock value instead of rigorous background research. I'm the first one who is endlessly fascinated by new discoveries; it would be arrogant to think we've sussed it all out and there's nothing else to learn. Sometimes the price of progress means we will discover that we have been wrong about something. We will have to take the good news with the bad as science advances forward, as humans always have done. But can we not sell newspapers without spreading unnecessary panic?
What to be wary of when the 'hot new study' hits the stands
What I found first in scanning through the initial articles was that although the details of the study are stated in the actual published report, we were left to our own devices when reading only the newspaper reports. Define 'middle age,' define a 'diet rich in protein,' define how many thousands? The more I read, the more questions I had. Where were these people from? What was their activity level? What was their relative weight and body fat? Was this protein ratio part of a 2000 calorie day or a 6000 calorie day? What amount is excessive? All absolutely vital questions.
Lies, damned lies and statistics
Once I got to the statistics, I started to pull threads from the assumed logic that statistics often pose in the guise of facts. Are protein eaters more likely to die than vegetarians? My first thought was perhaps vegetarians might smoke or drink less than their red meat eating counterparts. Then would that really make the protein the culprit? And what was the quality of this protein? Were the subjects eating deep fried battery farm chicken and corn fed, barn kept, hormone laden cattle pumped full of antibiotics? Or were they consuming organic, grass fed beef and free range birds? And if they were pescetarians, consider the difference in nutrition between wild and farmed salmon as a prime example. (Trust me when I say we can look forward to a rant about the poor source quality of our foods on another day!) I could probably form a list of questions the length of the original study if I were allowed. And that is exactly what we have to do in our minds when we read headlines and articles so irresponsibly written and published. A little critical thinking is required in order to avoid the conclusion that the 4000 chemicals released from a cigarette once ignited are in any way equivalent to a piece of brie or a steak. Given the fact that about 70% of Americans are overweight or obese, (where this study was undertaken) along with 64% of the UK population, I think we can agree that our excessive lifestyles as a whole may be a dangerous cocktail. It is nice to see that some newspapers were publishing articles that admonish us to take a more balanced view, that not all proteins are bad and, ironically, to 'beware too much spin about your diet.' But I suspect that these half-hearted efforts to backpedal will never have the same reach and impact as the original 'High-protein diet as bad for health as smoking' headline. Shame on them for that.