A new study linking animal protein-rich diets to increased mortality in middle age adds fuel to the controversy over how much protein — and from what sources — is ideal for health. One thing that seems pretty clear: It doesn’t hurt to go heavy on the greens.
Americans who ate a diet rich in animal protein during middle age were significantly more likely to die from cancer and other causes, compared with people who reported going easy on foods such as red meat and cheese, fresh research suggests.
The study, published Tuesday in the journal Cell Metabolism, was based on an analysis of data from NHANES, an ongoing federally funded study that surveys Americans about their eating habits and behaviors.
In this particular study, researchers tracked about 6,000 older adults included in the survey to find connections between dietary patterns, death and disease.
“The research shows that a low-protein diet in middle age is useful for preventing cancer and overall mortality,” wrote co-author Eileen Crimmins, the AARP Chair in Gerontology at the University of Southern California, in a release about the paper.
But here’s the catch: The researchers also found that for older people, ages 65 and up, there may be a benefit to eating more protein. In this age group, higher levels of protein seemed to be protective against cancer and premature death…
When we’re young, IGF-1 help promotes growth, which is good. But as we age, too much protein in our diets may lead to overly high levels of IGF-1, which may contribute to aging and DNA damage, Longo explains.
Then, after 65, when IGF-I levels trail off, our bodies may benefit from more protein in the diet to help fend of frailty and decline…
In the new study, Longo and his colleagues found that high-protein foods derived from plants, such as beans and nuts, did not have the same effect on mortality as did high-protein foods from animals.
Singling out the effects of protein in the diet is hard to do. For starters, our diets are complex, and sussing out the independent effect of any one component is tough. What’s more, surveying people on what they have eaten, as NHANES does, and then trying to figure out how that influences their health years later is a tricky business. So there are still lots of questions about how to interpret these findings.
In an age when advocates of the Paleo Diet and other low-carb eating plans such as Atkins talk up the virtues of protein because of its satiating effects, expect plenty of people to be skeptical of the new findings.
That said, as we’ve previously reported, several other studies have found a link between a high intake of red meat — especially processed meats like bacon and salami — and other animal proteins and an increased risk of mortality…
according to Dr. Frank Hu, a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health who studies the links between health, diet and lifestyle.
“The harmful effects of smoking on cancer and mortality are well-established to be substantial, while the harmful effects of red meat consumption are modest in comparison,” Hu wrote to us in an email.
For instance, in a study Hu authored, people who ate a serving of red meat every day had a 13 percent increased risk of mortality, compared with those who ate little meat… Choosing chicken and other poultry decreased the risk by 14 percent, fish decreased the risk by 7 percent and legumes decreased the risk by 10 percent….In the meantime, if you’re feeling confused, consider the one strategy that almost all experts agree on: moderation.
The simplest way to maintain a healthy body weight and cut the risk of so many weight-related diseases is to limit calories.
So eat what you enjoy. Upsize servings of greens and other vegetables. And downsize servings of meat, cheese and other high-calorie foods.