A newly released study on the effects of a high-protein diet on people from ages 50 to 65 has established a link between high protein consumption and mortality. However, the risks may be overblown as the high-protein diet study is both incomplete and flawed.
The most frightening conclusion reached by the researchers is that not only can this lifestyle increase the risk of death, but can increase the risk of cancer as much as smoking does. However, one of the big differences is that smoking increases cancer risks at any age, whereas the link between cancer and a high-protein diet stopped at age at age 66. In fact, for respondents at this age and older, cancer and mortality risk were decreased by a high-protein diet.
The very conclusion that a high-protein diet increases mortality, which is implied by the study, is never reached. The study found no link between high-protein diets and increased all-cause mortality, cardiovascular mortality, or cancer mortality rates. The only subset that showed any positive correlation was diabetes mortality, which has a potential explanation: those with diabetes, or at-risk for diabetes, may independently switch to a high-protein diet as a method for maintaining safe blood-sugar levels and as such they may have already had a higher risk for diabetes related death regardless of their current diet.
While the conclusions themselves may be iffy, the actual study is riddled with issues as well, many of which could have had a significant impact on results. Data for this study was compiled from pre-existing surveys that were taken. These surveys asked respondents to log all of their food intake for 24 hours. Independent reporting can be a notoriously unreliable method, as people tend to forget, improperly measure, or otherwise disturb their data. There is also a question about whether or not this 24 hour sample is strong enough to represent someone’s daily food consumption, which likely varies wildly day-to-day. Essentially, a study like this is not something to be used to draw conclusions. It is something that should be used to find a possible link which could then be expounded on later, with a more direct study used to make accurate determinations.
The biggest flaw with the high-protein diet study is the way it uses a lack of specificity to make the risks sound more frightening, letting the dangers become overblown. There is no measure of how frequently each person exercised, what effects a high-protein diet have on groups younger than 50 years old, what sort of micronutrients, vitamins, or medications were used by the individuals, or of what quality the food each person consumed was. There are simply way too many variables in this study for someone to suddenly deem protein dangerous.
All of this also runs contradictory to a number of more detailed studies that have shown the opposite effect: a high-protein diet can be beneficial to health. This includes a study showing that high-protein is beneficial even to those with diabetes, the one group shown to have any real correlation with increased mortality. While the risk may be overblown, and the high-protein diet study flawed, the possibility of a link between diabetes-related mortality and the high-protein diet may be something that warrants further exploration. For now there is no reason to worry about whether meat can be as dangerous as smoking, especially with the lack of any connection between overall mortality rates and a high-protein diet.
Opinion by Brian Moore