Consider that for the last year or so, we have been treated a deluge of entreaties to reduce our salt intake, with the American Heart Association going so far as to claim that daily sodium intake should not exceed 1,500 mg. This puts it at odds with the Institute of Medicine, and now European researchers whose data indicates that the healthy range for sodium intake appears to be much higher.
Our conversation about sodium, much like advice about purportedly evil saturated fats and supposedly beneficial polyunsaturated fats, exemplifies a national obsession with believing eating more or less of a one or a small number of nutrients is the path to nutritional nirvana.
A few weeks back, an international team of scientists did their level best to feed this sensationalistic beast by producing what’s become known since then as the meat-and-cheese study, because it damned consumption of animal proteins.
The authors correlate cancer mortality with age and protein intake, but they never bother to correlate it with body mass index or waist circumference, the latter of which is an increasingly important measure of body composition. Average waist circumference of the mostly older study subjects was just barely below risk thresholds, meaning that they were fat. Abdominal adiposity induces a damaging pro-inflammatory metabolic state than abets cancer development. Cancer is predominantly a disease of aging with incidence and death rates after age 50 that are 13x greater than before.
A lot of the key data is in the supplementary tables, which weren’t embedded in the press release, so no one noticed it. The supplementary tables reveal that almost 40% of study subjects were former smokers and nearly 20% are current smokers. These proportions are far greater than the general population; smoking promotes many more cancers than just lung, and it impacts diabetes risk. The last time 40% of American adults smoked was 1965.
Study subjects, on average, did not graduate high school, meaning that they were at a substantial socioeconomic disadvantage for having either knowledge or incomes to cultivate and support healthy habits.
Like nearly all junk science on health habits, this study doesn’t even mention the importance of physical capacity to mortality and the ability of physical capacity to modulate risk even in the presence of adiposity. In fact, it ignores fitness completely.
Study subjects ate an average of 1,823 calories daily, while federal data says American adults eat about 2,200. The quality of calories consumed is described poorly. Fiber intake is not reported, and neither is how the protein was eaten. A cheeseburger made with 70% beef and eaten on a white flour roll is a different animal than grilled salmon consumed on a 100% whole grain roll, even though they might offer similar overall calories and protein content. They also do not report alcohol intake, even though it is a well-established cancer risk factor.
The conclusion that people should depend on plant-based proteins to reduce health risks and eat less protein before age 65 is inconsistent with the consensus findings from the Institute of Medicine and with informed thinking on the role that protein plays in satiety and how it may help to reduce obesity levels. Further, sarcopenic obesity is a growing problem that may be affected not only by increasing protein intake but by getting people to engage in resistance training, starting both in middle age.
Senior author Valter Longo founded medical food company L-Nutra, which is currently developing two products. One is a plant-based weight-loss food ProLon that the company claims will have “a potent effect in causing weight loss while optimizing the micronutrient nourishment and promoting anti-aging effects in patients.” Interesting nexus for a paper promoting plant-protein consumption.
This is what the study really says: In a population of fat, older, poorly educated Americans who somehow magically ate fewer calories than average, many of whom are or were smokers who apparently never exercised and maybe guzzled alcohol, the authors, including a senior author who stands to benefit directly from the media chittering about plant-protein consumption, conclude that (excess) animal protein is the problem.
This paper is a perfect example of ‘bridge-to-nowhere’ academic nose picking. It also reinforces growing concerns about the validity of research findings in the increasingly dubious peer-reviewed literature. If published at all, this paper would have fit better in the Journal of Irreproducible Results or the wellness literature alongside other forgettable health trivia.
To paraphrase my pal Al Lewis, you don’t have to challenge the data to invalidate it, you merely have to read the data (but you have to go the supplementary tables), and it will invalidate itself.
I’m hungry. Who’s buying the the cheeseburger, fries and beer tonight?
Vik Khanna is THCB’s Editor-At-Large for Wellness. He is also author of THCB’s next e-book, Your Personal Affordable Care Act: Making Yourself Scarce in the Dysfunctional US Healthcare System. Along with Al Lewis, he is co-author of THCB’s inaugural e-book, Surviving Workplace Wellness With Your Dignity, Finances and Major Organs Intact.