High Protein Diet Scare: PR Hype, Scaremongering or the Truth?

High protein diet meal: Mediterranean cod

Hardly a week goes by without yet another health scare making the headlines. After endless column inches devoted to the evils of sugar, last week it was the turn of high protein diets.

No sooner had I written about the virtues of the high protein 2-Day Diet when I was bombarded by the fact that I was killing myself and might as well have taken up smoking.

The Guardian reported that ‘Diets high in meat, eggs and dairy could be as harmful to health as smoking’ and Forbes went with ‘Why High-Protein Diets May Be Linked To Cancer Risk’.

Whichever way you looked at it, the prognosis was not good. It seemed evident that eating a high protein diet was as suicidal a thing to do as smoking. It could kill you.

Or could it? How did the link between high protein diets and smoking came about?

How the High Protein Diet Scare Came About

The media stories were based on a University of Southern California study of 6,381 people aged 50 and over who took part in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

The research, published in Cell Metabolism Journal, showed that people aged between 50 and 65 years of age were four times more likely to develop cancer if they ate a high protein diet and had a 75% increase in overall mortality during the following 18 years.

The link with smoking was emphasised in the press release put out by the University of Southern California which began with the words, ‘That chicken wing you’re eating could be as deadly as a cigarette.’

That led to The Telegraph reporting that the risk of eating high protein diet ‘is nearly as high as the danger of developing cancer by smoking 20 cigarettes each day.’

Is that the truth or just scaremongering? What is the evidence?

High Protein Diet NOT as Bad for You as Smoking

Amidst all the hype and hysteria surrounding the study, the NHS Choices website published a very balanced account of the research findings. The article, entitled ‘High protein diet not as bad for you as smoking’ made several important points.

  1. The study was not a long-term study. It assessed the diets of Americans in a single 24-hour period.
  2. In those aged over 65 a high protein diet was associated with a reduced risk of death from any cause or from cancer.
  3. These differing findings meant that overall there was no increase in risk of death, or from dying of cancer with a high protein diet.
  4. The researchers did not account for physical activity in their study.
  5. We need to eat protein, we do not need to smoke, so this is not a useful comparison.
  6. The headlines suggesting a high protein diet is “as harmful as smoking” was not a specific finding of the study.

It’s a very comprehensive article and I urge you to read the full version on the NHS Choices website.

Three Things I’ve Learned from the High Protein Diet Scare

  • If there’s one thing this particular health scare has taught me, it’s to take headlines at face value. They are written to scare people into buying newspapers or clicking on links to news stories.
  • Before leaping to conclusions it’s important to take the time to examine and understand the research.
  • If the research is unavailable or too difficult to understand, it’s necessary to find trustworthy news sources like the NHS Choices website or the BMJ to clarify issues.

Why I’m Sticking to my High Protein Diet

So, for now I’m sticking to my high-protein diet. The benefits of looking and feeling better certainly outweigh the risks.

I believe that as long as I follow a few simple rules like doing regular exercise, eating plenty of vegetables and fibre, being aware of portion sizes (a serving should fit into the palm of my hand) and eating protein from a variety of sources (fish, chicken, beans, lentils and red meat), I’ll be okay.

Until the next health scare…


The Guardian article on the high protein diet scare: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/mar/04/animal-protein-diets-smoking-meat-eggs-dairy
The Telegraph article on the high protein diet scare: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/10676877/High-protein-diet-as-bad-for-health-as-smoking.html
Forbes article on the high protein diet scare: http://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2014/03/04/the-protein-puzzle-meat-and-dairy-may-significantly-increase-cancer-risk/
Cell Metabolism Journal: http://www.cell.com/cell-metabolism/fulltext/S1550-4131%2814%2900062-X#Summary
University of Southern California press release: https://pressroom.usc.edu/meat-and-cheese-may-be-as-bad-for-you-as-smoking/
NHS Choices article on the high protein diet scare: http://www.nhs.uk/news/2014/03March/Pages/high-protein-diet-may-be-harmful-for-middle-aged.aspx
My Experience of The 2-Day Diet: http://writehealth.co.uk/the-2-day-diet/
The Telegraph article on the dangers of sugar: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/10559671/Sugar-is-as-dangerous-as-alcohol-and-tobacco-warn-health-experts.html

Photo: Thanks to atl10trader on Flickr.com (CC)

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