Raising Steaks: My Take on the “A High Protein Diet is Worse Than Cigarettes” Study

When I heard this headline, I was obviously taken aback…. Could much of what I’ve learned be part of some carnivore agenda? All those books, studies, all that work with clients, could it all have amounted to nothing?!? And what about my vegan friends? Do I owe them one big apology?! Okay, I’ve also emphasised importance of fats and the right carbs, but have I, for all of this time, been praising the hidden demon?!?!?

I then stepped back, boiled a cup of yerba mate and reflected on our current state of sensationalist headlines and the desperation from news media to catch our attention in this cluttered world. (I understand you’re struggling guys, but have a little respect for the reader).

Now, I’m still slightly rattled but in a clearer state. I remember that every few months there’s a media storm on the negative effects exercising (Crossfit has taken a beating here), meat or alcohol (okay the last one IS actually bad). My point is that the media LOVE these stories. They love them because they reflect US and the things that WE do and are pretty damn fun. Therefore we’re more likely to read them and click on the advertising link. This is why we’ve got headlines like; “High Protein, Low Carb Diet Will Shorten Your Life” and my personal favourite, “High Protein Diet…. As Bad as Smoking.” (that one was from News Limited)


[This has little to do with my post but highlights where our media is at…. Cat curfews and something about kids – I’m thinking gay marriage or texting] Source: http://theagevsheraldsun.tumblr.com/

The Study….
Enough about the media, on to the study. You can read the whole thing here in the Journal of Cell Metabolism. See if you can note the differences between the published results and the media reports.

The conclusions that I want to draw reference to are:

From the human study:

“Among those ages 50–65, higher protein levels were linked to significantly increased risks of all-cause and cancer mortality. In this age range, subjects in the high protein group had a 74% increase in their relative risk of all-cause mortality.”

From the mice study:

“Our animal studies indicate that a low protein diet during middle age is likely to be beneficial for the prevention of cancer, overall mortality, and possibly diabetes through a process that may involve, at least in part, regulation of circulating IGF-1 and possibly insulin levels.”

Got it? Okay, here’s some of things that sprung up immediately for me.

1. “High protein intake may be detrimental for those aged 50 – 65 but beneficial for those aged 65+.” 

Okay, so my eyebrows immediately raised from this one. If I go by the advice of the study, I should keep protein intake low for my years aged between 50 and 65 (damn! no steak for 15 years!), but then one I turn 65 I can pick up the steak again. Does this sound ridiculous to you?! Suddenly our dietary requirements change so radically that we should go from a ‘low protein diet’ to a ‘high protein diet?’ Okay, I know that protein synthesis diminishes as we age, hence the importance of it later in life, but can we actually say that we should keep levels lower from ages 50 – 65? And how am I going to explain this to my Dad?! He’s 56 and loves steak. Good news is that Zoe Harcombe from zoeharcombe.com did a decent critique of the numbers, and found that their conclusion that “meat is four times more likely to kill you” is based on a clever manipulation of numbers, and there was only 6, 6 deaths over an 18 year study that matched their conclusion…. Thanks for doing the hard yards on this one, Zoe.

2. Correlation and Causation

Is there any mention about the study groups’ levels of activity, sleep and stress? I’d argue that these lifestyle factors are far more significant in ones longevity than how much lamb we eat. So how do you prove that high protein diets alone CAUSE mortality? It’s difficult, very difficult. It requires a lot of money, and a lot of very patient and willing subjects. Or in this case, it takes a group of researchers drawing rash conclusions based on zero causation.

3. IGF – 1 and Cancer

Insulin Like Growth Factor was given to mice with cancer, and there was a mild spread of cancer with this group. Now, ask any meat head at the gym what IGF does for the body and you’ll get “it makes you grow, bro.” So what’s possibly happened here is that the incidence of IGF – 1 in the system has helped spread the cancer because it helps most things grow. “But hold on, IGF – 1 is also vital for muscles and brain function and a lack of that can lead to all sorts of other problems.” Hmmmm. Sounds like a case of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ but it really isn’t. The article could easily have said, “ensure you’re getting IGF – 1, just be wary of it if you have cancer” and we would’ve been more accurate advice.

4. Mice, Not Humans

Yes, mice can often be good subjects to do studies on… They oftentimes react similar to humans and are definitely more affordable. Their diets, however, differ greatly. Believe it or not, we have very different requirements for macronutrients and would probably react differently when downing a 300g Porterhouse.

5. Quality of Proteins, Carbs and Fats

Following on from point 4, the mice study used carbs, proteins and fats to replicate the effect of macronutrients on humans. While I list these, think about how regularly these ‘foods’ appear in your diet.

ps. If you have any care about your health, never consume those last four ingredients.

6. Surveys Suck 

The problem with most nutritional studies is that they’re done mostly on the economical method of surveys or phone calls. In this case it was the latter. So ask yourself this “what did you have for dinner three nights ago?” I sure can’t remember (never been a fan of food diaries). I also couldn’t recall the quality and quantity of food that I ate, but that’s not important in the eyes of the researchers. So it is very difficult to conduct a randomised, controlled study when it comes to comparing diets and their effects, especially when there are so many lifestyle variables to factor in.

But wait!
There IS a RCT version of a diet with high protein, and it found that seniors who ate a protein rich diet along with some strength training drastically reduced inflammation and improved body composition. The researchers in THIS study had complete control of quality and quantity of food, and had a good idea of the subjects’ activity levels. But what about our ‘Meat is Worse than Cigarettes’ subjects? Were these people active? Were they sedentary? Were they drug addicts? There are so many variables that do not show up in the data. We can do ourselves a favour by looking at the above study, as well as The Kitava study from Staffan Lindeberg or  work done by Weston A Price. What we might just find is that adopting an ancestral approach to our eating is highly effective for health and wellbeing, and all of the results can be put under the same headline…. ‘Just Eat Real Food’.

7. Conflict of Interest (conspiracy I tells ya!)
“Animal protein, animal protein, animal protein” the study goes on and on bashing animal protein but with subtle praise for plant protein. They even skewed the numbers to back up the bashing. Why?! Well, maybe it’s because the author of the study owns a plant protein supplement company… Conspiracy? I’m not sure, but I know that if my Grandpa read the press releases, he’d probably take the advice of the study and put down his steak for Dr. Longo’s ‘ProLon’ – a plant based protein replacement.


Wrapping things up…

Thanks for reading, and please don’t my opinion on this as absolute. I DO NOT believe that the answer to our modern disease state lies in any one factor or quick fix such as adopting a low or high protein diet. I DO believe that first taking an ancestral template is essential in addressing our health; Activity, sleep, stress, socialisation, nutrition. If these are not at least on track then we’re setting ourselves up for failure. So play around with a high carb, low carb, and no carb diet then track, measure and listen to your body. Your body’s innate intelligence is far more potent that any newspaper headline.



Steve is a Personal Trainer, Health Coach, and owner of Barefoot Health.

He is currently studying Health Sciences/Chiropractic at RMIT in Melbourne, Australia.

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  • Farid Zaid

    All this article does is highlight you lack of even the most elementary understanding in statistics, and how they are applied to data analysis. In normal circumstances this would be OK, I am sure that after all you are not a statistician.
    However in situations such as these, where you have a large reader base, it is indeed worrying. The worst part is your absolute confidence in your opinion and complete ignorance of even the possibility that your “analysis” is simply in error.

    • Thanks for reading Farid and I appreciate your comment. You’re right, I’m far from an expert on statistics, and I did write this post with a certain confidence – perhaps too much given my ‘elementary understanding in statistics.’
      For this reason, I provided the link in the post to Zoe Harcombe’s analysis… Here it is again http://www.zoeharcombe.com/2014/03/animal-protein-as-bad-as-smoking-headlines-based-on-6-deaths/
      Being a stats man, you may also find Denise Minger’s analysis worthwhile: http://rawfoodsos.com/2014/03/09/new-animal-protein-study/

      That aside, the point of this post is to highlight the differences between the conclusions of the study and the story published in the media which was ‘meat causes cancer’ etc – I think you’ll agree with me here. Hopefully my readers (don’t worry, I don’t have too many) can at least take this away from my post.