Valter Longo, the founder of L-Nutra, a company that promotes and sells diet and longevity foods and supplements, was involved in a study titled “Low Protein Intake Is Associated with a Major Reduction in IGF-1, Cancer, and Overall Mortality in the 65 and Younger but Not Older Population.”
Longo’s L-Nutra company promotes intermittent fasting as a pathway to health and longevity and their products are seemingly designed to assist with, and mimic, the proposed benefits of intermittent fasting. Data from the L-Nutra website states …
These products activate remarkable repair and protection processes that are present but remain inactive in the human body. They exploit the ability of fasting to trigger these inactive repair and protection programs and combine it with a sophisticated formulation of natural nutrients with the ability to provide nourishment and allow subjects to enjoy a combination of good and mostly organically grown and plant-based food. These products are called “Fasting Mimicking & Enhancing™ Diets (“FMEDs™”) since they mimic fasting but allow the consumption of a restricted but relatively normal diet. L-Nutra scientists view each component of food as a molecule able to trigger different cellular and systemic responses.
The recent research sparked a frenzy of media headlines like “Eating large amounts of meat, cheese may be as deadly as smoking, study shows” and “High-protein diet ‘as bad for health as smoking’”
As of this writing it’s still very early in the news cycle of this research, press release. I’m not a researcher. I’m a Wellness Coach. I don’t have all the answers. I do, however, believer there are some points worth considering before anyone runs off half cocked screaming the “meat is death” message like an orangutan with its hair on fire.
- Longo’s research makes no direct comparison of high-protein diets to smoking. The “as bad for health as smoking” quote seems to have come about from media interviews with the food-supplement purveyor and researcher.
- While the study title is “Low Protein Intake Is Associated with a Major Reduction in IGF-1, Cancer, and Overall Mortality in the 65 and Younger but Not Older Population” the age of the “younger” population was 50-65.
The study population included 6,381 adults ages 50 and over from NHANES III, a nationally representative, cross-sectional study.
The age of the “older” population was greater than 65. The research title is misleading and cause readers to believe the data is relevant or all persons under the age of 65 when it is not.
- This study was not original, double-blind, placebo-controlled research. It was a statistical analysis of cohort data from the third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III). NHANES III was conducted from 1988 through 1994. Therefore, the data analyzed is 20 years old. Does it represent our current food-supply intake? Perhaps mostly but one could argue degrees of difference between 1994 and 2014.
- The authors of the research paper are observed scratching their heads a bit as they try and figure out why “a low-protein diet was beneficial in mid-life; however, its benefits declined with age.” They go on to state … ” “among respondents who were 66 years of age and over at baseline, higher protein levels were associated with the opposite outcomes for overall and cancer mortality but a similar outcome for diabetes mortality.” So, at the practical level, according to the research paper, we need to eat more protein from age 65 upward, after spending suggested decades prior eating less protein. Good luck.
- Not all protein is created equal. While the study title ambiguously uses the phrasing “low-protein” and the media says “High-protein diet as bad for health as smoking” more previous research is directed at red meat specifically rather than lumping all protein into the same vat of death. One such study, also quoted in Longo’s paper, is titled “Red meat consumption and mortality: results from 2 prospective cohort studies.” The authors of that research stated…
“We estimated that substitutions of 1 serving per day of other foods (including fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy, and whole grains) for 1 serving per day of red meat were associated with a 7% to 19% lower mortality risk.”
As a whole we probably all ought to be consuming more of our protein from omega-3-rich, cold-water fish like salmon, mackerel and herring. But what about poultry? What about low-fat dairy? While I’m no fan of dairy as a food class for reasons too broad to cover in this article, my point is all protein is not created equal. Which brings me to my next point…
- Is it the protein or the delivery vehicle OF the protein? Is there a difference between processed meats (e.g., sausage, ham, deli meats, bologna and bacon) and grass-fed, pastured, free-range beef, pork and poultry? You better believe there’s a difference. One of the largest studies to address this question, published online March 7, 2013 in BMC Medicine looked at this very issue. The authors concluded “The results of our analysis support a moderate positive association between processed meat consumption and mortality, in particular due to cardiovascular diseases, but also to cancer.” A Medscape report on this research indicated “A very high consumption of red meat was nonsignificantly associated with increased cancer mortality, but not with deaths caused by CVD or respiratory diseases, diseases of the digestive tract, or any other disease.”
They went on to say …
“As the researchers point out, processed meats tend to contain more saturated fat than unprocessed meat (where the fat is often trimmed off) and more cholesterol and additives (which are part of the smoking or curing process). Some of these are believed to be carcinogenic or precursors to carcinogenic processes.”
“Another factor is the salt in processed meat products, which is linked to hypertension — a CVD risk factor,” noted Dr. Rohrmann. Heme iron also links meat consumption to CVD risk, “but that’s not limited to processed meat,” she explained. Dr. Rohrmann and colleagues point out that the high consumption of processed meat typically goes hand in hand with other unhealthy behaviors, including smoking, low levels of physical activity, and low consumption of fruit and vegetables.
- Does correlation now equal causation? No. It never has. It never will. Of the people surveyed between 1988 and 1994 for the research in question, how many of them obtained their “protein” from quality sources? Who knows? Are typical, high-protein eaters more likely to engage in unhealthy lifestyles? A research-review site “Examine” had this to say …
On a population wide basis, red meat is definitely associated with cancer. The association has been shown numerous times, but is fairly weak in relevance. The most well-controlled study noted an 0.2-fold increase. Please note association; this has not yet been shown through interventions nor is the cause known. If we are to answer ‘does red meat cause cancer’, the answer is ‘we do not know.’
- Fewer than a third of American adults eat the amount of fruits and vegetables the government recommends. Who cares? You should – especially if you’re a meat eater. Since NHANES III is supposed to be representative of our population in America then we can also assume that the higher-protein (i.e., meat-of-all-kind eaters) also do not consume enough vegetables and fruits.
Authors at the Examine.com website state …
“In all studies that controlled for vegetable intake, a greater risk was seen in people not consuming vegetables. On a whole, vegetable intake seems to confer a protective effect. In addition, one research group noted that although red meat causes increases in a variety of cancers that fruits and veggies seemed to confer protective effects against just as wide a variety, and were more protective in cohorts that were more at risk. Fruits appeared to be more protective than vegetables in this study.”
Wendy Myers writes on the website “Liveto110” …
“This evidence also highlights the fact that any health issues associated with meat eating may not come from the meat per se, but a relative absence of other healthier foods. For example, in this study, vegetarians generally ate more vegetables, fruits and nuts. In fact, this study found evidence that the apparent health benefits of vegetarianism were tied not so much to the absence of meat, but to an increased consumption of healthier foods overall.”
There’s an obvious conflict of interest with this current research. Longo, one of the authors, promotes intermittent fasting, calorie restriction and his own line of food-based supplements to promote health and longevity. Does it mean it’s bad science? Not necessarily. But it cannot be ruled out unless Longo isn’t human.
If you eat lots of processed red meat or you eat lots of red meat without plenty of vegetables and fruits you are likely increasing your chances of obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and early death. If your lifestyle is full of processed, chemically-laden food, plenty of alcohol, no exercise and rich in tobacco products? Good luck. I don’t think you need more research to tell you you’re high risk for disease, cancer and early death.
No research has been conducted with a population who limits all processed Frankenfood from any source, who eat REAL food, who consume mostly grass-fed, pastured, free-range and wild-caught animal-flesh, who also consume plenty of vegetables and some fruit, and who get in 150-300 minutes of aerobic and strength-training exercise each week. This is my world and the lifestyle I promote to my clients. Until that study is done? Correlation does not equal causation. I will say, however, that I should get more of my protein from fish. Always something to improve.
Great review Coach. Thanks for taking the time to dig into this for us and helping make sense of it.
By the way, I have some great fish recipes if you’re interested.