So you’ve heard another nutrition headline, eh? Some new word from somewhere about what’s safe and what’s not-so-safe. What to eat, what to never eat again. Isn’t that different from what you heard last week? What can you believe? What does it mean? Do we even pay attention anymore?
“Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.” Mark Twain
Whenever it comes to deciphering a new study or a headline about a study, it’s always a good idea to keep Mark Twain’s words top of mind. Years ago, when I was much younger (and life did seem simpler), whenever I heard headlines touting results of this or that study – if I paid attention at all – I naively assumed I was hearing Truth. I tended to believe results on their face, without really thinking about it or asking any clarifying questions. “Oh, low/no fat is good for you? Sweet, I’ll have some fat free sour cream on my diet frozen dinner.” “Oh, artificial sweeteners are perfectly safe. Great, I’ll have another Diet Coke.” That kind of thing…
All that changed for me in 1997 when our firstborn daughter, a happy, smiling 4 month old, took a nap one afternoon and never woke up. Our otherwise healthy daughter had succumbed to SIDS (“Sudden Infant Death Syndrome”) and life would never be the same. As the years passed, I’ve heard countless sensational headlines with “cures” or sureproof ways to “prevent” SIDS. (And by the way, we still do not understand why SIDS happens, although there is promising and ongoing research in the area of brain stem abnormalities.) Experience taught me to take headlines and studies, at least initially, with a grain of salt. I would then dig deeper into methodology, assumptions, whether or not the messaging and headlines matched what the study actually said, and finally how the results jibed with my real-life experience, both for myself, my daughter and the many many grieving parents I had come to know as a peer counselor and support group facilitator. More times than not, on closer inspection, I was left unimpressed or unconvinced.
And so it is with the recent study that links high protein diets with an increased risk of dying for people age 50-65. Some of the screaming headlines even purport that eating meat is as hazardous to your health as smoking! While you can read about some of the issues with the study here and here, I’ll summarize by saying the study was based on a sampling of Americans and the food they consumed in one 24-hour period. They then correlated levels of protein with deaths over the next 18 years. Here are just a few of my reactions and questions:
- People are notoriously unreliable when self-reporting what they’ve eaten. We often do not recognize portion sizes, guesttimate, or omit or minimize recording intake of “bad foods.” So, with a study based soley on food consumption in a single 24 hour period, how was food intake measured and reported? Were meals monitored closely to standardize quality and other environmental components (including preparation). If so, how did that compare with how the person ate every other day of their life. And, if consumption was not monitored and measured, how accurate are the self-reports?
- What was the quality of the foods consumed? Are we talking highly processed animal proteins replete with bad fat, like fast food burgers, pepperoni, salami and hot dogs? I would be surprised if the study participants were consuming – before, during and after the study – high quality, organic, grass fed, wild, pastured animal proteins. Our Rule 88 at Cambiati is ‘you are what you ate, ate.” (get it? ate-ate?) So if these 50-65 year olds, 18 years ago, were eating highly processed proteins from animals who were fed an unnatural diet (e.g., cows being fed GMO grains, instead of grass) and loaded with antiobiotics in an unnatural environment, are we really indicting animal protein or rather the food supply as we know it today (and 18 years ago) in America?
- We know that when land or sea animals are fed grains (not their natural diet), it changes their balance of Omega 3 to Omega 6 essential fatty acids. If these animal proteins were primarily from grain fed animals, one could expect higher levels of the more inflammatory Omega 6. Inflammation is implicated in many, many chronic diseases, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease and high cholesterol. How does that impact the study results?
- The study indicates that the average participant consumed 51% of their calories from carboyhydrates. Tell me more about those carbs! Were they mostly non-starchy veggies with a nice supply of other starchier, unrefined vegetables or ancient grains? Or – perhaps more likely – were those carbs refined, processed, artificial, and/or sugary carbs? How does the quality of the carbs (and the fats for that matter) impact the findings about protein?
- The study also indicates that those over age 65 benefitted tremendously from increased protein in their diet. But that wasn’t the headline, was it?
- How about lifestyle issues like physical activity, stress levels, and sleep? How might lifestyle choices and realities intersect with food choices and how, together, they impact overall mortality rates?
We know lots of things…. We know that good, high quality sources of protein – whether animal or vegetarian sources – are critical for the human body. We know we are omnivores, well suited to eat both meat and vegetables. We know that meat (and eggs in particular!) are highly bioavailable. We know that animal proteins provide us with complete amino acid profiles and most vegan proteins need a little combining to complete (e.g., rice and beans). We know that for most of human history, people have eaten a combination of animal and vegetable proteins. Optimal ratios may vary depending on genetics, the season and geography (think about the natural dietary choices available to, say, an Eskimo compared to a Pacific Islander).
“99% of all statistics only tell 49% of the story.” Ron DeLegge II
Ultimately, there is no cookie cutter approach that is best for everyone – every body is unique – but if we focus on quality, whole foods, managing stress and getting plenty of sleep, it’s hard to go wrong. No matter what the headline says.