‘Meat and cheese could be as bad for you as smoking’. This eye-catching headline, used to publicise the release of a study on protein intake and health, certainly made me sit up. And it did its job: most major newspapers reported the findings of the study, generating publicity across the world for the scientists, their university, and the academic journal in which it was published.
The average newspaper reader could be forgiven for rolling his eyes and asking ‘what’s new?’ One day red wine cures cancer; the next it causes dementia. One day vitamins pills prevent colds; the next they give you high blood pressure. Scientists and journalists sometimes appear to have made a pact to provide the public with a new scare headline every day.
Is there anything wrong with that? Well, yes. While comparing meat and cheese with smoking is clearly good for publicity, it can be positively dangerous from a public health perspective.
It’s also just plain wrong. There is a vast amount of data available for the risk associated with smoking, and the evidence available shows a two- to three-fold increase in mortality – in other words, smokers are much more likely to die younger than non-smokers. This is considerably higher than the risks of eating a high-protein diet, which established research suggests gives you 25 per cent higher mortality risk. Even this new study only suggests that eating a diet very high in protein increases mortality risk by 70 per cent - somewhat short of the 200-300 per cent risk of mortality that smokers are running.
Making such a comparison trivialises the risks associated with smoking. It may prevent sound health advice from getting through to the general public. A smoker might be forgiven for wondering whether quitting smoking is really worth it, if her cigarette is no more dangerous than her ham and cheese sandwich. People don’t need cigarette smoke to live – but protein is crucial to our bodily survival, and an essential part of our diet. Meat and cheese provide proteins and many other important nutrients, and can be part of a healthy diet.
This type of press coverage, telling us which foods will make us live longer or result in a long and painful death, oversimplify the complicated relationship between diet and health. This relationship is often subtle and requires long and meticulous research to investigate.
High protein diets are becoming more and more popular, and it is therefore important to investigate the potential impact on health and make dietary recommendations. However, these recommendations should be based on a large body of evidence – to which this study will contribute – and not just a single observation.
‘Five a day’ and ‘a balanced diet’ may not make headlines – but are they still sound advice.
Dr Gunter Kunle is Lecturer in Nutritional Biochemistry at the University of Reading. His research primarily explores the link between diet and health