Protein as bad as smoking - Body Detective(TM) review

Unless you had your internet viewing banned last week, you probably know all about the flashy headlines claiming that protein just as bad as smoking.  This report came from a study which was published in the Journal of Cell Metabolism on March 4th.

When something seems alarmist, and all the big news sites scream the same headline in under 24 hours, you can guarantee some good money is driving the marketing machine, and a dirty ol' press release was set free to be gobbled up by journalists who, I thought, were experts at fact checking.

I'm not a researcher, nor a peer reviewer, but I have an interest in scare-mongering and so I read this protein study, and in the interests of keeping it real, here are my thoughts.

  1. The type of proteins researched in the human study are not declared.  We don't know anything about the source or the quality of the protein that is being researched.
  2. This is made no better in the mouse study, where the only protein studied was Casein (the protein found in dairy), no other form of protein was fed to the mice...except for....
  3. Casein was used as the protein source in the mice study.  Soy was also used, the study does not state, when, where and what proportion of the diets were soy vs casein.
  4. The feed given to the mice contains also Sucrose as one of it's main ingredients, both Casein and Sucrose are two mediums that will rapidly grow cancer cells.  This in my opinion is setting up a scene for guaranteed tumor growth providing a skewed and manipulated result.
  5. Finally, the main researcher Valta D. Longo has an equity interest in a company that provides plant based diets.  A conflict of interest in my opinion.

The take home message I got from this study is that we need to seriously look at the health implications of dairy and the Standard American Diet specifically, not scare the world off eating things like grass fed beef, free range/organic poultry etc.

Expanding on those points:

Elevated Igf-1 levels are positively associated with many diseases (cancer, etc).  This we know as true, we also know that caloric restriction without nutrient restriction can lower Igf-1 and increase lifespan.  This is a hot topic in the nutrition world at the moment.

Increased protein intake has the ability to raise Igf-1.   The researchers in this study don't specify which proteins, which I was most disappointed about.

I personally am curious about dairy proteins (casein and whey), which are typically associated with the growth of an infant and then no longer needed for growth once the infant is weaned.  What other growth issues (tumors etc) are we susceptible to by consuming a food not designed by nature for adult consumption.  But I'll be honest, I was only curious about dairy after seeing what the mice were fed in this study.

Back to the study.  Now, the researchers stalked a bunch of people (6381 of them) for 18 years and within a couple of age categories found this great correlation between protein intake and mortality from the forementioned diseases, all found in the news reports on the net that you can read.  I haven't looked at the raw data yet and pulled it apart, because quite frankly, I have other concerns about this research right now.

There is no mention of the type of proteins the particpants of the study ate.  I've seen a fair number of food diaries in my time and I can tell ya, it aint pretty.  Even when it is fairly pretty, there is still a lot of dairy and some processed foods.  Now, these are Amercians we're talking about also, the nation with the 2nd highest rates of obesity.  I'm not trying to pigeon hole here, but you can't honestly tell me out of the 6381 adults who were studied they all had  dairy free diets, containing clean meats from organic grass fed sources.  So from the outset, what foods ARE we even researching?

So again, I'm curious to know, what was the protein make up of the diet and does it match that of the proteins that raise Igf-1 and shorten lifespan.  This, in addition to other questions such as partipant compliance (Did they all really consume x% protein exactly over 18 years?  Did they reduce calories when protein was reduce?)

But wait, here's where it starts to get very very interesting.  The researchers verified their causation with a mouse study.  They injected tumours into mice and fed them a varying degree protein diet.  The results showed what the researchers wanted,  that the growth of a tumour (just like growth of any living tissue), is positively correlated with IGF-1 levels and protein intake.

But hang on, aren't you curious to know what protein the mice were fed?  I know I was!  

These wee rodents were fed pellets made of Casein, Sucrose, Canola Oil, Cellulose, Wheat Starch, Dextrinised Starch, DL Methionine, Calcium Carbonate, Sodium Chloride, AIN93 Trace Minerals, Potassium Citrate, Potassium Dihydryogen Phosphate, Potassium Sulphate, Choline Chloride, AIN93 Vitamins.

The supplemental information in the research states:

"AIN-93G standard chow was used as the casein-based high protein reference diet 
(18% kcal from protein and low protein diet 1,O was used as the casein-based low protein 
diet (4% kcal from protein). Additional diets with contents ranging from 4%-18% kcal 
from protein were created using either the AIN-93G purified diet or the Soy protein diet 
(93G, G) as reference standards (Harlan Laboratories, WI)"

To clarify what this is saying is; the diet was most likely casein based, but may have also been soy based ("additional diets"...what does that mean?).  We do not know when the researchers used soy or casein.  We do not know if the researchers used mostly Casein for the high protein study and then used more Soy for the low protein study.  We do not know if the researchers skewed their results in this way, but I'm going to be "that guy" and say, I reckon they did skew results and use protein TYPE to do it.

3 points to make here:

  1. Casein is the protein source, in other words the researchers only fed the mice dairy proteins to prove tumor growth, no other type of protein - this mouse study does not conclude or prove that proteins from natural, grass fed meats increase tumor growth.  No claim is able to be made here.
  2. Soy protein was used at some point, but without knowing where and when and how much, it's hard to make any conclusion from results that don't have consistency in testing.
  3. We know tumors grow in the presence of glucose, and look what that rodent diet has a good dose of - sucrose.  We can't claim that protein levels on their own influenced the growth of these tumors.  Just like when you water your garden and fertilise it with a product, you can't say just ONE of those things encouraged your garden to grow.

The 'can of protein worms' has been opened, I feel another chapter in the great soy debate coming on. I won't speculate further, you can make up your own mind.  

BUT WAIT!!  There is one more thing I spied, in a small sentence I saw this "V.D.L has equity interest in L-Nutra, a company that develops medical food."  Who's VDL?  Valter D. Longo, one of the main researchers in this study.  And who is L-Nutra...well, they have this great all plant diet, just waiting for eager customers.  This diet contains soy.  Pretty handy connection huh?  Lets go and do a skewed study that produces results we can create a scary press release out of.  We'll scare you off meat, but we just happen to have a product to solve the problem.  Sneaky.

In my opinion this entire research is just another chapter in the great animal vs soy debate, except the "animals" didn't get a fair hearing, as they seem to be represented largely by their high fat, processed, sugary, dairy folk instead of their healthier cohorts.

It was also interesting that this full study was available publicly for viewing.  Usually we only have access to abstracts of full research until many many years later.  Why is it. that this particular study available for full viewing?

The message I took from the research is that we should seriously think about our dairy consumption.  And I came to this conclusion by thinking about what typical people have eaten over my years as a nutritionist and what the 6381 participants may have also been eating over the 18 year study and correlated that to the diet that was fed (casein and sugar) in the mouse study.  I added these thoughts to what we already know about sugar, whey and casein and their relationship to Igf-1.  As mentioned, these are responsible for growth of all cells, diseased or otherwise.

I'm not saying race out and eat your entire weight in meat, a high plant diet is crucial, but I don't see a problem with good quality grass fed, happy meats.  I support vegetarian protein eating with well prepared lentils/legumes, some grains along with nuts.  I'm iffy on dairy and grains in general, some people seem ok, but many really aren't.  And after this research, I'm going to seriously consider my dairy consumption.

The entire "protein as bad as smoking" thing was quite possibly the best alarmist headline in a while.  You guys, we live in a viral world now, we have to be savvy with our media consumption along with our food.

There are plenty of writers discrediting this study and while I've only targeted one small area, there are other areas of this study that people are commenting on, all accessible online.