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As the weather gets warmer, people clean off their grills and social gatherings centered around cooking animal flesh kicks into high gear (and by that I mean BBQ’s). Before you begin partaking in eating fatty and highly processed meats on a regular basis, I want to again emphasize the importance of a “mostly plant-based diet” for optimal health. I have written on this subject many times before, and again, implore you not to partake in fad diets like Paleo or any others that stress the over-consumption of protein, especially animal meat. Yet another study has come out showing the link between a high intake of animal protein and risk of death. In this study by Levine et al (1), researchers followed over 6,000 people over 18 years and found that people aged 50-65 who consumed >20% of calories from protein (2/3 of which came from an animal source: meat, dairy or eggs), had a 74% increased risk of all-cause mortality and were four times more likely to die of cancer compared to those consuming <10% of calories from protein.
According to the study:
[…] when the percent calories from animal protein was controlled for, the association between total protein and all-cause or cancer mortality was eliminated or significantly reduced, respectively, suggesting animal proteins are responsible for a significant portion of these relationships. When we controlled for the effect of plant-based protein, there was no change in the association between protein intake and mortality, indicating that high levels of animal proteins promote mortality and not that plant-based proteins have a protective effect.(1)
This information should not come as a surprise, since time and time again a “mostly plant-based diet” has been recommended by the most reputable nutrition and health researchers. One large explanation for increased risk of cancer and diabetes is that a high protein diet can increase insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) and accelerated aging of cells. Growth hormone deficiency in mice has been associated with low levels of IGF-1 and insulin, and is strongly linked with life expansion and a reduction in cancer and diabetes development. This observance in mice helps to explain the link between a lower protein diet and a lower risk of cancer and diabetes development.
It is important to note that in the Levine et al study that people over 65 years of age benefited by a higher protein diet to prevent weight loss and early death. In most individuals, weight tends to increase up to about age 60 and then begins to decline as the body begins breaking down lean muscle. Thus older adults need more protein to prevent the breakdown of lean of muscle. The authors concluded:
Overall, our human and 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. In agreement with other epidemiological and animal studies (Estruch et al., 2013, Linos and Willett, 2007,Michaud et al., 2001, Willett, 2006), our findings suggest that a diet in which plant-based nutrients represent the majority of the food intake is likely to maximize health benefits in all age groups [. . .] We also propose that at older ages, it may be important to avoid low protein intake and gradually adopt a moderate to high protein, preferably mostly plant-based consumption to allow the maintenance of a healthy weight and protection from frailty (Bartali et al., 2006, Ferrucci et al., 2003, Kobayashi et al., 2013). (1)
I always recommend a mostly vegetarian diet, or as Americans like to label themselves, “flexitarian”, which I suppose means they eat mostly vegetarian and occasionally eat poultry. I always advise that people try to limit red meat intake, or if possible, cut out completely. There are too many studies showing the negative health effects of consuming red and processed meats on a regular basis. I have my clients cut back on their animal protein quite significantly, especially since meat tends to contribute a significant amount of calories to the average American’s diet. By cutting a pork chop in half you can save yourself 250 calories. If you just cut this amount out of your diet on a daily basis, you would theoretically lose 12 pounds a year!
Meat contains little to no antioxidants and phytonutrients. Beans, nuts, and seeds are loaded with the good stuff, plus fiber, which breeds healthy probiotics. I prefer people consume seafood over other sources of living protein since seafood tends to be very lean, and the fatty varieties contribute healthful omega-3's. So tonight try making a stir fry with shrimp or edamame instead of beef and partake in Meatless Mondays!
If you do choose to eat meat regularly, I encourage you to visit a farm and watch them slaughter the animal that you will be eating. I am not trying to be a fanatical vegan [no, I am not even 100% vegetarian, but I do eat mostly Lacto-ovo-pesca-vegetarian], but it is good to know where your food is coming from. Take your children to a farm to see that their chicken nuggets come from actual live chickens. If you can't eat the meat after seeing it slaughtered, you probably shouldn't be eating it.... especially because back in the day you would have to kill it yourself. I love pig roasts for the fact that you are face to face with the animal you are eating- it is very natural and a good practice to have young kids participate in early on in life. There are too many kids that have no idea their food comes from live animals. As long as you are comfortable knowing that the ham you are eating comes from the cute pig on the farm, then go ahead and eat it, but just try to limit it for health and environmental reasons. On that note, meat is another huge contributor to greenhouse gases. However, I won't even go into that rant....I'll save for another blog. So limit your meat for your health, the environment, and your wallet (meat is the most expensive part of an average person's diet!)!
1. 1. Morgan E. Levine, Jorge A. Suarez, Sebastian Brandhorst, Priya Balasubramanian, Chia-Wei Cheng, Federica Madia, Luigi Fontana, Mario G. Mirisola, Jaime Guevara-Aguirre, Junxiang Wan, Giuseppe Passarino, Brian K. Kennedy, Min Wei, Pinchas Cohen, Eileen M. Crimmins, Valter D. Longo, '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', Cell Metabolism, Volume 19, Issue 3, 407-417, 4 March 2014 10.1016/j.cmet.2014.02.006