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High-Protein Diets Are as Bad as Smoking? Ignore the Headlines, Stick to the Facts

06/03/2014 17:09 GMT | Updated 06/05/2014 10:59 BST

Fashion and medicine do not make good bedfellows and I sometimes worry that a low-meat diet has become fashionable. Whether it's the Forks over Knives campaign, or the good ol' food pyramid, there are a lot of people pushing low-protein higher-carb fayre. Some genuinely believe in this message, but most do it in the name of cold, hard cash. And it has real affects on some insecure fitness professionals, eager to push raw foods and semi-veganism to guarantee acceptance with the trendy housewives they train; because edamame and garbanzo beans must be better than steak... after all, they sell them at Wholefood and even their names sound healthy!

And then, every once in a while, we get a scientific research paper that provides justification for eating only muesli after their early-morning yoga class. This week, we saw just that. In one of the most shameless examples of propaganda seen in our generation, the mainstream media went into overdrive with the headlines screaming out that high-protein diets were 'as bad as smoking'. Nothing like sensationalism, eh?

It all relates to a paper published by Californian scientists in Cell Journal Today. The science behind the article is so questionable that I suggest you save your time. But, in essence, the basis of the headlines was this: if you eat a high-protein diet between the age of 50 and 65 you are 74% more likely to die from all causes. And more likely to get diabetes.

Instant flaws with this research:

- it is epidemiological study, which means it is based on a large population. By applying 'reduction' (analysing the complex array of macro- and micro-nutrients on simply protein alone), you cannot possibly assess the affects of steak and vegetables vs a Big Mac

- the study only looked at people aged 50 or over

- the study shows that, if you are above 65, a higher-protein diet is actually protective against cancer and lowers the overall death rate. Awkward!

- the scientists determine a high-protein diet as one that provides more than 20% of calories from protein. This is almost everyone in the Western world. This blunder is akin to classifying anyone who walks up stairs more than once a day as 'athletes'. Massive fail!

Now, having obliterated the sham, it is tempting to launch a fully-referenced tirade enriched with opposing scientific studies. But sometimes it is better to fight bad science with a bit of perspective. So let's stand back and consider:

- humans have spent almost 400,000 years eating a diet that would, by today's standards, appear high-protein. They had no cereal bars for snacks, and no low-fat yoghurt. Despite this, fossil evidence shows that, providing they did not die in childhood, did not fall prey to wild animals or suffer serious/open wounds, prehistoric humans could expect to live into their 70s in a good state of health

- carbohydrate consumption has spiralled since the 1960s, especially since the 1970 report by the US Surgeon General which led to Western Governments recommending a high-carbohydrate, low-fat (and therefore low-protein) diet. In the last 40 years, rates of obesity, diabetes and cancer have all soared

- The Masai tribe in Kenya, the Inuits and the Sioux all eat high-protein low-carbohydrate diets and show almost no evidence of degenerative disease

- Kraft, Kelloggs, Pepsico, Nestle make more money from carbohydrate goods than anything else (the cost of ingredients in baked goods, cereals, ice cream, sauces, soft drinks is proportionately low compared to items like chicken, beef, butter or olive oil, plus carbohydrate goods have a more addictive nature)

- All the big food companies contribute to scientific journals

- All the big food companies spent billions annually on advertising in the mainstream press

- The mainstream press are capitalist institutions that rely on the continued custom of these big food companies to stay afloat

So it is not a case that the editors of the papers are stupid. Far from it. I actually suspect those printing this drivel know the exact value of the article. But they are simply cogs in a propaganda wheel, one that will continue spinning as long as there is profit to be made. Therefore, despite the actual evidence, you can expect to hear much more about why you should eat profitable carbohydrates. Your neighbours get fat, your relatives get ill, and big businesses get richer.

This is not to say that you cannot be healthy on lower-protein, higher-carbohydrate diets. For example, the Tukisenta tribe in Papa New Guinea and the Kitava in the Pacific islanders are known to consume a high-carbohydrate diet. They are lean, fit and generally free of chronic disease. So there is more than one way to do it, although their exercise levels, reduced exposure to stress and absence of chemical nasties in their food chain may play a part here.

However, the take-home message is clear: your interests and the interests of big food companies are not aligned. They make more money from selling you crap. Taking advice from them, from the companies they pay (newspapers) or from the scientists they fund is a bad idea. Eating in tune with your evolutionary requirements and day-to-day energy expenditure may be a much better idea. History says protein is pretty good for us. And 400,000 years of evolution is no passing fad.