‘Protein is not the enemy’

2014-03-06 00:00

AN American medical study claiming that a high-protein diet increases your chances of cancer at a rate similar to that of being a smoker is rubbish.

This is according to leading South African sports scientist Professor Tim Noakes, who said the study made assertions based on weak evidence.

The study, which differentiated between animal- and plant-based proteins, was completed by the U.S.-based National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. After studying 6 381 people aged 50 and over, it has drawn worldwide attention on social networks and news media outlets for its claim that animal protein is bad for you, bucking the commonly held opposite belief.

Released this week on the medical website Cell Metabolism, the survey said high levels of animal protein in people under 65 were linked to a fourfold increase in their risk of death from cancer or diabetes, although higher protein consumption may be protective for adults over 65. It added that plant-derived proteins are associated with lower mortality than animal-derived proteins.

Noakes, director at the SA Medical Research Council, one of the country’s leading sport scientists and the author of several books on nutrition, rubbished the study.

“We know that carbohydrates drive cancer. Protein is half as dangerous, while fat is not bad at all. Less carbohydrates and you protect yourself against cancer,” said Noakes.

Having reviewed the study, he said the period of analysis was too short and that it was driven by a bias against meat products.

“The study is designed to demonise meat. In the U.S., studies are commissioned by interest groups to prove specific hypotheses. However, if you want to prove meat is bad for a diet, the study process would have to stretch 30 years, with the participants’ meals monitored daily. Only then could you say definitely whether meat is good or bad.”

He said the study was not relevant to South Africa.

“South African diets are 70% carbohydrates, 20% fat and 10% protein as it is, and we are an unhealthy nation. We need more protein in our diet, not less, and while the common belief is that we eat a lot of meat, this is not true,” said Noakes.

He said the study attempted to draw an association between meat protein and high cancer rates, which was not fair.

“The window period in which the people were monitored was far too short. There are far too many variables to take into account that have not been considered,” said Noakes.

He said while the report may be scientific, the reality is different.

“The report claims that a high protein diet is good for you after 66 years, but not [for those under 65]. That does not make sense. Surely if it is good for you in your late sixties, it should be good for you at any age?” he asked.

Durban dietician Julie Thomas said people’s nutritional requirements vary and that high-protein diets are not for everyone.

“It cannot be a blanket outlook. While I agree people over 65 should have a higher protein diet, people respond differently and it must all be relevant to your state of health and activity levels. A diet must also be consistent. It is recommended that people consult a dietician before attempting to alter their diet, and make an informed choice,” said Thomas.

Kokstad dietician Innocent Kazimbe, who specialises in diabetes, paediatric nutrition and weight management, cautioned against “fad diets”.

“High-protein diets are great for rapid weight loss, but are a quick fix and can lead to a weight gain, weight loss cycle that is difficult to control. It is also expensive and should not be advocated for people living with HIV, for instance. Protein should make up 15-18% of your diet,” said Kazimbe.

Speaking to the UK’s Guardian newspaper, a researcher who was part of the study, Valter Longo, said people should restrict themselves to no more than 0,8 g of protein a day for every kilogram of body weight.

“If we are right [about eating animal protein], you are looking at an incredible effect that in general is about as bad as smoking,” he said.

“We know that carbohydrates drive cancer. Protein is half as dangerous, while fat is not bad at all. Less carbohydrates and you protect yourself against cancer.”

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