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Is eating high-protein foods like meat and cheese as bad for your health as smoking? The answer, according to a new study, appears to be yes, especially for certain people.

Here’s what the research, as discussed on the University of Southern California’s website, shows: People who have a high-protein diet in middle age are more likely to die of cancer than those who eat less protein.

The researchers called a high-protein diet comparable to smoking — which quadruples a person’s risk of dying of cancer.

So, yes, excessive protein is linked to a rise in cancer mortality, but as the study published this month in Cell Metabolism found, middle-aged people who eat lots of protein from animal sources are more likely to die early in general.

Two facts from the study:

  • Protein-lovers were 74 percent more likely to die of any cause over their low-protein counterparts.

  • Protein-lovers were several times more likely to die of diabetes.

This isn’t the first study that a meat-heavy diet is linked to cancer and early death. On OGP, we reported about research published earlier this year that animal products had the strongest link to certain cancers, including female breast, kidney, ovarian, pancreatic, prostate, testicular, and thyroid cancer.

More about the new study

As researchers are finding, nutrition isn’t simple, and people’s needs change over time. For example, for people older than 65, a moderate protein intake may be beneficial and protect against frailty, the researchers say.

Protein controls the growth hormone IGF-I, which helps our bodies grow but has been linked to cancer. Also, a high-protein diet doesn’t have to be consumed for the harm to occur. As the researchers found, even moderate amounts of protein had detrimental effects during middle age.

Plant protein not harmful like animal protein

An important finding of the study is that plant-based protein, such as those from beans, did not seem to have the same mortality effects as animal protein did.

And rates of cancer and death did not seem to be affected by controlling for carbs and fat consumption — suggesting that animal protein is the main factor to blame.

So what’s the message here?

If you want to live a long, healthy life, cutting back or cutting out animal-product consumption is necessary, especially as you reach middle age. Not only can a high animal-protein diet raise your risk of cancer and diabetes, but meat and eggs cooked at high temperatures (at any age) can harm your brain, too.

Also, while high-protein diets, like the Paleo diet, may help you lose weight, they won’t likely help you live to be 100.

“The majority of Americans are eating about twice as much proteins as they should, and it seems that the best change would be to lower the daily intake of all proteins but especially animal-derived proteins,” Valter Longo, an author of the study, said.

But, don’t worry, there are plenty of tasty ways to get all the protein you need without opting for a steak.

Maybe try some crunchy, raw vegan protein balls. Or vegan tempeh gyros. You have so many options!

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons