03/08/2014 09:51 am ET Updated May 07, 2014

David Greenwalt: High-Protein Diets, Conflicts of Interest and the Media's Hunger for High-Impact Headline

By David Greenwalt

Despite the popularity of bashing high-protein diets like Atkins and Paleo the totality of the research indicates it may be more prudent to include vegetables and fruits and moderate red meat than simply setting your sights on slashing protein of every kind. New research has, once again, set off a media firestorm of protein-bashing headlines. In this article I'll provide seven reasons you should give pause to believing sound bites and media headlines and why, for this research release, it's especially prudent to consider the source and the totality of the evidence.

New research published in Cell Metabolism and an interview with one of the study's authors, Valter Longo, set off a firestorm of media headlines like "Eating large amounts of meat, cheese may be as deadly as smoking, study shows" and "High-protein diet 'as bad for health as smoking'." Are the headlines justified? You know how sometimes we take things at face value without giving them a second thought? Let's give it a second thought.

Second Thought #1:
Valter Longo, one of the study authors, is the founder of L-Nutra, a company that promotes and sells diet and longevity foods and supplements. Is there a conflict of interest if an author of research vilifying animal protein is also a major stakeholder in a company that promotes a calorie-restriction, plant-based lifestyle? I believe it's worth considering.

Second Thought #2:
While the study title is "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" the age of the "younger" population was 50-65. The study population included 6,381 adults ages 50 and over from the third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III), a nationally representative survey. The research title is misleading and may cause readers to believe the data is relevant for all persons under the age of 65 when it is not.

Second Thought #3:
NHANES III was conducted from 1988 through 1994. Therefore, the data analyzed is at least 20 years old. Does it represent our current food-supply intake? Perhaps mostly but one could argue degrees of difference between 1994 and 2014.

Second Thought #4:
Is all protein created equal? No. Other research directs attention to red meat specifically rather than lumping all protein into the same vat of fear mongering. One such study, also quoted in Longo's paper, is titled "Red meat consumption and mortality: results from 2 prospective cohort studies." The authors of that research stated...

"We estimated that substitutions of 1 serving per day of other foods (including fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy, and whole grains) for 1 serving per day of red meat were associated with a 7 percent to 19 percent lower mortality risk."

Second Thought #5:
Is it the protein or the delivery vehicle of the protein? Is there a difference between processed meats (e.g., sausage, ham, deli meats, bologna and bacon) and grass-fed, pastured, free-range beef, pork and poultry? You better believe there's a difference.

One of the largest studies to address this question, published online March 7, 2013 in BMC Medicine looked at this very issue. The authors stated ...

"In the EPIC cohort, a high consumption of processed meat was related to moderately higher all-cause mortality. After correction for measurement error, red meat intake was no longer associated with mortality, and there was no association with the consumption of poultry. Processed meat consumption was associated with increased risk of death from cardiovascular diseases and cancer."

Second Thought #6:
Does correlation now equal causation? No. It never has. It never will. Are typical, high-protein eaters more likely to engage in unhealthy lifestyles? Yes. The BMC research included this insight into the lifestyle practices of the highest red- and processed-meat eaters.

"Men and women in the top categories of red or processed meat intake in general consumed fewer fruits and vegetables than those with low intake. They were more likely to be current smokers and less likely to have a university degree. Men with high red meat consumption consumed more alcohol than men with a low consumption, which was not seen in women."

Second Thought #7:
Fewer than one-third of American adults eat the amount of fruits and vegetables the government recommends. Since NHANES III was used and is supposed to be representative of our population in America then we can also assume that the higher-protein (i.e., meat-of-all-kind eaters) also do not consume enough vegetables and fruits., an independent encyclopedia on supplementation and nutrition not affiliated with any supplement company, had this to say regarding the issue of the impact of vegetable intake on mitigating red meat's contribution to cancer...

"In all studies that controlled for vegetable intake, a greater risk was seen in people not consuming vegetables. On a whole, vegetable intake seems to confer a protective effect. In addition, one research group noted that although red meat causes increases in a variety of cancers that fruits and veggies seemed to confer protective effects against just as wide a variety, and were more protective in cohorts that were more at risk. Fruits appeared to be more protective than vegetables in this study."

In conclusion, instead of practicing food reductionism, where we lump all animal-protein foods into one unhealthy category, choose less red meat overall, choose animal flesh from grass-fed, pastured, free-range and wild-caught sources. And by all means don't smoke, limit alcohol and eat plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit.

David Greenwalt is the author of The Leanness Lifestyle, a complete body-transformation resource for women and men sick of dieting and ready to permanently lose weight. A certified Wellness Coach, David founded Leanness Lifestyle University (LLU), an evidence-based, lifestyle-education platform that provides users with innovative tools to track, report, and score the behaviors optimal for successful weight-management. To learn more about David and to read his blog, visit him at