Meat. As Bad for Health as Smoking?

Meat. As Bad for Health as Smoking?
As if the world of nutrition wasn't complex enough there's yet more advice coming out as a result of  recent study from the USA, which looked at  the health risks for older people associated with  high protein diets. Also, last month the UK government announced that the meat eaters amongst us should aim to consume  less than 1lb of red meat/week; the equivalent of one 8oz steak and two pork chops.  As a Pescatarian that seems like a massive amount of meat to me. Does anyone out there actually eat this much meat? Maybe they do.

The high protein diet, made famous by Atkins and others, has had its followers over the years because of it's success with weight loss.  I for one lost 2 stone in weight at the age of 48 on a high protein diet and later went onto help my husband loose 3 stone at the age of 58! Having made life long changes to my diet the weight has successfully stayed off. However,  this has been reliant on maintaining a high protein/ low carb balance. So this research is definitely one that I need to know about.

Meat. As Bad for Health as Smoking?
There's been a lot of press coverage in the UK about this issue. Unfortunately, the health headlines - that eating animal protein was as bad for health as smoking - may have sent out the wrong messages. One expert - Dr Gunter Kuhnle, a food nutritionist - seems to think so. His view is that " while this study raises some interesting perspectives on links between protein intake and is wrong, and potentially even dangerous, to compare the effects of smoking with the effects of meat and cheese", which seems reasonable.

So, what are the nuts and bolts of the research and is there a message for  the older woman?

The research looked at 2 groups of older people: those between the ages of 50-65 and those 66 and over. To summarise the report findings are -
  • High animal protein intake is linked to increased cancer, diabetes and overall mortality
  • Plant derived proteins are associated with lower mortality than animal ones
  • Higher protein consumption may be protective for older adults
The results suggests that low protein intake during middle age followed by a moderately high protein consumption in the over 66 age group may optimise health span and longevity. From what I could see there did not seem to be a gender bias.

Meat. As Bad for Health as Smoking?
Commenting on the research findings the head of dietetics and nutrition at King's College Hospital London has voiced some concerns. His view is that " teasing out health effects of individual nutrients is notoriously difficult." Adding  that "the apparently harmful effects of a high protein diet might be down to one or more substance in meat, or driven by lifestyle factors....other factors may further skew results too". Which again seems like a reasonable conclusion.

So, where does this leave us?

Firstly, what exactly is a high protein diet?

UK government guidelines advises that 10-35% of daily calories should be taken as proteins. However, some define a high protein intake as being 12% of daily calories. For those of us who are doing our best to eat healthily all this apparently conflicting advice can be confusing. To add to this the  protein requirements for women are lower and is also dependent on levels of activity.

So let's break it down. Assuming a ratio  of 0.8g of protein per kilo of body weight,  a person weighing 9 stone should eat about 45-50g (1.6-1.7ozs) of protein daily. (A 300g steak contains 77 g of protein.) So, it's easy to see how quickly it would be to have way too much protein.

However, as we all know, it's not all about meat; dairy products are also high in protein. To give you some idea here are some other protein facts and figures -
  • 200ml glass of milk represents 12% of the recommended daily allowance (RDA)
  • 40g slice of cheese 20% RDA
  • Chicken breast or salmon fillet 40% RDA
Meat. As Bad for Health as Smoking?
If you're over 50 and especially if you're a meat eater, is it now time  to review your meat/protein consumption? Possibly, although maybe it's more about  shifting the focus and looking at quality rather than quantity. Think organic, free range, ethically produced and locally sourced. That way you support a local artisan industry and contribute to a system of farming that is better for the environment.

The other dilemma is what are the alternatives? For decades now Vegans have argued that it's perfectly possible to get quality proteins from non animal sources. Granted it requires a bit more creative thinking. However, once you explore the alternatives it's really quite an adventure. ( I know because I was a vegetarian for years.) The nutritionist and health guru Ian Marber has recently written about this issue. Here's a quick guide  to the foods to go for - some everyday, others less familiar but well worth experimenting with.

Meat. As Bad for Health as Smoking?
Quinoa (a grain)
Brown rice
Chick peas
Miso soup (a Japanese soup made from fermented soya bean )

Meat. As Bad for Health as Smoking?
Coconut - milk and fruit

Meat. As Bad for Health as Smoking?
Edible Seaweeds

So, with all of this in mind what is the older woman to do when it comes to making elegant food choices? One thing I know is that  women  are far too busy to be meticulously counting calories and getting bogged down in the minutiae of nutritional values. Broad brush strokes and basic principles are required. When it comes to composing a nutritious plate of food, look at the food groups and what works for you. Be creative and don't be afraid to experiment. Make your diet largely plant based with lots of fresh seasonal produce and you can't go far wrong. However, above all else, engage with your food, relax  and enjoy it.

Meat. As Bad for Health as Smoking?

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