March 6, 2014

Attack of the killer lamb?

Not, not that one, the story about eating meat.

Stuff has the more egregious version “Eating meat ‘as bad as smoking‘”, the Herald has the rather better “Protein packed diet nearly as bad as smoking – expert”.

First, the good bits. Both stories are better than the UK versions: the Herald talks to Australian experts and brings in a related study; the Fairfax story at least mentions an outside scientific opinion and gives a link (though it’s to the university press release, which doesn’t link further to the research paper).

The researchers compared people who ate high-protein diet (just under 20% of the people) to those who ate a low-protein diet (just over 5%), and found a 70% higher rate of death in the high-protein group, in people aged 55-64.  The study was observational, but it was in a representative sample of the US and was backed up by experiments in mice. That’s not completely reliable,  but it is a big step.

The 70%-higher-rate of death for  high-protein vs low-protein diets compares to slightly over 100% higher rate for current smokers vs non-smokers in previous research using data from the same survey. You could get away with calling that ‘nearly as bad’, especially as other surveys have tended to give smaller differences. So, the Herald’s headline is defensible. Stuff’s headline drops the ‘nearly’, the ‘packed’ and refers to ‘meat’ rather than ‘protein’. It would be easy for a casual reader to get the false impression that the research had found eating meat was as bad as smoking.

There are two really big holes in the coverage, though.  The Herald alludes to one of them but doesn’t follow up 

People on high-protein diets are likely to lose years of life along with the weight they shed, according to two studies.

All the statistical analyses in the paper attempted to control for weight, ie, they were trying to compare people on high and low protein diets with the same weight. That’s not the relevant question for many people on these diets — the attraction of the diet is that it’s easier to lose weight.  The relevant question for them is a comparison between a high-protein diet with lower weight or a low-protein diet with higher weight.  That question could have been addressed with the data, but it wasn’t.

A rather less subtle omission is that neither story, nor the press release, mentions a key point of the paper: that the association reverses in people over 65.

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Thomas Lumley (@tslumley) is Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Auckland. His research interests include semiparametric models, survey sampling, statistical computing, foundations of statistics, and whatever methodological problems his medical collaborators come up with. He also blogs at Biased and Inefficient See all posts by Thomas Lumley »

Comments

  • avatar
    megan pledger

    It would be interesting to explore the over-65s deaths. I would guess the extra protein helps keep muscle mass high and so is beneficial in accidents and falls.

    5 months ago Reply

  • avatar

    The common conception of a high protein diet causes a very large number of deaths.

    5 months ago Reply

    • avatar
      Thomas Lumley

      Indeed, but not from heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. And not on the voluntary side of the diet.

      5 months ago Reply

      • avatar
        Thomas Lumley

        The paper does try to attribute the effect to animal protein, but that’s all animal protein, not just meat, and in their mouse experiments there wasn’t a difference between soy protein and milk protein. So quite likely all ‘high-quality protein’ counts.

        5 months ago Reply

  • avatar
    Thomas Lumley

    America’s Finest News Source chips in

    5 months ago Reply

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