“Crucially, the researchers found that plant-based proteins, such as those from beans, did not seem to have the same mortality effects as animal proteins. Rates of cancer and death also did not seem to be affected by controlling for carbohydrate or fat consumption, suggesting that animal protein is the main culprit.”
That chicken wing you’re eating could be as deadly as a cigarette. In a new study that tracked a large sample of adults for nearly two decades, researchers have found that eating a diet rich in animal proteins during middle age makes you four times more likely to die of cancer than someone with a low-protein diet — a mortality risk factor comparable to smoking.
“There’s a misconception that because we all eat, understanding nutrition is simple. But the question is not whether a certain diet allows you to do well for three days, but can it help you survive to be 100?” said corresponding author Valter Longo, the Edna M. Jones Professor of Biogerontology at the USC Davis School of Gerontology and director of the USC Longevity Institute.
Not only is excessive protein consumption linked to a dramatic rise in cancer mortality, but middle-aged people who eat lots of proteins from animal sources — including meat, milk and cheese — are also more susceptible to early death in general, reveals the study to be published March 4 in Cell Metabolism. Protein-lovers were 74 percent more likely to die of any cause within the study period than their more low-protein counterparts. They were also several times more likely to die of DIABETES.
But how much protein we should eat has long been a controversial topic — muddled by the popularity of protein-heavy DIETS such as Paleo and Atkins. Before this study, researchers had never shown a definitive correlation between high protein consumption and mortality risk.
Rather than look at adulthood as one monolithic phase of life, as other researchers have done, the latest study considers how biology changes as we age, and how decisions in middle life may play out across the human lifespan.
In other words, what’s good for you at one age may be damaging at another. Protein controls the growth hormone IGF-I, which helps our bodies grow but has been linked to cancer susceptibility. Levels of IGF-I drop off dramatically after age 65, leading to potential frailty and muscle loss. The study shows that while high protein intake during middle age is very harmful, it is protective for older adults: those over 65 who ate a moderate- or HIGH-PROTEIN diet were less susceptible to disease.
The latest paper draws from Longo’s past research on IGF-I, including on an Ecuadorian cohort that seemed to have little cancer or DIABETES susceptibility because of a genetic mutation that lowered levels of IGF-I; the members of the cohort were all less than five-feet tall.
“The research shows that a low-protein diet in middle age is useful for preventing cancer and overall mortality, through a process that involves regulating IGF-I and possibly insulin levels,” said co-author Eileen Crimmins, the AARP Chair in Gerontology at USC. “However, we also propose that at older ages, it may be important to avoid a low-protein diet to allow the maintenance of healthy weight and protection from frailty.”
Crucially, the researchers found that plant-based proteins, such as those from beans, did not seem to have the same mortality effects as animal proteins. Rates of cancer and death also did not seem to be affected by controlling for carbohydrate or fat consumption, suggesting that animal protein is the main culprit.
“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,” Longo said. “But don’t get extreme in cutting out protein; you can go from protected to malnourished very quickly.”
Longo’s findings support recommendations from several leading health agencies to consume about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight every day in middle age. For example, a 130-pound person should eat about 45-50 grams of protein a day, with preference for those derived from plants such as legumes, Longo explains.
The researchers define a “HIGH-PROTEIN” diet as deriving at least 20 percent of CALORIES from protein, including both plant-based and animal-based protein. A “moderate” protein diet includes 10-19 percent of calories from protein, and a “low-protein” diet includes less than 10 percent protein.
Even moderate amounts of protein had detrimental effects during middle age, the researchers found. Across all 6,318 adults over the age of 50 in the study, average protein intake was about 16 percent of total daily calories with about two-thirds from animal protein — corresponding to data about national protein consumption. The study sample was representative across ethnicity, education and health background.
People who ate a moderate amount of protein were still three times more likely to die of cancer than those who ate a low-protein DIET in middle age, the study shows. Overall, even the small change of decreasing protein intake from moderate levels to low levels reduced likelihood of early death by 21 percent.
For a randomly selected smaller portion of the sample – 2,253 people – levels of the growth hormone IGF-I were recorded directly. The results show that for every 10 ng/ml increase in IGF-I, those on a HIGH-PROTEIN diet were 9 percent more likely to die from cancer than those on a low-protein diet, in line with past research associating IGF-I levels to cancer risk.
The researchers also extended their findings about HIGH-PROTEIN diets and mortality risk, looking at causality in mice and cellular models. In a study of tumor rates and progression among mice, the researchers show lower cancer incidence and 45 percent smaller average tumor size among mice on a low-protein diet than those on a high-protein diet by the end of the two-month experiment.
“Almost everyone is going to have a cancer cell or pre-cancer cell in them at some point. The question is: Does it progress?” Longo said. “Turns out one of the major factors in determining if it does is is protein intake.”
This year will see the German supermarket chain ‘Veganz – We Love Life’ opening its first branch in the UK, offering over 6,000 vegan products. The store is hoping to take advantage of increasing interest in non-meat, non-dairy food, with celebrities such as Jay Z and Beyoncé among those to have reportedly tried adopting veganism.
Most UK supermarkets already stock vegan products, but Veganz is the first dedicated chain store of its kind in Europe. Set up in 2011, the company hopes to open a total of 21 stores across the continent by 2015 to meet growing demand.
The choice of not consuming any animal products at all is currently being promoted by Mark Bittman’s book VB6, which takes a “flexitarian” approach – advocating eating a vegan diet before 6pm.
“By going 100 per cent vegan I think people are missing the boat,” said Mr Bittman. “The question is not how challenging you can make your diet but how sane you can make it; there’s nothing wrong with animal products in moderation,” he says.
“The problem is huge-scale industrial production of agriculture and, of course, our consumption of junk food – which may or may not be moderated by ‘going vegan’. What we need is for most people to move on the spectrum closer to a diet that includes way more unprocessed plants than we’re used to eating, and correspondingly less animal products and junk. ”
Veganism has long been plagued by stereotypes of it proponents. But what will dedicated full-time proponents of the lifestyle choice – its title officially coined in 1944 by founder of the British Vegan Society Donald Watson – make of the part-timers and the potential for it to become the latest fad diet?
Amanda Baker, senior advocacy and policy officer of the Vegan Society, is not overly concerned, and welcomed the potential for it to grow in popularity. “From our point of view, people are beginning to recognise the arguments that we have been making all along,” she said. “We all teach our children that it’s wrong to harm animals unnecessarily and a plant-based diet can be really healthy.”
The Vegan Society estimates that there are at least 150,000 vegans in the UK. With a population of around 63 million, that’s less than one per cent, but the term “vegan” will soon have legal status. In 2010 the European Parliament adopted UK Food Standards Agency labelling guidelines and, following a five year period for compliance, civil suits may be brought against anyone misusing the term from 2015.
This is yet more welcome news to the Vegan Society. “Veganism is a lifestyle and an ethical way of looking at the world. It is a human right to be vegan and a protected philosophy,” said Ms Baker.
“We enjoy our vegan lives and we want others to share the benefits. It helps to have people talking positively about it, especially high profile figures like Bill Clinton and Al Gore.”
However, there remains a disjunction between the principles of veganism adhered to by devotees like Ms Barker and the standards kept by the more casual believers.
The Vegan Society defines the lifestyle as “a way of living that seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing and any other purpose.” Yet Bill Clinton has admitted to eating fish or eggs once a week and Beyoncé dined at an LA vegan restaurant in none other than a fur coat earlier this month.
One of the largest matters of concern surrounding the issue of climate change (or at least it SHOULD be the largest concern) is what will happen to our global food supply if we carry on business as usual. It has been said many times, right here on OGP, that the fight against climate change begins on your plate. While this is known to be true by many reputable scientists, researchers, and governmental bodies, there is still an outrageous disconnect between the facts and the action that is being taken.
What I am referring to here is the wildly wasteful system of industrialized agriculture that we have in the U.S. and that can be found in countries across the world as well. Driven by an insatiable demand for meat, our entire food system – I’m talking globally here – has been warped beyond any recognizable measure to meet the needs of the meat industry.
The result? A lot of cheap meat, a lot of food being produced to feed that “meat,” and then all the not so great environmental, animal, and human consequences. So in the most ironic of twists, in the pursuit of feeding people, the industrial food complex may be the very thing that causes the massive collapse of major food systems.
Let’s Break This Down
According to the IPCC’s climate report, 40 percent of the Earth’s land surface is being managed for cropland and pasture. That is an incredible area of land all relegated for food production. But the proportion of food produced and food consumed is way out of balance. In the U.S., only 20 percentof the corn grown across 80 MILLION acres of cropland goes to feeding people. The rest is largely portioned off to feed livestock.
It has been estimated that the U.S. could feed 800 million people with the grains that they use to feed livestock. And this is a quickly becoming a global trend as 40 percent of the world’s grain goes to feeding livestock as well. In addition, the demand for corn to feed livestock has lead to the expansion of corn monocultures which are highly susceptible to collapse given an unexpected change in weather or disease.
According to the FAO, in 2007, 270 million tons of meat were produced across the world, every year this number increases by 2.3 percent, meaning by 2014 that number has increased by a significant margin. The energy ratio of the amount of fossil fuel to protein produced for beef is a whopping 54:1. A half a pound of steak contains around 77 grams of protein. Yum, fossil fuels.
Globally, livestock production is responsible for 80 percent of the world’s total methane emissions from agriculture.
As greenhouse gas emissions increase along with an increase of livestock production (as predicted by the FAO’s 2.3 percent per year) carbon dioxide concentrations rise, the IPCC predicts, that crops will flourish. However, the downside is, the additional CO2 comes with an increase in temperature, which over the long-term actually hinders plant growth. In addition, higher temperatures make droughts more common and more severe, making necessary irrigation nearly impossible.
The Two Options for Our Food Future
By now, the picture is pretty clear, if we continue to prioritize meat production over the production of other plant-based proteins then the future of global food supplies is not bright…to say the least.
The alternative, however, does not require new innovative technology but rather is a return to our agriculture roots, so to speak. The sustainable agriculture movement is based around the concepts of ethical and responsible farming, utilizing methods that were relied on for years before the first “concentrated feeding facility” was even created.
Organizations such as Sustainable Table and Slow Food offer an alternative to our current system of industrialized agriculture that if adopted world-wide could greatly mitigate the environmental damage caused by industrialized husbandry.
Using simple methods such as multi-cropping fields to reduce the demands for pesticides and fertilizer and planting a diverse variety of crops, sustainable agriculture is not driven by the demand to feed livestock that will one day become meat, it is driven by the intention of managing the Earth to feed to many people who probably intend on eating for the next thousand or so years…
We have put our food system on a track that is inherently self-destructive. By taking a step back and putting the nature back in agriculture we can create a flourishing food system that will be able to withstand the inevitable “surprises” posed by climate change.
Now, this change won’t happen over night, but you can take real steps to see this happen right now. First and foremost, of course, cutting meat out of your diet is a powerful way to remove your personal burden on animals and the environment. Second, take yourself out of the industrial food complex, try more raw foods, don’t buy produce that has been shipped across the world, and as a rule: don’t eat it if it didn’t come out of the ground. Consumer power is more important than you may think, change your habits and change the world – simple as that!
We require children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance for “liberty and justice for all.” We teach kids that Abraham Lincoln, in sum, freed the slaves. We ensure that every child can recognize the icon of Martin Luther King, Jr., and summarize his achievements in one sentence—and then we take the day off in celebration of his life.
We tell kids that it only takes one person to change the world, but we don’t tell them how it can be done.
Our promises are empty: the nod we give to achievements in social justice is void of substantive wisdom.
Why go through the motions at all if not to relay lessons of significance? It is not that children are too young to learn the why’s and how’s of social change. They are capable of much more than our culture gives them credit for. We leave out the grittier details behind achievements in social justice because we collectively believe that children should be sheltered from the “adult” world.
Without much thought, we accept a concept of childhood that sees children as fragile beings who require being kept ignorant of many basic realities. But there is no universally accepted concept of childhood. Notions of what is and isn’t appropriate for children vary throughout history and the world. Kids are more competent and sturdy than we think. When we sugarcoat, oversimplify, or avoid truths, we hinder what our children are capable of, psychologically, spiritually, and morally. We hinder our progress as a society.
The path to a more sustainable and socially just future lies in bravely engaging our children in new ways of thinking and living—even if the topics are challenging. Kids must know what’s at stake, they must understand the power of the individual in a substantive manner, and they must be aware of how, specifically, they can help change the world.
A vegan education (there’s no better curriculum encompassing environmental, health, and humane education) starts where kids are already interested—with animals—and leads to the kind of life-centered worldview critical to sustainable innovations and environmental and social policies. Think how the future of business, industry, and politics would look with such systemic thinkers at the helm.
In my experience, the resistance to the notion of a vegan education is more about adults’ unwillingness to change than it is about kids’ abilities to learn.
When my second children’s book, Vegan Is Love, was released in 2012, major media outlets picked up the news. Not in celebration of a new resource for a new generation of compassionate kids, but because inviting children into an honest dialogue about meat and dairy products was being deemed outrageous and controversial—after all, most parents avoid the day their kid realizes that chicken nuggets do not, in fact, grow on trees. My book threatened to make kids more aware than was comfortable for adults.
While a slew of media talking heads judged Vegan Is Love to be propaganda, dangerous, brainwashing, and even child abuse, vegan families—who have all along been engaging in the work of social change—had a good laugh. After a child psychologist on television called Vegan Is Love “the most disturbing children’s book” he’d ever seen, I received a note from a 10-year-old vegan girl who had seen the segment and asked, “Why is that expert so ignorant?” An even younger girl threw her hands in the air and asked me, “What’s so scary about your book? It just tells the truth!”
Grownups were having a hard time with the concept of social change toward a life-centered, compassionate worldview, while children were understanding it easily.
“Children don’t know the full story!” these skeptical adults argued. “Kids don’t know about nutrient deficiencies or human history or food production or costs! They just want to be nice to animals!”
Precisely. Where better to begin an exploration of the world’s unknowns than from a place of compassion and a sense of justice?
With animals as the centerpiece, my books address how even the youngest of children can put their love into action—through healthy food and cruelty-free choices that protect our bodies, the environment, and all living beings. I cover the emotional lives of animals—the why’s behind veganism—and our choices, the how’s of a compassionate lifestyle. They are picture books, but at their core, my books are about democracy, supply and demand, and engaging ourselves in the public realm. We can give kids this education—and it is one that lasts a lifetime.
To this day, I have never known any child to be overwhelmed by discovering the motives behind veganism—only adults. In this way, the media outrage over Vegan Is Love revealed the invisible forces that shape public thinking about children, food, health, and animals—hindering our growth toward a more sustainable and just world. If the public were aware of the level of disease and abuse caused by eating animals, the outrage would be directed at the pervasive cultural programming, not at a children’s book about choices alternative to the status quo.
Corporations are well aware of the importance of marketing to kids in order to increase profits. But neither our educational systems, nor parenting magazines, nor children’s literature takes the intelligence and abilities of kids seriously enough to help empower them to create substantive social change. Engaging kids is not just good for business—it’s good for a sustainable and just future.