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New Study: Eating Meat Could Be as Harmful as Smoking

It's time to kick the high-protein habit!

Photo Credit: racorn/


Whenever I order a veggie burger, the question comes up. A member of the group will lean over between tearing meaty chunks out of their double-beef special, and make a concerted effort to feign benevolent interest as they ask: "So, you're a vegetarian, are you? Is that because you prefer it or for, well, ethical reasons?"

Here, the questioner is offering the questioned a polite way out. It is phrased so you can apologetically gesticulate towards your halloumi and mutter something self-deprecating about a weak stomach and a delicate constitution. You can chow down quietly on your balls of fried falafel and then scuttle off with your quiet personal views about factory farm conditions, global warming and antibiotic overuse like someone who secretly believes in a particularly suspect 9/11 conspiracy theory. Either that or you can admit that your food choices are, yes, "technically for ethical reasons", and then endure the 212th exhaustive conversation about exactly why you stick to them. Inevitably, this will end up with some well-informed carnivore telling you all about how you are a hypocrite for eating cheese while bacon fat drips slowly down his chin.

Personally, I am completely on board with the idea that most of my views are hypocritical while I still buy butter and enjoy mozzarella. I accept that my position on food is complicated, as well as everybody else's, and I couldn't care less about the bacon fat or the spaghetti bolognese or the rare steak being consumed next to me. Like the majority of people in Sudbury, Suffolk,  I don't think that butcher's shops should have their dead animal displays censored when all they do is quite rightly draw attention to the reality of where meat comes from. And to be perfectly honest, a sizeable chunk of my reasoning for vegetarianism comes from a selfish place: I've always had the vague notion that meat – and, in particular, red meat or processed meat – doesn't do the human body much discernible good.

According to the latest study into protein consumption, it turns out that this theory may well have something to it. The  National Health and Nutrition Survey has been collating data on 6,381 people across the US, and found that diets rich in animal protein (as opposed to protein routinely taken from plant sources) could be as  harmful to health as other vices such as smoking. Those under the age of 65 who regularly consume a lot of meat, eggs and dairy are four times more likely to die of cancer or diabetes – although it's worth noting that, if you make it to 66, beginning to eat a high-protein diet for your remaining years is a better shout than sticking with the steamed kale.

Perhaps you would accuse me of perpetuating the "everything gives you cancer" agenda. But it's not only sensationalist carcinogenic claims that deserve attention in light of these findings. Consider the diets endlessly touted in women's magazines and the most successful self-help books of the late 20th and early 21st century: the  Dukan diet, for instance; the internationally renowned  Atkins plan; and of course " going paleo". All of these emphasise a drastic cut in carbohydrate intake and a regular protein overload. All of them claim to base their advice on medicine (and, in the case of the paleo diet, sketchy pseudo-scientific claims about what we are "naturally intended" to eat if we are to "mimic the diets of our caveman ancestors".) Now it turns out that losing all that weight for your health might be backfiring spectacularly, taking months of your life off with every spare tyre you shed.