Everybody Chill Out, Eating Meat Isn’t Going to Kill You

A new study suggesting that a meat-rich diet is just as bad as smoking has some problems

Okay but this is still pretty bad. Michael Saechang

There's a study going around in the news right now that seems to say something rather scary: eating meat may be just as bad for you as smoking. Or, in other words, a diet high in meat proteins could drastically increase your risk of cancer and diabetes.

The study, conducted by a team of international researchers, was published in the journal Cell Metabolism. The researchers used survey data to link people's diets to how they fared healthwise and paired that with a laboratory study using mice to claim that it was meat proteins that were causing the problems. The scare factor was really stoked, though, by the University of Southern California. They sent out a press release that went like this:

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.


Here's the problem, though, according to reporters who dug a little deeper into the study: the research the scientists did doesn't actually let them make the kinds of claims they tried to make.

Writing for New ScientistCatherine de Lange says that the scientists overstepped their bounds when trying to say that research in mice is directly applicable to people—a misstep that is unfortunately made all the time. And some big assumptions were made with the dietary survey that may not be reasonable: the researchers asked people what they ate on one day, and then assumed that's how they ate for the past 18 years.

Brady Dennis for the Washington Post raises the point that other factors, like lifestyle choices, may have had more to do with people's health than the amount of meat in their diet, an element that wasn't accounted for. 

None of this is to say that scarfing down three double Big Macs in one sitting is a good idea. Rather, you shouldn't go rejigging your diet or bother getting too worried about your mortality, based on this study.

It's also a lesson to scientists and their institutions, says the Guardian, to stop unnecessarily freaking people out:

Gunter Kuhnle, a food nutrition scientist at Reading University, said it was wrong "and potentially even dangerous" to compare the effects of smoking with the effect of meat and cheese as the study does.

"Sending out [press] statements such as this can damage the effectiveness of important public health messages. They can help to prevent sound health advice from getting through to the general public. The smoker thinks: 'why bother quitting smoking if my cheese and ham sandwich is just as bad for me?'"

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