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High Meat and Cheese Intake As Bad As Smoking

Update Date: Mar 04, 2014 06:01 PM EST

Eating lots of meat and cheese is just as bad for your health as smoking, a new study suggests.

Researchers monitored a large groups of adults for nearly 20 years and found that people who ate a diet rich in animals proteins during middle age were four times more likely to die from cancer than someone with a low-protein diet. Researchers said this mortality risk if similar to that of 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?" corresponding author Valter Longo, the Edna M. Jones Professor of Biogerontology at the University of Southern California Davis School of Gerontology and director of the USC Longevity Institute, said in a news release.

The study also found that people who ate lots of protein from animal sources, including meat, milk and cheese, were also more susceptible to early death. Researchers found that meat and cheese lovers were 74 percent more likely to die of any cause within the study period compared to those who consumed less protein. People who ate lots of animal protein were also several times more likely to die of diabetes.

Researchers in the latest study accounted for how biology changes as people age, and how decisions in middle age determines human lifespan. Simply put- what is good for you at one age may be harmful at another.

Researchers explain that protein controls the growth hormone IGF-I, which helps our bodies grow but has been linked to cancer susceptibility. The levels of the growth hormone drops significantly after the age of 65, leading to potential frailty and muscle loss. While high protein intake during middle age is very harmful, it is protective for older adults. Researchers found that people over 65 who are a moderate-or high-protein diet were less susceptible to disease.

"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," co-author Eileen Crimmins, the AARP Chair in Gerontology at USC, said in a news release. "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."

Furthermore, the study revealed that plant-based proteins, such as those from beans, did not seem to have the same mortality effects as animal proteins. And because controlling for carbohydrate or fat intake did not affect rates of cancer and death, researchers said the latest findings suggest that animal protein is to blame.

"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."

The findings are published in the journal Cell Metabolism.

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