By Ross Charles, M.D. (@rosscharlesmd)
Too much meat and cheese may be a recipe for disaster, according to a new study that links the consumption of animal-based protein to an increased risk of early death for people in their 50s and early 60s.
The study of more than 6,000 American adults found those between the ages of 50 and 65 with diets high in animal protein were 74 percent more likely to meet an untimely end than those who consumed less animal protein or got their protein from non-animal sources.
For deaths due to cancer, the risk was four times higher, according to the study published today in the journal Cell Metabolism.
Eating plant-based proteins like nuts and beans seemed to reverse the unhealthy trend. And after the age of 65, the trend dissipated, suggesting that a diet high in protein from animals or plants can be beneficial later in life.
"The main message is to go to a safe level of protein and try as much as possible to have those proteins come from plant-based products," said study author Dr. Valter D. Longo, who is the director of the Longevity Institute at the University of Southern California and the founder of L-Nutra, a company that makes plant-based meal replacements. "The advice was that everyone should have high protein. That's not the case."
Why did the effect disappear with older people? As we age, our demand for protein increases. So getting more of it from a host of sources after 65 is important in extending our longevity, the study found. The patients whose diets were packed with protein were more than 25 percent less likely to meet an early death.
"What we know for sure is older people have a problem getting enough protein," said Keith Ayoob, registered dietician and associate clinical professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, who was not involved in the study. The condition is known as sarcopenia, and is estimated to affect nearly half of seniors by the time they reach eighty years of age.
Ayoob's advice for seniors is simple.
"Look at where your diet is excessive and where it is deficient and make up the differences," he said. Ayoob also stressed the importance of a balanced diet.
"This isn't an opportunity to say either or, but rather to diversify your intake," he said.
ABC News chief health and medical editor Dr. Richard Besser said the new study does not change the simple message that common sense should still prevail when it comes to diet choices.
"I wouldn't change anything based on this study," Besser said on ABC's Good Morning America. "I still believe in the Mediterranean diet, rich in plants, fruit, high fiber, and lean protein is the way to go."
Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, agreed.
"Having enough high-quality protein in your diet from whatever source is important," he said. "The evidence is overwhelming and incredibly consistent that people who eat plant-based products have a reduced risk of death."
"By and large, the main message here is kind of what it always was," Katz added. "If you shift to a diet more about plant-based foods, you are likelier to live healthier and experience less chronic disease."
So will that charcuterie and cheese plate kill you? If it's once in a while, you probably don't have much to worry about. While this study found that routinely eating too much animal-based protein could be a problem, it does not mean that meat and cheese are poison. On the contrary, these foods can provide many vital nutrients that are not easily found in other foods.
Nutrition and medical experts who spoke with ABC News noted that a limitation in the study is that it groups all animal-based proteins together, ignoring the healthier options that exist among them. Nonfat yogurt and a ballpark hot dog are no match in terms of fat content, cholesterol or nutrients.
So for now, moderation is key. A well-balanced diet that covers all the major food groups - and goes a little easier on the meat and cheese - may be best for a healthy future.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Dr. Longo founded a company that sells plant-based meal replacements.