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Health risks of high-protein diet are negligible

A protein-rich diet - usually a diet that is high in animal protein - is not dangerous. And certainly if you have a healthy lifestyle, don't smoke, get enough exercise and have a healthy bodyweight, a protein-rich diet is absolutely not unhealthy. Epidemiologists at the University of Harvard have published their findings in JAMA Internal Medicine.

The researchers gathered and collated data from the Nurses Health Study and Health Professionals Follow-up Study. That gave them data on 131,342 participants who had been followed for several decades.

The more energy the participants derived relatively speaking from animal proteins, the greater their risk of dying, as the figure below shows, but you can see that the increase in mortality risk was very small.

The participants with the highest animal protein intake had a three percent higher mortality risk than the participants with the lowest protein intake. Three percent is minimal.

Health risks of high-protein diet are negligible

For the nitpickers among us: the increase in mortality risk translated above all into an increased risk of fatal cardiovascular disease.

It is so that a diet that is high in animal protein is often associated with an unhealthy lifestyle. No, we're not talking about natural bodybuilders and paleo diet adepts. These people are often health freaks. But in others a diet containing high amounts of animal protein is often accompanied by unhealthy lifestyle factors such as overweight, high alcohol consumption, smoking, high unhealthy fat intake and high blood pressure, to name but a few factors.

Thats why the researchers looked again at the relationship between premature mortality and the consumption of animal proteins, but this time they split the participants into a group with a healthy lifestyle and a group with at least one unhealthy lifestyle factor. When they did this it emerged that the small negative health effect of a high animal-protein intake was only found in the latter group.

Health risks of high-protein diet are negligible

The researchers also looked at the effect of plant-based proteins. The more of these that the participants consumed, the lower their mortality risk, as the figure below shows.

Health risks of high-protein diet are negligible

According to this analysis, for every three percent of your total energy intake that comes from plant-based proteins, your mortality risk decreases by ten percent, the researchers calculated. If that is indeed the case, a protein-rich vegan diet might just be pretty healthy.

If a vegan lifestyle is not for you, it's still worth looking at the figure below. It shows the effect on mortality of replacing various animal proteins by plant proteins.

Health risks of high-protein diet are negligible

This analysis shows that above all replacing the proteins in intensively processed meat products (frankfurters, sandwich meats, sausage) by plant proteins has an effect.

"Although higher intake of animal protein was associated with higher mortality [...], these associations were confined to participants with at least 1 lifestyle risk factor", the researchers concluded.

"Substitution of plant protein for animal protein, especially from processed red meat, may confer a substantial health benefit. Therefore, public health recommendations should focus on improvement of protein sources."

JAMA Intern Med. 2016 Oct 1;176(10):1453-63.

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