There’s a responsibility for public figures in nutrition and health sciences to base statements on science and to ensure there’s no bias in how we tell the story that’s in our favour. Recently on two popular podcasts, Dr. Gabrielle Lyon made claims that encouraged me to dive into the data.
On Dr. Hyman’s podcast, she stated that the leading cause of death among Americans 65 and older is a fall. Then, when asked about any drawbacks to eating animal protein on the Mark Bell Power Project podcast, Dr. Lyon claimed she wasn’t aware of any controlled trials showing downsides to red meat.
Let’s look at the data on both claims.
Causes of Premature Death
According to a 2021 Center for Disease Control (CDC) report looking at 2019 data, the leading cause of death for Americans 65 and older is cardiovascular disease. Other leading causes of death include cancer, dementia, and other chronic diseases.
Unintentional injuries account for less than 3% of total deaths in this population, with falls being the highest within this category.
Dr. Lyon’s claim that falls are the leading cause of death is an example of bias used to support the narrative promoting animal protein. She has since acknowledged her error in misstating the data. Our common ground is the massive issue of chronic disease and the importance of maintaining muscle mass as we age.
However, we differ in our thinking because Dr. Lyon promotes animal protein as the solution. But, while protein is an important factor in protecting older adults from falls, the source of the protein plays a role in the risk of other chronic diseases that are more dangerous to longevity. We need to think about animal protein critically, especially in terms of heart health.
The Evidence on Red Meat Consumption
Here are three recent studies looking at red meat consumption and cardiovascular disease, the true leading cause of death in older Americans:
- A 2019 systematic review in Circulation included 36 randomized controlled trials comparing the effects of red meat consumption to other diets. The study concludes that substituting red meat with quality plant proteins “leads to more favorable changes in blood lipids and lipoproteins.” This is a great example of “compared to what.”
- A 2019 randomized controlled trial in the American Journal of Clinical Nutritionlooked at the effects of red meat, white meat, and plant protein with consistent saturated fat intakes. The study found that plant protein is associated with lower ApoB levels, the best predictor of cardiovascular risk.
- A 2022 systematic review in Nutrients included 1.5 million subjects across 12 observational studies. The study saw a reduction in cardiovascular mortality and total mortality when dietary plant protein replaced red meat.
The bottom line is cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death, and this is where we need to focus. We’d fare much better in our health by looking at outcomes versus single mechanisms. We know swapping calories from red meat and eating more nuts, seeds, and legumes supports cardiovascular health and aligns with the American Heart Association’s guidelines to reduce the risk of death.
While protein is important for building muscle and preventing sarcopenia, the loss of muscle mass as we age, it’s not necessary for that protein to be sourced from animals in order to achieve lean body mass goals. In fact, doing so is a more significant contributor to premature death than falls. Thankfully, we don’t have to choose one over the other. By incorporating more plant proteins in place of animal proteins, the evidence suggests the risk of falls and cardiovascular disease decreases.
Layne Norton (aka @Biolayne) says, “We should judge people not by their intention but based on their actions.” My hope is that this type of conversation among leaders in the health space will lead to critical evaluation of the data and eventually a change in nutrition messaging so that the narrative isn’t to promote a bias but to let the scientific data we have speak for itself. I do believe Dr. Lyon has good intentions, but it’s important to be careful not to misrepresent the statistics, or we can lose valuable perspective.