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Cloudy With a Chance of Meatheads

As long we impart to nutrition the mediagenic volatility associated with the weather, we can all but guarantee that our understanding of what is good for us will remain very much clouded over. There will also be a very high chance of us acting like meatheads -- and being fed a steady diet of headlines accordingly.
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I have not seen either of the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs movies. I am guessing the first one must have been at least cute to result in a second. Some of my kids saw the second, and thought it was rather silly.

But it was also brilliant -- if perhaps in an entirely unintended way. We do, indeed, seem to want our relationship with food to be something like our relationship with weather. Or at least, somebody wants want us to want that.

Weather is the ultimate reality television -- and was, long before reality TV existed under that banner. Just consider how prominently weather segments figure in all news programming, including the iconic "morning shows," such as Today and Good Morning America. There is an opportunity for A-list celebrity by being the one to tell us all whether or not the sun will shine tomorrow.

There are some fairly obvious reasons for this. Weather is big. Weather affects us all rather intimately. And weather is volatile.

Impact, intimacy and volatility are a pretty terrific mix from a media perspective. One might even say: the perfect storm. No surprise, then, that storms of any note -- or even the possibility of them -- almost invariably dominate the news when they are in the offing.

Nutrition, which we might define broadly as the interface of food and health, starts out with two of the three important attributes for media stardom: impact and intimacy. With rare exception, all of us eat every day, so food has enormous, universal impact. It is involved in, and affects, our lives every day. And, it is very intimate. We touch it and it touches us. We eat it and it becomes part of us. It affects our bodies, and our emotions.

Intrinsically, then, nutrition only lacks volatility to be a media darling. No problem. Volatility is appended.

I would like to say I'm surprised that a study published this week in Cell Metabolism examining effects of varying protein intake in people and mice generated headlines around the world. I would like to be surprised that a study designed to corroborate what we already knew was treated as if it had somehow rocked the planet. But honestly, I'm not at all surprised. We seem to like nothing better than treating each new diet study, however limited, flawed, or incremental as a rewrite of dietary scripture. That's volatility.

If the stock market rose or fell the same percentage every day, it would be dull as dishwater. What makes the stock market almost as interesting as the weather is volatility. The news cycle feeds on, and feeds us, triumph, disaster, scandal and salvation. We are afflicted when comfortable, comforted when afflicted. Volatility is the common denominator.

Did this new study deserve to rock the planet? From my perspective, not remotely. Certainly, I can't tell where headlines clamoring that "eating animal protein may be as harmful as smoking" came from. The only mention of smoking in the study itself is as a factor controlled in multivariable analysis.

The study in question did two things. First, it looked at varying protein intake as reported in a single 24-hour dietary recall by just under 6,400 adults age 50 and older who participated in a national survey called NHANES III. It then compared health outcomes over a span of up to 18 years to variation in protein intake, accounting for some other behavioral factors such as smoking, and in particular, taking age into account. The second thing the investigators did was study variable protein intake levels in mice, with attention to effects on growth hormone and related factors.

The reported findings were that higher intake of animal protein was generally associated with higher risk of chronic disease and premature death. But, of course, there was really no way to separate higher intake of animal protein from the animal foods that delivered them, and also no way to unbundle the effect of a higher percentage of calories from animal foods from the effect of a lower percentage of calories from plant foods. So far, the new study basically reaffirms the notion that eating mostly plants is associated with reduced risk of chronic disease and premature death -- a well established, and even clearly articulated notion.

The study went on to suggest that higher protein intake started looking advantageous after age 65. But of course, it's not very likely that what's good (or bad) for us at 63 suddenly turns bad (or good) for us at 66. Rather, it's likely that older people who are impaired, or ill, or homebound are excessively dependent on canned goods rather than fresh foods -- be they plant or animal. It may be that we need a bit more protein to hang on to our muscle mass as we age, but it's at least as likely that those of us who remain robust keep eating accordingly, and those of us who start to fail also fail to maintain a balanced diet. This was an observational study, not an intervention trial, and thus cannot establish cause-and-effect relationships; it can only point out associations.

So, as noted: hard to account for the massive media uptake. Except for this: Some of the most popular dietary dogma du jour inveighs against eating certain plant foods, and encourages liberalized intake of meat. This was a terrific opportunity to rock us all back the other way -- and that predictably meant headlines, and hyperbole.

Such contrived volatility in the world of nutrition may seem like good spectator sport, but it is not a friend to public health. The longer we spend bouncing from belief to belief, the more time we squander without acting on what we actually do know. Our understanding of nutrition is comparably far from cluelessness as it is from perfection. We have a lot to learn, but know a lot of fundamentals already. What we need to learn will come from the incremental aggregation of research findings, not from treating the related science like a Ping-Pong ball.

As long we impart to nutrition the mediagenic volatility associated with the weather, we can all but guarantee that our understanding of what is good for us will remain very much clouded over. There will also be a very high chance of us acting like meatheads -- and being fed a steady diet of headlines accordingly.


Dr. Katz has been recognized as one of the most influential people in Health and Fitness (#13 in 2013) by He has authored three editions of a nutrition textbook for health care professionals.

Dr. David L. Katz;