This week a new report said that a diet high in animal protein could increase our chances of dying from cancer or diabetes fourfold. So if protein has joined sugar, fat and carbohydrate in being bad for us, what’s left for dinner?
When my father died of secondary liver cancer, they didn’t have time to find the primary, but assumed it was in his bowel. My stepmother was pleased because she said: “At least nobody can say he drank too much” (to which I replied: “Yeah, unless they’d met him”). On the assumption that it did start in his bowel, we agreed that if there had been any fault at all in his lifestyle, it would have been eating too much red meat. This was in 2004, but the link between red meat, especially processed meats, and cancer of the bowel had been well-established for some time. And who can blame a man for eating too much red meat? You might just as well blame him for singing too loudly in the bath; it’s part of what it is to be an exuberant human, living in fortunate times.
This week, it transpires that red meat doesn’t just cause bowel cancer, but all cancer, as well as heart disease, strokes, almost anything you could file under “early death”. High levels of protein from any animal – nay, any animal source – have been linked (in people under 65) to a fourfold increase in their risk of death from cancer or diabetes, and a near doubling of the risk of dying from any cause over an 18-year period.
Vegans took obvious pleasure in this, the way they can take pleasure in being right in almost all situations, dietary, moral and environmental. But it has piquancy for everybody, starting with a simple reversal of orthodoxy. Red meat, apart from the small matter that it is a carcinogen, has been popular with faddists and weight-loss gurus, as has all protein. The quest for dietary perfection has centred on avoiding carbohydrates, especially refined ones. (I like the way that refinement and process are now basically bywords for nutritional toxicity. In your face, art.)
While the Atkins diet in its strictest sense has been on the slide, mainly I think for being too old for fashion, and for the sheer senselessness of all that cheese, the very-high-protein credo has hung on in other forms, currently the Paleo diet. It’s a lot like the Atkins, except you’re not allowed diet cola. “Yuk! That disgusting aspartame backtaste!” Paleolithic man would have said, if any of us can say for certain what he truly thought. Often characterised as the Anna Wintour 2.0 (famously, she used to have a steak with béarnaise sauce every lunchtime, and never ate anything else), this basically involves, again, a lot of protein, mostly mackerel, judging from the pictures, along with some nuts.
But if all these diets are doubling our chances of dying, should we be worried? First, no, because very few of us stick to them. All those decisions that weren’t really decisions – Oh, go on then, a muffin if you absolutely insist – are instantly vindicated, while perfectionists can be derided and laughed at, and will eventually die of their perfectionism. Second, the overwhelming impression is that, if proteins from animals are no good for you, which almost all of them are, then what are we supposed to eat? Who’s to say that this era isn’t as mistaken as the last? Who’s to say that any advance has any meaning? Why don’t we just eat what we like! Loads of it. Less of it. Who cares? Who knows! Nobody.