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They’re Meaty Headlines, But There’s More Smoke Than Fire

If a scientific study grabs a lot of headlines, you can be pretty sure it’s about food or cancer. If the study covers both, the academics have hit the media jackpot.

Case in point: Google News was crammed Wednesday with headlines warning of deadly protein. Here are some examples:

You get the idea. But here’s the name of the academic paper, published in Cell Metabolism: “Low Protein Intake Is Associated with a Major Reduction in IGF-1, Cancer, and Overall Mortality in the 65 and Younger but Not Older Population.”

If that title seems less snappy, it’s because it introduces important caveats that the words “may” and “could” don’t quite capture. Here’s what researchers actually found:

  • The scientists studied 6,381 men and women older than 50. So, if you’re younger, this data might not relate to you.
  • The people in the study were from the U.S. So, if you’re outside the country, other factors that affect your diet mean that this data might not relate to you.
  • The researchers’ analysis of cancer risk was partly based on a study of mice. So, if you’re not a mouse, this data might not relate to you.

But most important, the study found that low protein intake during middle age, followed by high protein intake in later years, would produce optimal health results. In other words, it found that more meat is better for Americans older than 65. And at no point do the paper’s authors mention whether the cancer risks associated with protein were more or less than those associated with smoking. That little headline gem came out of an interview with a researcher — one of 16 who helped write the report.

Mona Chalabi is data editor at the Guardian US, and a columnist at New York Magazine. She was previously a lead news writer for FiveThirtyEight.