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Atkins diet is almost as deadly as smoking ... that's hard to stomach

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IF it wasn't so serious, it would be funny.

The last-chance diet even the least disciplined could handle – the Atkins – has now had the struts kicked out from under it by new research saying too much protein is as dangerous as smoking.

Now, every day, someone produces research warning the population against eating or drinking something.

The very next day, another researcher surfaces saying, "Don't mind that study published yesterday. Pay not a blind bit of attention to it. Disregard it. It's completely invalid because it involved only five people, none of whom gets out of bed until midday, all of whom live on raw toadstools marinaded in frogspawn."

This latest study is not going to be that easy to dismiss – because of its scale and longevity.

For starters, it tracked thousands of adults for two decades. Now, let's be clear, not all of those people were on the Atkins diet.

Most of them just liked the foods Atkins majors on. Steak. Prawns. Eggs. Protein, in other words. The good stuff, as opposed to all those evil starchy carbohydrates we've all been avoiding like the dietary plague for years.

The bad news is that the protein-junkies, according to this research, are four times as likely to die of cancer as the steak-hating low-protein eaters. Four times.

It's not a complete surprise. Rich proteins and red meats has been associated for a long time with conditions like gout.

More recently, barbecued meats and meats preserved in particular ways scored higher when it came to cancer danger.

But this is the first study to say eating too much protein could kill you.

Nor does it associate excess protein simply with death from cancer.

This American study found people eating considerable amounts of protein 74% more likely than low-protein eaters to die from any cause.

Unless they were older. Lots of protein seems to be good for you, once you hit 65. Up to then, not good at all.

But the fact is that people who try to take care of their diet will find the very idea that anybody could eat too much protein startling. Protein has always been one of the dietary good guys.

Sugar is one of the bad guys. Fats have always been among the bad guys. But worthy protein was at the heart of every diet, whether it was a low calorie or low carb.

PROTEIN

PROTEIN WAS GOOD IN OUR PARENTS' TIME. BUT IT BECAME TEN TIMES AS GOOD WHEN DR ATKINS CAME ALONG.

The Atkins diet essentially said: "Eat meat at every meal if you want to. In addition, have salmon for your elevenses and prawns in the afternoon. Inhale a sausage before bedtime if you get a bit peckish. Just don't eat a spud, a slice of bread, a frond of pasta or a sweet. Stick to protein and fat and the weight will fall off you."

It did, too. If you could stick eating less than 20g of carbohydrate a day, if you didn't mind the fact that your breath caused passersby to swoon and if anybody looked crooked at you, you flew into a tantrum then you would lose weight quickly and without much hunger.

Atkins also cost the earth. Nor was its credibility helped when Dr Atkins himself was found to have weighed 18st when he keeled over dead.

But it worked. Us Atkins addicts were happy.

Until this week anyway, when Dr Valter Longo of the University of Southern California announced that "a high protein diet, particularly if the proteins are derived from animals, is nearly as bad as smoking for your health."

Immediately thereafter, out came the usual brigade, lecturing us that a balanced diet is best.

Of course it is. If we could stick to it. The way we've stuck to Atkins – and have, apparently, shortened our lives in the process.


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