Why smoking is (still) the worst thing you can do for your health

When I saw the headlines claiming that eating a high protein diet was ‘as bad for you as smoking’, I snorted and got on with my breakfast. I know that a headline like that is likely to be based on spin, over-inflation of some observational study results and a slow news day. There were more important things happening in the world.

Then I saw my Twitter and Facebook feeds. People were genuinely concerned, confused and upset by the news stories. People who were trying hard to reach a healthy weight, follow a decent diet and be as healthy as possible. People who have no reason to doubt what they’re told by researchers or health journalists.

I won’t do an analysis here, because NHS Choices’ Behind the Headlines has got it covered in their piece here. It’s a prime example of asking about just one factor (in this case the proportion of protein in people’s diet) and doing a crude analysis of the mortality statistics. It tells you little about the other habits of the people in the study. Did their protein come from lean chicken, or from fried burgers? Did they have a healthy green salad alongside, or a pile of chips? Did they pick up their meal at the drive-through takeaway, or cook it themselves after cycling home from the gym? No idea.

Worse, the results were ‘cherry-picked’. So overall, for all age groups, eating moderate or high amounts of protein was not linked to higher death rates. For people over 65, eating a high protein diet was linked to a lower likelihood of dying. For only one group – those aged 50 to 65, it was linked to a higher likelihood of dying. When the results are all over the place like this, I’m immediately suspicious.

Worst of all, the comparison with smoking – which was made in the press release – was not based on anything in the study. It was a crude comparison between the link to increased death rates in their study, and in other studies looking at smoking. It’s not a valid comparison, because the people in the studies are not the same. And, as NHS Choices point out, ‘We need to eat protein. We do not need to smoke’.

Many, many studies have repeatedly found that smoking causes disease and early death. This one study about high protein diets does not trump those years of patient research. If you do just one thing for your health on No Smoking Day, make the decision to stop smoking. Want to know what will help you stop? See BMJ Best Health’s Stop Smoking topic for more details.

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