‘Too much meat causes liver damage.’ This was the headline with which the Erasmus Medical Centre announced research results which were said to show that excessive consumption of animal protein increases the chances of fatty liver disease. The study was taken completely out of context in the press release and later in various media, says Sander Kersten, professor of Nutrition, metabolism and genomics.
What was researched?
The study looked at the link between consumption of animal proteins and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. This form of fat accumulation can have a range of causes, with overweight as a major risk factor. But nutrients can play a role too.’
What do you think of the press release about the study?
‘This is a typical example of reporting which does not reflect the research results accurately. This epidemiological study looked at a large group of volunteers, analysing their diet and the incidence of fat accumulation in their livers. Then a link was found between the consumption of animal proteins and fat accumulation in the liver. But you cannot then conclude that there is any causal relation. What is more, it is very difficult in a study like this to separate animal protein from animal fat and other nutrients present in animal foodstuffs.’
Can you give dietary advice on the basis of this study?
‘No. But I do think you can continue research on this link with an intervention study in which you give one group of people animal protein and another group plant protein. And then you must also differentiate between animal protein from eggs, milk and meat. Because it strikes me as unlikely that all animal protein has exactly the same effect.’
Is an intervention study of that sort acceptable?
‘If there are already clear indications that animal proteins lead to accumulation of fat in the liver, it will be hard to get a study like that past the ethical committee. But I think the hypothesis is still so weak at the moment that it should be possible.’