It’s that time of year again for family and food — and lots of it! It’s estimated that the average American will consume 4,500 calories on Thanksgiving, and this year will be no different. While most of us are drawn to high protein, high sugar, and high fat holiday fare, a recent study shows that going back for seconds of turkey and ham could increase your risk of developing cancer just as much as smoking.

Researchers from the University of Southern California followed more than 6,000 adults for almost 20 years and found that among those ages 50-65 protein lovers were 74% more likely to die than their low-protein counterparts during that period. Significantly, researchers suggest that animal proteins, rather than plant proteins, are responsible for this relationship. Scientists defined a “high-protein” diet as eating 20% of calories from plant-based and animal-based protein; “moderate” as 10-19% and “low-protein” as less than 10%. One major finding was that that age does matter as middle-agers (50-65 years) who ate only a moderate amount of protein from animal sources were still three times more likely to die of cancer than those dining on a low-protein diet. On the flip side, this study suggests that moderate to high protein consumption in old age (over age 65) is optimal for health.

We already know some potential dangers of excess meat consumption. Research has found that consumers who ate the most processed meat were 67% more likely to develop pancreatic cancer. Another study showed a 38% increased risk of stomach cancer to those who ate as little as one small hot dog or four pieces of bacon a day. This study is the first to show a direct link between high protein and mortality risk. Reducing protein intake from a moderate to a low level reduced the probability of premature death by 21%.

You don’t have to forego your traditional Thanksgiving turkey, but here are some healthy makeover tips and better-for-you ways to enjoy your  holiday feast this year:

  • Fill half your plate with veggies
  • Snack on fresh crudités and fruit before the meal to reduce hunger
  • Make low-fat gravy with unsalted turkey stock, skim milk and fresh herbs
  • Choose white meat over dark

Looking for ways to produce a healthy seasonal meal with less focus on the high-protein turkey?  Middle-agers, try our Butternut Hummus Tartine. Seniors over age 65 … try our Roast Turkey Salad with Cranberry Vinaigrette.

Published November 1, 2014