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The protein in meat could be just as much of a factor in the prevalence of global obesity as sugarTaryn/Flickr

A study conducted by the University of Adelaide suggests that the protein in meat could be just as much of a factor in the prevalence of global obesity as sugar.

"While we believe it's important that the public should be alert to the overconsumption of sugar and some fats in their diets, based on our findings we believe meat protein in the human diet is also making a significant contribution to obesity", said Professor Maciej Henneberg, head of the Biological Anthropology and Comparative Anatomy Research Unit.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that more than 1.9 billion adults across the world are overweight, with around 600 million of these defined as obese. Obesity is caused by consuming more calories than are expended, and is often exacerbated by an increased intake of energy rich foods, and/or a lack of physical activity.

Although meat is considered a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals, current dietary guidelines often suggest limiting the intake of red and processed meats which are high in saturated fats in order to lower the risk of heart disease, bowel cancer and to maintain healthy cholesterol levels.

However, while the fat content of some meat is regularly highlighted as a contributor to obesity, protein is often overlooked. Ph.D. student Wenpeng You, who conducted the study and recently presented the findings at the 18th International Conference on Nutrition and Food Sciences in Zurich said: "We believe the protein in meat is directly contributing to obesity.

"Whether we like it or not, fats and carbohydrates in modern diets are supplying enough energy to meet our daily needs.

"Because meat protein is digested later than fats and carbohydrates, this makes the energy we receive from protein a surplus, which is then converted and stored as fat in the human body."

The research examined the correlation between meat consumption and obesity rates in 170 countries.

"After correcting for differences in nations' wealth (Gross Domestic Product), calorie consumption, levels of urbanisation and of physical inactivity, which are all major contributors to obesity, sugar availability remained an important factor, contributing independently 13 percent, while meat contributed another 13 percent to obesity," Henneberg stated.

"Our findings are likely to be controversial because they suggest that meat contributes to obesity prevalence worldwide at the same extent as sugar," Henneberg added.

The research has been published in the Journal of Nutrition & Food Sciences and BMC Nutrition.