Nutrition advice is enough to give you whiplash: Eggs are bad for you! Never mind, they're good! Wait, are they bad? Fat is dangerous! No, it's sugar that toxic!
Now, the latest turnabout centers around meat. For years we've been told to eat less red meat and processed meats like bacon and sausage by groups like the American Heart Association. But now a new analysis of studies claims that it's not so bad after all.
A group of researchers from around the world analyzed the existing data on red meat and processed meats and published a series of papers in the Annals of Internal Medicine. They say the evidence is weak that a diet low in red meat and processed meat significantly cuts the risk for things like cancer and cardiovascular disease—and that the current intake of those meats (up to 4 servings a week for most Americans) is actually fine.
But plenty of health professionals and major health organizations say this advice is wrong and even reckless. The American Heart Association says the evidence is actually strong that swapping sources of saturated fat like meat for unsaturated fat does lower risk for heart disease. "Focusing on a single food or category of foods is overly simplistic and serves to misinform the public," says Alice H. Lichtenstein DSc in an AHA statement. The American Cancer Society says they continue to recommend limiting red and processed meats as well, "in order to save lives from cancer."
So when it comes to feeding your kids, who should you believe?
First, it's important to understand why nutrition studies seem to flip-flop so much. Studying what people eat and how it affects their health is notoriously tricky. Researchers usually have to count on people actually remembering what (and how much) they ate—not to mention telling the truth about it. And there's always the chance that other factors, like lifestyle factors and genetics, come into play that affect the results. That's why most studies show an association between things (like eating less meat and having a lower risk of heart disease) not a direct cause-and-effect relationship.
And though it's good to keep an open mind (because to be fair, nutrition recommendations have changed over time), it's wise to be cautious when nutrition advice flies in the face of what major organizations and mainstream recommendations say.
But instead of stressing out over servings of meat, a smarter approach for your family is simply eating a wide variety of foods. That ensures that one food or group of foods doesn't dominate your family’s diet.
"Rather than getting caught up on one food group like meat or a new study, I advise parents to aim for an overall healthy food balance," says Parents advisor Jill Castle, RD. That means serving a lot of different lean protein foods like meat, poultry, fish, and beans as well as lots of plant foods like whole grains, fruits and vegetables, plus dairy (or dairy substitutes if needed)—and not demonizing any food. "Children need a well-rounded diet for good physical growth, but they are developing their relationship with food also. They learn about foods from their day-to-day interactions. Instilling fear or practicing food restriction may encourage an unhealthy relationship with food."
As for me, I'll be sticking with our usual approach: We eat beef once a week, enjoy things like bacon and sausage a few times a month, and have deli meat for sandwiches about once a month. I also make at least one meatless dinner every week, serve lots of fruits and vegetables—and try not to let conflicting nutrition headlines stress me out!
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a Contributing Editor for Parents magazine and a registered dietitian who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition, a "no-judgement zone" all about feeding a family. She is the author of The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids and Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide. You can follow her on Facebook and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.