For years, public health officials have urged Americans to cut back on eating red meat and processed meats due to cardiovascular health, cancer risk, and other health concerns. But now, a new report from a panel of researchers is saying otherwise—and it’s causing confusion.
The new guidelines, released Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine, say that there’s no need to cut back on red and processed meats.
This advice comes from fourteen researchers from seven countries, who looked at previously published studies to assess the links between red and processed meats and the risks of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. From that information, they concluded that the quality of the evidence connecting red meat to disease was low to very low.
The researchers also looked at consumers’ attitudes toward eating red and processed meats. They found that people enjoy it, and are reluctant to reduce their consumption. Based on their analysis they say that most adults should continue to eat their current levels of red and processed meat. It should also be noted that researchers say their report was not funded by any external sources. However, the Washington Post reports that the group has a partnership with an arm of Texas A&M University partially funded by the beef industry.
FYI: Many other experts disagree with the new recommendations.
The guidelines have triggered a bit of an uproar amongst other researchers and health organizations who disagree with not only the group’s conclusions, but also the methods used to reach them. Dr. Frank Hu, chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, deemed the report irresponsible. Harvard has even devoted a page on their website to refuting the new recommendations.
They point out that the group’s meat-friendly conclusions contradict evidence found within their own meta-analysis. Hu also says that the methodology the group used to scrutinize the previously published data is inappropriate for nutrition research.
The Harvard page goes as far as to say that the guidelines are inconsistent with the principle of “first do no harm.” They deem the conclusions at odds with the large body of research which indicates that a higher intake of red meat—especially processed red meat—is in fact associated with higher risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, and premature death.
Those health risks associated with red and processed meat consumption are actually a big deal.
In a 2019 study published in The BMJ, Harvard scientists calculated that an increase in total red meat consumption of at least half a serving a day (about 1.5 ounces) was associated with a 10% higher death risk. They conclude that even a modest reduction in red meat intake could result in approximately 200,000 fewer deaths a year in the US. Red meat has also been shown to increase “bad” LDL cholesterol, and negatively impact blood pressure and artery stiffening, per a 2016 study in the Journal of Internal Medicine.
Cooked red meat and processed meats are also sources of cancer-causing substances. In fact, the World Health Organization declared that processed red meat is a carcinogen, with a strong link to colon cancer. Their data revealed that every daily 50-gram portion of processed meat–that is, meat that's been cured, salted, smoked, or preserved, including ham, bacon, and sausages–ups the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. A 50-gram portion is a little under two ounces, or about two breakfast sausage links. The WHO says it's as certain that these foods cause cancer as they are certain that cigarettes cause cancer.
As for type 2 diabetes, as many as one in three US adults will have the disease by 2050 if current trends continue, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A study based on Harvard data, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that men and women who increased their red-meat consumption by more than half a serving per day increased their risk of developing diabetes over the subsequent four years by 48%. By contrast, those who reduced their red meat consumption by more than a half-serving per day lowered their risk of developing diabetes by 14%.
Red and processed meats also have a big effect on the environment.
A major factor not addressed in the new seemingly pro-meat report is the impact of red meat on the planet. The researchers stated that this was outside the scope of their guidelines, but it shouldn’t be. Climate change is a major public health emergency, per the CDC. In addition to extreme weather, the climate crisis impacts food security, water safety, air pollution, and diseases carried by insects.
Research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concludes that the environmental impact of beef production is significantly greater than that of dairy, poultry, pork and eggs. Beef production requires more land and water, and produces more greenhouse emissions.
The EAT-Lancet Commission, a comprehensive report put together by over 30 world-leading scientists, is devoted to assessing the impact of what we eat on human health, and the health of the planet. Their recommendations, referred to as the Planetary Diet, advise minimizing meat, and increasing intakes of produce, legumes, and nuts. For example, the recommended limit for red meat is no more than about three ounces per week, roughly the size of a deck of cards.
So, what should you, as consumers do about your red meat consumption based on these new findings?
Basically, ignore them—it’s still wise to cut down as much as you can on your red and processed meat consumption.
That said, you don’t have to completely give up red meat if you don’t want to, but for your own personal health and the health of the planet you should be minimizing it. This is particularly true for processed red meats like bacon, pepperoni, sausage, and the like. Dozens of studies consistently support this, and one flawed analysis doesn’t negate that.
In my practice I see dramatic improvements in health outcomes among my clients who reduce or eliminate red meat, including better cholesterol and blood pressure, weight and fat loss, and enhanced digestive health. However, what you replace red meat with is important. Trading a steak for a bowl of mac and cheese isn’t an upgrade; and it’s the overall eating pattern, rather than just one food, that truly impacts human and planetary health. Build in more produce, pulses, whole grains, nuts, and seeds, opt for water over sugary drinks, and nix highly processed foods.
If you really love red meat eat think of it as a treat and eat it occasionally. Or try to satisfy your meat cravings with a pea protein based meat substitute, like Beyond Meat. Even if the calorie and saturated fat contents parallel meat, it’s still a better choice for the planet, and you don’t expose your body to the heme iron and nitrates found in processed red meats, which are the compounds linked to cancer risk.
Bottom line: disregard the new report. Contrary thinking is great for generating headlines, raising questions, and opening up a dialogue. But in this case it does not merit a change in direction.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a nutrition consultant for the New York Yankees.
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