For years, doctors, dietitians, and leading health organizations have strongly recommended limiting the consumption of red meat. But a controversial new report, which was published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine, concluded that there's no need to cut back—and experts aren't exactly thrilled about it.
That's because a large body of research has linked reduced red meat consumption to a significantly lower risk of heart disease and certain cancers. "The overall preponderance of evidence shows that cutting back on red and processed meats and shifting to a more plant-based style of eating is generally better for overall health," says Julie Upton, RD, cofounder of Appetite for Health.
The research was put together by NutriRECS, a new international group of nutritionists and health researchers with a mission to "produce trustworthy nutritional guideline recommendations." For the report (a collection of five reviews), a panel of 14 members from the group looked at data from 76 previously-conducted trials that contained more than 800,000 study participants. The direct finding reads as follows:
The certainty of evidence for the potential adverse health outcomes associated with meat consumption was low to very low, supported by the similar effect estimates for red meat and processed meat consumption from dietary pattern studies as from studies directly addressing red meat and processed meat intake.
There was a very small and often trivial absolute risk reduction based on a realistic decrease of three servings of red or processed meat per week.
Translation: The authors of the report conclude that adults should "continue their current consumption of both unprocessed red meat and processed meat," adding that it is a "weak recommendation."
What do doctors and dietitians think about these new red meat "guidelines?"
They're not impressed. First, "there was no new research done for this report," says Scott Keatley, RD, of Keatley Medical Nutrition Therapy, so these guidelines are based on a different interpretation of past studies.
Plus, many experts have never even heard of NutriRecs, says Upton, so their recommendation does not hold the same credibility as trusted associations, like the American Heart Association, World Health Organization, and National Cancer Institute, all of which recommend reducing red and processed meats for overall health.
"Cutting back on red and processed meats is generally better for overall health."
"This study is beyond controversial because it has the potential to misdirect the public in terms of shaping good dietary habits, which is of increasing interest to consumers worldwide," says William W. Li, MD, author of Eat to Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself. "The recommendations of this study fly in the face of the evidence examined by virtually every major organization in the world that is concerned about optimizing health through nutrition."
The actual recommendation also just tells people to continue what they are doing. "That's my main criticism with this," says Jessica Cording, RD, CDN, author of The Little Book of Game Changers. "When you look at public health concerns, what people are currently doing does not seem to be working when you look at the incidence of chronic diseases and illnesses like cancer. That's not a responsible recommendation."
However, the editor of Annals of Internal Medicine, Christine Laine, MD, defended her decision to publish the recommendation in an interview with NPR. She says the report simply shows that the quality of evidence we currently have on the health impacts of red and processed meats isn't as straightforward as many think. "We should just be transparent," Laine told the outlet. "I think we should be honest with the public that we don't really know."
So, is red meat bad for you or not?
Like fat, carbs, sugar, and any other single food group, eating red meat occasionally will not make or break your health. Healthful eating is composed of many moving parts—like veggies, whole grains, fruits, oils, nuts, and more—and the burger you enjoy once a week is really only a small piece of the bigger picture.
"Meat in moderation is safe and is high in iron and protein," says Anton Bilchik, MD, PhD, professor of surgery and chief of gastrointestinal research at John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif. But he is also one of the many experts recognizing that "frequent meat intake increases the risk of several common diseases."
But at the end of the day, all animal products are a great source of protein and other nutrients, says Keatley, including fish, bison, chicken, turkey, eggs, pork, and yep, steak. The decision to consume one or the other is uniquely personal, and offering yet another guideline (a "weak" one at that) will only continue to confuse the public.
With that, the report admits its faults: "This assessment may be excessively pessimistic; indeed, we hope that is the case," the authors write. "What is certain is that generating higher-quality evidence regarding the magnitude of any causal effect of meat consumption on health outcomes will test the ingenuity and imagination of health science investigators."
But Dr. Li says much of the scientific community has already agreed on a conclusion: "While eating small amounts of red meat processed meats is probably not harmful, current excessive consumption levels, as documented by the EAT-Lancet report published in January 2019, clearly show that industrialized nations, including the United States, consume far more meat than is healthy for both individuals as well as for the planet."
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Experts Slam Controversial New Red Meat "Guidelines", Source:https://www.prevention.com/food-nutrition/healthy-eating/a29323347/is-red-meat-bad-for-you/