No Need to Cut Back on Meat? Making Sense of the Surprising New Study

If you keep up with food and health news, you probably saw coverage of a recent study on red meat that seemed to give the green light to red meat consumption. But most health authorities recommend limiting the amount of red meat and processed meat. So is meat okay to put back on our daily plates or not? Here’s our take…

Flank Steak with Poblano Sauce

Flank Steak with Poblano Sauce

One Guiding Stars iconOne Guiding Stars indicate good nutritional value. Red meat can be part of a nutritious diet, but current scientific consensus recommends moderating your consumption.

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What was the new meat study all about?

The international research panel that authored the new study conducted four systematic reviews of previously-conducted studies on meat consumption and health outcomes (a fifth review revolved around consumer perceptions and preferences of meat intake, not health). Using an analysis technique, the researchers examined the data from randomized controlled trials as well as observational studies, giving more weight to the controlled trials and less to the observational trials, which can be hampered by inaccuracies in self-reported data. They acknowledge that the randomized controlled trials they included had the limitation of there being very little difference in meat intake between those in the “high consumption” groups and those in the “low consumption” groups. (One might presume that, had a wider range of intakes been represented, that results would have been stronger—there is more likely to be a difference in health outcomes between those who eat red or processed meat every day compared to those who eat it just 1-2 times per week). The panel also didn’t have enough good data to look at whether the method of cooking red meat made any difference in health outcomes—again, one might suspect that it does.

Their overall findings? The panel found that adherence to a meat consumption reduction of 3 servings per week was associated with a very small reduction in cardiometabolic and cancer outcomes. In other words, cutting back on red and processed meat didn’t appear to bring many benefits when it came to heart disease and cancer reduction. So, they put forth a “weak recommendation” that people continue their red meat and processed meat consumption. The “weak” part of the recommendation is due to “uncertainty associated with possible harmful effects and the very small magnitude of effect,” the researchers explain.

What’s the controversy?

Upon learning of this study, plenty of health and nutrition professionals immediately went on record to dispute the new study’s findings and recommendations. On what basis? Well, most health authorities here in the US and worldwide suggest people scale back on their consumption of red and processed meats. Even the US Dietary Guidelines healthy eating patterns advise limiting red meat to about 1 serving per day (especially for men and teen boys who tend to eat more red meat and processed meat in general).

A large body of evidence points to protective associations that support recommendations to decrease meat intake. Previous meta-analyses have rated the strength of evidence supporting the limitation of meat consumption as “moderate.” What’s more, experts have taken the panel to task for what are perceived to be methodological mistakes. For example, the authors used a method to “grade” the strength of studies that was developed primarily for evaluating research on drugs, which for several reasons including diet and lifestyle factors, are typically able to provide stronger evidence of efficacy. Another issue that has arisen is that dose-response relationships were not addressed, which would have provided more information on whether those who ate the most red/processed meat products had worse health outcomes than those who had the least.

What’s the takeaway for consumers?

Of course, flip-flopping health advice always makes for great news, so the media coverage of the new meat study was abundant, with the inevitable result of fueling consumer confusion. To add to the chaos, it was discovered that one of the study’s lead authors had financial ties to the meat industry several years ago. But putting all the hoopla aside, what should we consider when deciding whether to trim back our meat intake or keep it the same?

  • First, science is neither static nor perfect. When nutrition recommendations are upended (remember when eggs were bad for health, then good?), it’s important to remember that it’s the nature of science to change. We learn as we go, and sometimes that means we learn things that are surprising, things that fly in the face of what we thought about our world. That said, there are very few eureka moments in science, and sweeping changes in nutrition recommendations take time.
  • It’s important to look past the headlines. If you really want to understand nutrition science, you need to investigate the study. What are the opinions of other scientists about this study or topic? Scientific disagreement and discourse is part of the process and reminds us to take a long look at the context and the totality of the evidence before making big proclamations that can impact the health of the population.
  • One study shouldn’t dictate huge changes in your eating habits. If you reacted to every study out there, your eating habits would swing wildly back and forth. That is neither healthy nor easy to accommodate in your life.
  • There is a large body of evidence linking red meat and processed meat consumption with chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease, stroke, heart attack and certain types of cancer (such as colorectal cancer). Moderation is usually a wise way to go when it comes to eating habits.
  • You can be well-nourished without meat in your diet, but eating meat in moderation is fine, too. A well-planned vegetarian diet can be perfectly healthy, but so can an omnivorous diet that includes both plants and meat.
  • By the way, this study did not take into account the environmental impacts of meat-eating, so keep that in mind if that’s a consideration for you.