- People may enjoy eating meat — but are the health risks worth it?
- Andrea Leelike/SpoonUniversity
- New dietary guidelines published September 30 suggest people should continue eating red meat and processed meat, contrary to previous evidence that they increase risk of cancer, heart disease, and other illnesses.
- The new recommendations are based on a review of research showing that health benefits of eating less meat are “very small” and are supported by weak evidence. Plus, people find it difficult to cut back on meat eating, the authors said.
- Other nutrition professionals said these conclusions are contradictory, flawed, and “irresponsible.” They argued the review is problematic for several reasons, including that the authors are mostly statisticians, not health professionals.
- Major health and nutrition organizations stand by their recommendations to limit red, and especially processed, meats to support long-term health.
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Most people are familiar with the common health advice to avoid red meat and processed meat, since they’ve been linked to a higher risk of cancer, heart disease, and other illnesses.
However, new guidelines published September 30 in the Annals of Internal Medicine call that advice into question.
The report was developed by a panel of international researchers who conducted five reviews of available research on meat-eating, including its impact on cancer risk and cardiovascular health, as well as people’s attitudes toward meat. In total, the researchers looked at more than 100 studies including more than 6 million people, according to an editorial on the research.
Surprisingly to most of the medical and nutrition community, the panelists found that eating less meat was linked to only a very small reduction in health risks. They also concluded that the evidence that link is based on is uncertain and may not exist at all. In addition, the researchers found meat eaters tended to highly value their carnivorous habits, and would be unlikely to change.
Read more: Vegetarians and vegans may have a higher risk of stroke than meat eaters, but carnivores have a higher risk of heart disease
The guidelines, however, have attracted controversy from public health experts and nutritionists, who say the information is misleading, the conclusions are unwarranted, and the guidelines themselves are “irresponsible.” In other words, you may not want to reach for the bacon just yet.
The guidelines suggest health benefits of cutting down on meat may be minimal
The report’s “weak” recommendation to continue eating meat is based on the following main points, according to Bradley Johnston, lead author of the study and associate professor of community health and epidemiology at Dalhousie University in Toronto.
- Eating three fewer servings of meat a week leads to only a very small decrease in health risks, according to the research.
- The link between meat eating and health risks is very uncertain, based on analyses of prior research methodology.
- Most people who eat meat enjoy it, feel it has a positive impact on their health, and said they would have difficulty preparing healthful and appetizing meals without meat, according to a survey of people’s values and opinions on meat-eating.
“When we’re faced with evidence that’s low certainty, in the face of what people value, we made a weak recommendation [to continue eating meat,] which means people should make their own decisions based on potential risks,” Johnston said. “We hope this will lead to more informed decision making by the public.”
- Health experts still say to limit meat, especially the processed kind, for your health.
- Joe Gough/Shutterstock
But other experts say the recommendations contradict the report’s findings
Dr. Frank Hu, chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, is one of many health and nutrition experts that have beef with the guidelines. For one, he said the review actually supports current guidelines against eating meat.
Read more: 8 foods to avoid if you want to reduce your chances of cancer, diabetes, and early death
“Their guidelines actually contradict their own data,” Hu told Insider. “They basically confirmed what we’ve known from previous studies, that high intake of meats is associated with increased risk of mortality, cardiovascular risk, some cancers, and diabetes.”
And yet, “they dismiss these results based on the limitations of some contributing research methods,” Dr. Nigel Brockton, vice president of research at the American Institute for Cancer Research, said in a statement issued with other health organizations in response to the new guidelines.
“We believe this is not in the best public interest,” Brockton continued. “Regularly eating processed meat, and higher consumption of red meat, increases your risk of colorectal cancer; suggesting that there is no need to limit these foods would put people at risk of colorectal cancer and further undermine public confidence in dietary advice.”
The study may also be misleading in its evaluation of evidence
In their statement, the AICR and other health organizations also point out that calling the link between meat eating and health risks “uncertain” is a confusing assessment.
The research panel used a system known as GRADE to determine the quality of the prior evidence linking meat eating and health. However, Hu explained that the GRADE method was designed for prescription drug trials, not nutrition research.
“This system is not appropriate for most dietary and lifestyle factors because those aren’t amenable to large, randomized controlled trials,” he said.
For example, a high-quality study by the GRADE standard would involve assigning a group of people to eat large amounts of meat for five years or more, then seeing if it made them sick, Hu explained. “It wouldn’t be feasible and may be unethical,” he said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture standards for evaluating nutritional research already exist, according to Hu, but that’s not what the panel relied on.
Hu also questioned the credibility of the panel itself, a majority of whom are methodologists who specialize in research methods and statistics, not nutrition. “It’s very strange because the so-called new guidelines are issued by a self-appointed panel not from any national or international organization,” he said. “And it’s very usual for statisticians to issue nutrition guidelines.”
- It takes a lot of environmental resources to produce meat.
- Scott Bauer – United States Department of Agriculture
The study doesn’t address the environmental impact of meat eating
Another critique: The research panel determined that environmental impact and animal welfare concerns were “outside the scope” of the health recommendations.
Meat production has been proven to be a significant source of greenhouse gasses and contributes to other environmental damage by using a huge amount of natural resources like land and water.
As a result, Hu said, it’s an important consideration, since the health of planet will most certainly affect the health of its occupants. “When you issue meat guidelines, it’s really a missed opportunity that environmental concerns are not addressed,” he said.
Most experts still recommend limiting red and processed meat
Despite the new report, health experts continue to urge people to limit their meat consumption. The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health estimates that a moderate reduction in meat eating could prevent up to 200,000 deaths a year in the U.S. alone.
The AICR also stands by its conclusion that the best available evidence consistently links eating red meat, and especially processed meat, with a higher risk of cancer.
“Anything associated with health risks, we need to be cautious. I think this [new report] is very irresponsible from both a scientific and public health point of view,” Hu said. “It’s very odd to say that because meat eaters enjoy meat, we shouldn’t ask them to change their behavior.”
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