Last week there were new guidelines published in the Annals of Internal Medicine saying that we should continue our current unprocessed and processed meat consumption without limitation. As expected, the internet blew up and social feeds went crazy with images of burgers and bacon.
Then the backlash.
What was interesting about the backlash was that it was not from people advocating for the environment or challenging the horror that is factory farming.
(Side note: the guidelines clearly stated that they were not addressing the environmental or ethical impact so I’m not going to address it in this article. That is not to invalidate it at all – it’s a really REALLY big deal – but today I’m going to focus on the health implications.)
The backlash was from scientists and physicians. And it had more to do with their scientific method and inconsistent conclusions, than cutting out red meat.
If you are interested in the details, keep reading. If you want me to cut to the chase, scroll down to the What do you do with this information section.
What did the study really say?
This was not an additional study, but rather a meta-analysis of a lot of previous studies. They took thousands of studies and narrowed it down to about 130 studies that they deemed valid. Then the weighted the studies based on certain criteria. There has been A LOT of uproar about their methodology for picking data (and the fact that they didn’t include any comparison to plant-based diets), but let’s just assume that it made sense.
After all that they concluded that an increase in red meat consumption is correlated with an increase in death.
I know, super confusing. So why would they come to the same conclusion as all of these other studies and then recommend that people continue eating unlimited amounts of red meat?
Basically, they also concluded that while the data shows a correlation, it is not robust enough to ask people to change their habits. So they want you to stay the course while more research is done.
That is kind of like saying – “We think that secondhand smoke is really dangerous, and we have a lot of people that seem to have died from secondhand smoke, but when we take out certain data we can’t be 100% certain. So, we’re going to need you to wait in that cloudy box at the airport until we figure it all out. Yeah, the one with the camel and cowboy on it. Don’t worry, we’ll come get you.”
No, I’m not saying smoking and red meat are the same, but the logic and rather absurd recommendation isn’t far off.
Is is true more research is needed?
Of course. I’m sure most nutrition professionals would want to see more studies done on how the quality impacts health (i.e. humanely raised grass-fed vs. highly processed). Not to mention how it fits into a more holistic view (i.e. a diet where meat is complimented by plants and exercise vs. refined carbohydrates and a sedentary lifestyle).
However, if you are holding your breath for the perfect conclusive study that will vilify or exonerate meat, I would exhale. As we discussed in What’s All the Egg-citement About?, nutrition research is inherently tricky because of complexity, compliance and ethics.
Still there are a LOT of credible and important studies that point to the health risks of too much red meat. Ignoring them because they aren’t perfect is simply throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
What do you do with this information?
The short answer is there really is no new information. It is the same information, presented in a different way with a pretty confusing recommendation.
To be clear, I eat red meat. I am one of the people that really thrives on more animal protein and feel best when it’s included (this is not true for everyone). I am also excited by people who challenge conventional thinking and see things from a different perspective. In my opinion that is the beauty of the evolving science of nutrition.
This analysis did not do that.
So, if you are looking for evidence that unlimited processed meat is the best thing for your health, I would keep on moving.
Perhaps more importantly, even if you are a meat eater like me, it should be a small part of a big life. That means that nutritionally it should be complimented by a variety of plants, whole grains, nuts, beans and legumes. Lifestyle wise, it should include exercise and emotional support.
Whenever you feel confused by sensationalized information, try zooming out and looking at how it fits into the bigger picture. More often than not, it’s not as overwhelming as it first appears.