Nutrition science is constantly evolving, but one debate that has notoriously raged on is whether red meat is bad for you. Now, things are getting especially heated: A new set of analyses were published on Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine in which scientists challenged the ubiquitous recommendations that advise people to cut back on red and processed meats.
This is especially dramatic because the 14 researchers behind the series of studies are disputing guidelines from nearly every major health group, including the American Heart Association, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), and the U.S. government’s dietary guidelines panel. These organizations have historically been advocates for decreasing meat consumption in order to decrease disease risk and attain better overall health.
The new research
The five papers published in Annals took a different approach. The typical nutritional science research surrounding red meat has long been broad, case-controlled, and observational. These authors, instead, declined to factor into their research the environmental and social effects of meat consumption, and zeroed in on only the health effects caused by both processed and unprocessed meats.
To do this, researchers performed meta analyses and systematic reviews that examined a multitude of studies in order to form more solidified conclusions. They were strict in what they allowed to be reliable evidence. They relied on a research-rating system called GRADE (short for the Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development, and Evaluation) to determine which studies were most evidence-supported, and thus worthwhile to include in their final papers.
GRADE is currently the most effective and widely used system available to evaluate the quality of science. It pushes reviewers to only use the most concrete evidence available in order to draw their conclusions.
In using this tool, the researchers drew conclusions pertaining to a range of health outcomes previously associated with meat consumption — from deaths due to cardiovascular disease and cancer, type-2 diabetes, stroke, all-cause mortality, and heart attack. They found either no evidence that cutting back on meat would decrease these outcomes, or evidence so minimal that it couldn’t be reliably proven.
Researchers also conducted one review solely focused on the link between meat consumption and quality of life (aka people’s feelings and attachment to eating meat, sans moral, environmental, or ethical reasons for avoiding it). They discovered that many people feel eating meat influences their quality of life, and wouldn’t want to eliminate it for that reason.
Conclusively, the scientists stated that the health benefits of eating less red meat are so faint that they are not impactful enough to advise individuals to minimize their meat consumption.
According to The New York Times, the Annals publications have been met with “fierce criticism by public health researchers” including The American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and other major groups.
In a statement, scientists at Harvard cautioned that the conclusions would “harm the credibility of nutrition science and erode public trust in scientific research”, while Dr. Frank Sacks, past chair of the American Heart Association’s nutrition committee, called the research “fatally flawed,” the Times reported.
However, the authors of the Annals papers are taking a more neutral approach in their statements, admitting that there is truly no way to be 100% certain if decreasing meat consumption would benefit an individual’s health or not.
“There may be a benefit [from] reducing your intake of red or processed meat, and people should know that,” Bradley Johnston, one of the authors of the new analyses told NPR. “[On the other hand,] there may not be a benefit at all. We’re uncertain.”
The editor of Annals of Internal Medicine, Dr. Christine Laine, concurred, telling NPR that using the GRADE evaluation in order to publish these new findings simply revealed that the quality of the recommendations to cut down on red and processed meats weren’t as strong as they’ve been credited to be. “We should just be transparent,” Laine told NPR. “I think we should be honest with the public that we don’t really know.”
What this means for you
Clearly there is much uncertainty and dispute as to how this new information affects the public, and even the validity of nutritional science as a whole. And, holistically, the debate comes down to whether it’s actually possible to establish the concrete effects of a singular component of the human diet.
So what does this mean for you? Perhaps it might be beneficial to do your own research, both in scrutinizing the existing science and in turning inwards to listen to your own body and its cues. “As you age, your body and life change, and so does what you need to stay healthy,” states the The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).
Could it be that there is such a myriad of conflicting evidence available at our fingertips in the current age that we’ve forgotten how to attune ourselves to the body’s innate wisdom? Nutrition science has never been and likely never will be black and white. So, if you take away anything from this newest debate, maybe it’s setting aside time to reflect: On your values when it comes to the environment, and on your ability to mindfully nourish yourself, move your body, and practice self-care.
No single set of dietary guidelines will work for everyone, and at the end of the day, making your own informed decisions alongside a medical professional is indispensable.