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Is Meat OK to Eat Now? Do Food Flip-Flops Make You Mad?

Public health experts have told us for decades that red meat causes heart attacks and cancer. But new studies question that dogma. Is meat OK after all?

There’s another huge reversal in dietary advice. This is the biggest yet! First we were told to avoid eggs, and then we learned eggs are just fine. We were warned to use margarine instead of butter, and then it turned out that trans-fats in most margarines were worse for our health than butter. For decades we’ve been told that eating red meat, especially processed meat, is almost tantamount to a death wish. Is red meat OK after all? Are you thoroughly confused or do these flip-flops drive you crazy?

Have You Read the Headlines?

Depending upon your news service you could read very different accounts of the latest research. Is meat OK or bad for your health. Here are just a handful of conflicting headlines:

“Is meat really that bad for you?” (BBC, Oct. 3, 2019)

“Steak is back on the menu, if a new review of risks of red meat is to be believed” (Reuters, Sept. 30, 2019)

“Red and processed meat are OK to eat, controversial new guidelines claim. Don’t believe it, leading experts say” (CNN Sept. 30, 2019)

“New Studies on Red and Processed Meat Are a Big, Fat Nothingburger” (Union of Concerned Scientists, Oct. 2, 2019)

“Eat Less Red Meat, Scientists Said. Now Some Believe That Was Bad Advice” (New York Times, Sept. 30, 2019

What Does the Research Reveal? Is Meat OK?

The current issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine (Oct. 1, 2019) has created an epic earthquake in nutrition land. It presented four different analyses of nutritional data showing that any health hazard from eating red meat is modest at best. Here is a link to an editorial in the Annals. It is written by Dr. Aaron Carroll and Dr. Tiffany Doherty and  provides a thoughtful overview of the data: 

1) One meta-analysis reviewed the results of 100 studies including a total of 6 million participants. It revealed that dietary patterns, including the amount of meat people usually consume, don’t have a big impact on people’s likelihood of getting cancer and dying prematurely.

2) Another analysis looked at cohort studies that considered how reducing red meat consumption affects the risk of cancer and early death. It too involved 6 million people in 118 studies. It showed only a small benefit from reducing the amount of meat people eat.

3) A third study looked at cardiovascular consequences of eating meat. You guessed it: the risk in these cohort studies was tiny.

4) Finally, the researchers analyzed results from randomized controlled trials comparing diets with different amounts of meat. Such studies are considered the gold standard for medical research. In these 12 studies, red meat had:

“little or no effect on major cardiometabolic outcomes and cancer mortality and incidence.”

Nutrition Establishment Fights Back! Meat OK? Not on Your life!

The backlash has been intense. Many nutrition scientists strongly disagree with the conclusions of these analyses. Public health organizations have been calling for reduced consumption of red meat for decades.

NPR offered the following quotes from renowned nutrition experts: 

“’I am outraged and bewildered,’ says nutrition scientist Christopher Gardner, a professor of medicine at Stanford University. 

“’This is perplexing, given the … clear evidence for harm associated with high red meat intake,’ says Frank Hu, the chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“Gardner and Hu are among a group of scientists who signed a letter to the journal’s editor requesting the papers be held pending further review. Others include Dariush Mozaffarian, the dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts University, as well as Eric Rimm and Dr. Walter Willett, also of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.”

Our Conflict of Interest:

We have interviewed Dr. Walter Willett and Dr. Christopher Gardner many times on our syndicated public radio show.  We have also spoken with Dr. Mozaffarian. We appreciate their research and understand their outrage. They have all been strong advocates of a plant-based diet. We have also interviewed Dr. Aaron Carroll who co-wrote the editorial in the Annals of Internal Medicine

That said, we try to remain objective about new research. We admit that we are not always successful, but we do try. Is meat OK? Listen to our interview with Dr. Aaron Carroll to get his perspective on a variety of “risks,” including bacon and wine. He will explain in understandable language how to make sense of various kinds of research including case-control studies and randomized controlled trials. You will also learn about absolute risk and relative risk. Find out about the pros and cons of wine and spirits. Here is a link to the free podcast.

Show 1141: Which Health Risks Should You Worry About?

So, Is Meat OK or Not?

As we mentioned, Dr. Carroll co-authored a very sensible editorial in this month’s Annals of Internal Medicine. He puts the new research into perspective.

Here are a few of the observations the editorial provides:

“There is controversy over whether consumption of meat, and what kind of meat, leads to poor health outcomes, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. Although many studies report health risks, many—some even examining the same data sets as those reporting a significant risk—do not. Some reviews of the literature conclude that processed meat is carcinogenic, and red meats are ‘probably carcinogenic’. Other reviews conclude that evidence supporting the association between red meat consumption and colon cancer and cardiovascular disease is weak.”

Dr. Carroll and his colleague carefully analyze the four new studies in the Annals of Internal Medicine that conclude reductions in red meat consumption have marginal health benefits. There are also new guidelines in the journal that do not recommend red meat reductions.

The editorialists note:

“This is sure to be controversial, but it is based on the most comprehensive review of the evidence to date. Because that review is inclusive, those who seek to dispute it will be hard pressed to find appropriate evidence with which to build an argument.”

“Research suggests that presenting an individual with information that opposes their beliefs could result in them holding on more tightly to those beliefs.”

The authors also point out that there are other reasons besides health that might inspire people to reduce their meat consumption. Animal welfare and environmental conditions are both considerations. Here is an article in The New York Times that Dr. Carroll has also written about this very issue (New York Times, Oct. 1, 2019). 

The Real Problem With Beef

Reader Feedback Welcome:

What do you think? Is meat OK or should it be shunned? Who should decide food policy? Should decisions be based on science or beliefs? Are you fed up with food flip-flops? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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