Lots of people would love to hear that they can eat all the bacon cheeseburgers they want and be totally healthy, and a recent report pretty much said that. But is it true?
Dietary guidelines from health organizations have long advised limiting the amount of red and processed meat you eat to help reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and other conditions. But a recent report challenges those recommendations, and in fact appears to give permission to eat as much meat as you like.
The report, in the Annals of Internal Medicine, is a collection of meta-analyses, a type of study that reviews data from previous studies. The authors looked at over 200 studies on the health effects of meat consumption and rated their quality. Although the researchers found some health benefits to eating less meat, they concluded that the quality of the evidence was weak. Therefore, they gave this recommendation: Continue eating the amount of meat you currently eat.
This recommendation has puzzled and frustrated (maybe even angered), many nutritionists and physicians. Nutrition studies are harder than most drug studies because they tend to be observational studies. It is difficult to do a long term randomly controlled trial with food over the long term. With observational studies, you can, for example, compare the health of vegetarians to those who eat red meat, but it is a bigger leap to say that greater health in vegetarians is due to not eating meat, or perhaps, more antioxidants, exercising more, or the fact that they do other things to improve health etc. And, in fact, the authors of this study excluded studies comparing vegetarians to red meat eaters.
Nevertheless, many studies DO show health benefits to eating less red meat, even some of those included in this analysis (hence the puzzlement). The chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Frank B. Hu, M.D., said “These flawed analyses and recommendations will likely cause a great deal of confusion in the public and may do damage to current public health recommendations.”
“These flawed analyses and recommendations will likely cause a great deal of confusion in the public and may do damage to current public health recommendations.”
Frank B. Hu, M.D. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
The authors of this study rated the nutrition studies they reviewed using a system called GRADE, which ranks observational research as low-quality. And based on that analysis, the study authors concluded that any health effects due to eating meat were uncertain. But, as mentioned earlier, you really can’t effectively do long term random controlled trials with nutrition, but that fact doesn’t make observational studies useless. When you have many, many observational studies that conclude the same thing, there is likely a strong probability that it is a reliable conclusion.
The findings of the current meta-analyses show that there are indeed health benefits to eating less red meat and that those benefits aren’t necessarily negligible. Using data from one of the meta-analyses, Hu (from Harvard’s School of Public Health) says it found that a diet low in red and processed meat is associated with a 14 percent lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease, an 11 percent lower risk of death from cancer, and a 24 percent lower risk of type 2 diabetes.
Taking estimates of current red and processed meat consumption into account, he says that a moderate reduction could reduce mortality by 7.6 percent, or about 200,000 deaths per year. “Even if only half of the reduction is real, that’s still of huge public health significance,” he says.
How Much Meat Should You Eat?
I think there still is plenty of worthy research to allow controversy over this question. But, processed meat is classified as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization so I think it would be difficult to recommend eating it more than occasionally (sorry bacon lovers!) If you like other red meat, follow the current guidelines of no more than 2 – 4 servings a week (of only 3 – 4 ounces, not a half pound burger or steak!) And less is probably best. If we can start thinking of meat as a condiment, and not the main part of our meal, we would likely consume more vegetables and fruit, which is clearly associated with better health.