Keep Eating Red and Processed Meat, Scientists Say in Controversial Recommendation

An international team of scientists claim there is little evidence to show that cutting red or processed meat is beneficial to the average person's health—a controversial finding that other experts warn could confuse the public.

After reviewing existing evidence, the team of researchers from seven countries argued that adults can continue consuming unprocessed red meat at current average levels, three to four times per week in North America and Europe, based on potential health effects. The team concluded there was only a very small and uncertain link between eating three or fewer servings of red or processed meat a week and a decreased risk of cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

The study, published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, included randomized trials involving around 54,000 people, as well as approximately 180 cohort studies with over 6 million participants in total.

Most evidence used to back up the advice that ditching red or processed meat is beneficial to health is of low quality, according to the authors, while acknowledging the limits of their own research. Rather than giving a green light to eat an unlimited amount of bacon, the authors criticized the method of research often used as the basis for dietary guidelines: observational studies.

This approach sees researchers observing the relationship between risk factors, such as eating red meat, and outcomes in a population without intervening or conducting any experiment. Instead, researchers examine subjects under their normal living conditions.

While observational studies are useful, scientists can uncover misleading patterns. It might appear a specific behavior is linked to a certain outcome, when in fact something else is at play. (For example, some studies indicate that many people who eat a lot of red meat are also more likely to smoke.) They also rely on participants being honest with researchers about what they have eaten over a period of time.

The findings stand in contrast to dietary guidelines from a range of major bodies, including the U.S. Department of Health, which recommends adults eat no more than one serving of red or processed meat each week. And the World Health Organization concluded in 2015 that red meat is "probably" a carcinogen and processed meat is carcinogenic.

Study co-author Bradley Johnston, associate professor in the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, told Newsweek that most people who eat red meat at average levels should feel free to continue.
"For most people who enjoy eating meat, the uncertain health benefits of cutting down are unlikely to be worth it," Johnston said.

Johnston stressed the study focused exclusively on health. Panel members were "sympathetic to animal welfare and environmental concerns, with a number of the guideline panel members having eliminated or reduced their personal red and processed meat intake for these reasons," he said.

Some nutrition experts said the findings should be regarded with caution.

The Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health released a statement in response to the recommendation, arguing it was "unfortunate" and "may potentially harm patients' health, public health, and planetary health."

Dr. Frank B. Hu, professor and chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Newsweek he was "surprised" by the conclusion.

Hu said the work was conducted by "people who are mostly not doing nutrition research, and the methodology was designed for drug trials but is inappropriate for nutrition studies." He also questioned why a number of trials that suggest there are benefits in cutting red meat were not included in the review.

He argued the findings in fact reflect the certainty of the data: a moderate reduction in red and processed meat consumption can reduce the total risk of premature death by 13 percent from the baseline, cardiovascular disease by 14 percent, cancer mortality by 11 percent and Type 2 diabetes by 24 percent.

"These risk reductions are not small from a public health point of view and are actually stronger or comparable to other public health problems, such as low consumption of fruits and vegetables, physical inactivity, passive smoking [and] air pollution," which are based on similar types of data, Hu said.

Cutting down on red and processed meat could "save hundreds and thousands of lives in the U.S.," Hu said, because so many people eat diets high in red and processed meats.

However, other experts argued the recommendation isn't a departure from existing advice.

In an editorial on the research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, Dr. Aaron E. Carroll and Tiffany S. Doherty of the Center for Pediatric and Adolescent Comparative Effectiveness Research at Indiana University School of Medicine wrote that the recommendation was "sure to be controversial, but it is based on the most comprehensive review of the evidence to date."

Frankie Phillips, a registered dietitian and British Dietetic Association spokesperson, told Newsweek the findings fit with the general consensus that eating meat in moderation does not harm health.

"Those who consume a lot of meat still need to reduce their intake," she said. "Three to four days eating meat is not excessive provided the rest of the diet is well balanced."

Dr. Alice H. Lichtenstein, professor of nutrition science and Policy at Tufts University and American Heart Association volunteer, told Newsweek: "Unfortunately, this information will likely confuse consumers."

She argued that "focusing on a single food or category of foods is overly simplistic and serves to misinform the public."

"The American Heart Association continues to recommend that adults should eat an overall healthy eating pattern, which emphasizes vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, whole grains, lean protein and fish, limits foods high in saturated fat and dietary cholesterol, and minimizes trans fats, salt, processed meats, refined carbohydrates and sweetened beverages," she said. "The overall picture is key, not just one food or food group."

Gunter Kuhnle, professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Reading, told Newsweek that he sided with the members of the panel who found there is "probably sufficient, yet weak, evidence to recommend a reduction of intake [of red and or processed meat]."

Fleshing out the criticism of observational studies, Kuhnle explained that the alternative—conducting a study where participants change their diets—is "very difficult and expensive."

"Therefore, we rely on observational data. However, observational data is, of course, limited due to numerous factors," he said. "The take-home message of the study for the public is probably to continue with the current intake based on current dietary recommendations."

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Researchers have questioned whether red meat is harmful to health. Getty