According to five new meta-analyses, there’s not enough evidence to tell people to avoid eating red meat. Does this mean we’ve been lied to, and steaks were fine all along? Or is this just another flip-flop of the headlines, best ignored?
The answer you get depends on the question you ask
There have been tons of studies over the decades on red meat and health outcomes. Some have found what looks like a link: for example, people who remember eating more red meat over their lifetime have (in some studies) been shown to be more likely to have certain cancers or heart disease.
But that’s still a long way from a conclusion that we shouldn’t eat red meat. Studies can’t actually ask questions like “Is red meat good?” - instead, scientists gather very specific facts, and analyse them in ways that they hope will give us more information.
Real life is messy. Here are a few examples of how messy this question can get: If the red-meat-eaters in your study eat a lot of fast food burgers, is the problem with the meat or with the other fast food they’re eating? Are the red-meat-eaters in your study richer or poorer than the rest of the population? Older or younger? What about the people who eat less red meat — what are they eating instead?
These are hard questions, and there’s just no way to design a study that would answer the question definitively. But one thing we can do is look carefully at a large group of studies, and see if any patterns stand out.
A matter of interpretation
The new analyses didn’t find that red meat is good for us, just that there isn’t strong enough evidence to bother to tell people to stop eating it. Here’s their overall conclusion:
Recommendations: The panel suggests that adults continue current unprocessed red meat consumption (weak recommendation, low-certainty evidence). Similarly, the panel suggests adults continue current processed meat consumption (weak recommendation, low-certainty evidence).
Eat what you want, it says, but even this is a “weak recommendation” based on “low-certainty evidence.” No need to eat more red meat, or less, and they don’t even feel very strongly about whether you continue whatever amount of red meat you’ve been eating. That’s kind of reassuring.
But here’s the thing: this recommendation is based on the exact same science as all the recommendations you’ve read about not eating red meat. Epidemiologist Gid M-K writes:
So the main difference comes from interpretation, rather than the evidence itself. The new studies argue that, since the evidence we have is relatively sparse, we can’t tell people what to do based on the research. ... The argument really boils down to how confident we can be when we say that red meat is bad for your health.
Meanwhile, the researchers and organisations that argue in favour of avoiding red meat can still rely on the same evidence they had in the first place. Nutrition researcher Christopher Gardner, for example, laid out some criticisms of the new analyses on Twitter. He pointed out that some meat-reduction studies are missing, for example. Just as studies can have issues that make them complicated or confusing, so can meta-analyses.
So what should I eat?
One interesting thing about the new analyses is that they included a study looking into whether people actually change their diets when they’re told to. If nobody listens to recommendations, then maybe it’s not worth the effort to loudly make recommendations.
That’s another difference of opinion, though. If there’s a small possible risk to eating red meat, wouldn’t we like to know? Maybe some of us would like to switch to different foods just in case. And you can still absolutely do that.
While scientists argue over the best conclusions to draw from all the research on red meat, many experts are arguing for people to not worry so much about this study, and to focus instead on what we know are healthy eating patterns, and healthy behaviours in general. Gardner pointed out that more vegetables, beans, fruit and fibre are healthy foods to eat, whether or not you need to remove meat from your diet to fit them in. Obesity specialist Yoni Freedhoff shared his brief master list of healthy behaviours, which include “get vaccinated” and “cook from whole ingredients.”
So if you need a rule to follow, try doing all the things you already know are healthy: eating more vegetables and less added sugar, for starters. The new analysis also did not consider environment-related or ethical reasons for avoiding meat, which are valid concerns as well.