So Is Red Meat Good For Us Again Or What?

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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.


Comments

    Climate change theory clearly highlights beef is a major contributor - that within its self makes beef/red meat very unhealthy.

    If anyone is thinking beef is a paleo food and therefore good for you, have a think about how early humans aged the beef in the back of their cave; we think they did not, and re-framed from eating large animals completely. If beef has only been part of our diets for .02% since existence then we need wonder if our bodies can truly accept beef.

    The sensible, unpaid evidence shows us a healthy diet is devoid of red meat.

      The sensible, unpaid evidence shows us a healthy diet is devoid of red meat.

      All evidence is paid for. Scientists don't work for free.

      Just because a study was funded, Does not mean the evidence is false because it does not fall into your ideological views.

      Scientific fact is still Scientific fact no matter who pays for it.

        I think you are correct, I am sure scientist are not working for free, unless it is conducted by a university. I should have elaborated; "Studies paid for by financially interested parties".

        The sugar study paid for by Coke Cola, scientifically proved sugar in large amounts will not harm peoples health. Tell that to the people who developed diabetes who guzzled down fizzy the drinks. Perhaps in this case Scientific fact is twisted truths.

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