Is Red Meat Bad for You? Despite the News—Experts Say YES, Less is Best

with Bradley Johnston, PhD, Frank Hu, MD, PhD, Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, and David Katz, MD

Before you start eating more red meat, or feeling less concerned about your health when you do, consider the facts rather than the fantasy offered by poorly reported research, say US experts who are working hard to tell you the truth behind the headlines promising that red meat is really ok. It is not—particularly if your hope to live healthier into your older years. 

We have relied on a mountain of evidence supporting the US dietary guidelines, and experts including the Surgeon General to guide our food choices to prevent chronic diseases and reduce health risks.1,2

Now there's a challenge to the strong recommendation that we should limit our intake of red meat and avoid processed meats in order to lessen the chance of developing chronic conditions like heart disease and cancer. Along comes a group of international researchers who have upended the accepted dietary recommendation on red meat, suggesting that there's no good reason to reduce our consumption.3 Could it be too good to be true? Yes indeed.

Consider your own health risks before eating more red meat.Despite a new recommendation touting red meat, there is good reason to eat less to reduce your risks of developing heart disease and some forms of cancer. Photo: Unsplash

Annals of Internal Medicine Publish New Red Meat Guideline

After reviewing a variety of research studies looking at meat intake, a group from the NutriRECS Consortium concluded that there isn’t enough evidence to suggest that you limit how much meat you eat.4-9  

Their proposal to encourage everyone to continue eating red meat,3 has set off a firestorm of opposition to the group's conclusions, presenting a long list of criticisms of their research methods and the notion that there is no harm in consuming red meat and processed meat products.

"We know that a bad diet is linked to all kinds of negative health effects and there are significant known harms that come even from small effects, yet this group is claiming that the deaths of 305,000 people a year are insignificant," says David L. Katz, MD, founding director of Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, and founder and president of the True Health Initiative based in New Haven, Connecticut. 

The derision has been so strong that leading US health experts, including Dr. Katz, joined forces to urge the editor of the journal, Annals of Internal Medicine, to hold publication of these papers to assure a more thorough review but the journal chose to move ahead anyway.3-8

In effect, the consensus among US experts is that suggesting that everyone can forget about any health concerns regarding meat consumption is irresponsible. In particular, suggesting that processed meats will have no ill effects is patently false, As for red meat, data from the NIH-AARP study, published in the British Medical Journal, found an increased risk of dying from eight chronic diseases including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.9

Diet Research Requires Extra Care When Interpreting Data

To begin with, the grading system used to evaluate the evidence was invalid, say several experts who discussed the findings with EndocrineWeb and were not involved in developing the red meat guideline.

"What is so very troubling,” says Frank Hu, MD, PhD, the Frederick J. Stare Professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology and chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard T. Chan School of Public Health who is a vocal critic of this group’s red meat conclusion, “is that this guideline contradicts the very data they reviewed."  

Take, for example, the association between cured (ie, processed, smoked, salted) meats and cancer. There is strong evidence that the more of these animal products you consume, the greater your risk of developing certain cancers, particularly colon cancer, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund. Information like this was not included in their analysis.

"They abandoned good science to gain headlines and were very successful but no one likes getting cancer or having a heart attack," Dr. Katz tells EndocrineWeb, yet Dr. Johnson and his team are suggesting that it's worth enjoying your beef—your health and wellbeing be damned.

"With this thinking, you might as well use cocaine because if feels good, start smoking, and send your children out to play in the street, essentially ignoring the facts to do what you enjoy," he adds.

Resist Any Temptation to Order a 16-ounce Porterhouse Steak

The recommendation to eat red meat that comes from the NutriRECS Consortium is the result of a review of studies conducted by a team of researchers from Canada, Spain, and Poland. This group conducted five meta-analyses,4-8 which are basically pooling the data from a selection of already published studies and analyzing the results—then issuing a guideline based on their findings.3

Four systematic reviews of the research literature looked at the relationship between meat intake and its impact on various aspects of health,3-7 specifically outcomes for conditions such as heart disease, cancer, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. A fifth meta-analysis looked at people's preferences and values about eating meat.8 Then the 14-member panel voted on recommendations; their decisions, however, were not unanimous.

Overall, the NutriRECS Consortium concluded that most adults should continue to eat their current levels of red meat and processed meat products—which is about three to four times weekly for some people in North America and Europe. The researchers did note that their recommendation is based on ''low-certainty evidence,” and that the data are considered “weak."3  This is very important—issuing a guideline based on inadequate, weak data should raise a red flag, or better, tell you that something is amiss. 

Are you prepared to follow the recommendation knowing all of this?!

As for the basis of this group’s recommendation supporting red meat consumption: After looking a dozen randomized trials, these researchers ignored the science, claiming the risk of heart disease, diabetes, or cancer, is too small to matter.4-7

Yet, in looking at nearly two dozen other diet-related studies, there is more than enough evidence available to support that reducing red meat intake might lead to smaller reduction in heart disease, stroke, heart attack and type 2 diabetes, which they chose to play down.3

Look Closely at the Reasons for Any Health Recommendation

The studies were produced by a group known as the NutriRECS Consortium. They claim to be an independent group with clinical and public health training, according to the co-founder and co-author of the meta-analyses, Bradley Johnson, PhD, associate professor of community health and epidemiology at Dalhousie University, in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

This research group used a recognized research method to evaluate the studies, known as GRADE (Grading of Recommendations, Assessment, Development and Evaluation). According to Dr. Hu, this system is meant to evaluate drugs, not nutritional studies. For most dietary and lifestyle questions, he says, ''we cannot do large, randomized clinical trials for practical and ethical reasons."

It is interesting that Dr. Johnson published a similarly controversial paper suggesting that eating sugar is fine, a few years back,10 which was supported by the International Life Sciences Institute, whose funding came from companies like Coca-Cola, Nestlé, McDonald's, and Pepsi.

When EndocrineWeb asked him where the funding for the research on red meat came from; Dr. Johnson says that they did not accept any outside funding to produce these analyses. Yet, there is no mention of any financial support on their website so how can they afford to do their work?  

Responding to the challenges to their recommendation based on very inferior findings, Dr. Johnston tells EndocrineWeb: "A weak recommendation is an opportunity for the individual to consider the evidence themselves, talk to their physician or nutritionist, and decide for themselves."

The focus of our research, he says, ''was on the individual level rather than public health or societal levels" so their review shows that ''most individuals who reduce their red meat consumption will experience a poorer quality of life, even with a possible but uncertain small decrease in the risk of developing cancer and cardiometabolic outcomes."

Going by this logic, we shouldn't use seatbelts, should talk freely on our cell phones while driving, and bike without helmets—just throw all caution to the wind.

Thus, their determination that eating little red meat will have a negative impact on your quality of life is more opinion than fact, whereas the reverse has been shown by others, including Carson and colleagues—red meat is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, some forms of cancer, and on and on.11

Why the Intense, Negative Reaction from US Experts?

Their analyses have drawn widespread criticism from many US medical and nutrition experts. Dr. Hu tells EndocrineWeb: ''The red meat dietary guideline they issued, which basically tells people that continue with their current red meat consumption habits, I think those guidelines are wrong and not justified, and very irresponsible." The reason, according to Dr. Hu, is the data was interpreted incorrectly.

He also takes issue with the guideline encouraging people to eat meat since it doesn't address the environmental impact of meat consumption. He says: "It's not acceptable to make meat recommendations without considering its known negative impact on the environment." . 

Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, the Paulette Goddard professor emerita of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, agrees, describing the new report as ''a concerted attack on sound dietary guidelines."

"My understanding is that the authors are attempting to apply rigorous scientific methods to nutrition studies," Dr. Nestle, tells EndocrineWeb, which is usually not done for good reason. She is referring to the researchers who attempted to rely on findings from randomized clinical trials (the so-called gold standard for research, in which two treatment or approaches are compared with participants blinded to their assignment) as well as observational studies, which follow people over time to see which approach or treatment appears better.

Dr. Nestle explains that the NutriRECS researchers' aim seems to be to discredit the evidence based on observational studies. "This is a good example of what I call nutritional nihilism, which is an approach that insists that because observational studies [which most diet studies are] are based on self-reported information and necessarily flawed, their conclusions are unscientific and should be challenged." 

She raises several concerns about the study, such as pointing out that while the effects are small, ''that is true of most nutrition studies, in general." Yet, they discounted the significance of the small effect that shows clear benefits that come with eating less meat, she says.

"The authors could just as easily have interpreted their work as suggesting that eating less meat might be useful. This is an example of interpretation bias," continues Dr. Nestle. Other shortcomings of the research, are that the researchers did not consider any studies comparing vegetarians to meat-eaters and excluded studies that looked at the environmental impact of beef consumption, such as the production of methane gases, which poses serious adverse environmental consequences, reinforcing the issue raised by Dr. Hu.

Best Not to Eat Much Red Meat if You Care for Your Health

Dr. Hu's bottom line: ''Follow a healthy dietary pattern," including plant based foods, nuts, seeds and legumes, fruits and vegetables and a diet relatively low in meat. "Eating lean red meat no more than two to three times a week is probably okay for some people," he says, "but it's best to avoid processed meats such as hot dogs, bacon, sausages, and salami—as much as possible."

However, if you have heart disease, type 2 diabetes, or are at risk for other chronic diseases, and want to reduce your risk of developing cancer, choosing a diet limited in lean red meat is clearly in your best interest.

For those with type 2 diabetes, ''it's critical to not overeat [take in too many calories]," including saturated fats, Dr. Nestle says. "The US dietary recommendations still apply—eat largely, but not necessarily exclusively, a plant-based diet and avoid ultra-processed junk foods."1 And, for those at increased risk of heart disease, look to a Mediterranean type diet as a good guide to lessen your risks of chronic diseases as you age.

Dr. Johnson stated he has no financial conflicts with regard to this work. Drs. Hu, Katz, and Nestle have no funding disclosures with regard to this article.

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