Red Meat Isn't the Enemy—but Should You Be Cutting Back?
Can we please just stop making things so confusing? A newly published review says that cutting down on red meat may not be beneficial for your health. Nutrition experts are up in arms. Here's what you need to know.
One of the hot topics in nutrition these days is around meat, especially red meat, and how much we should be consuming for a healthy diet. Vegan advocates think no animal products at all are the way to go. Meat lovers would have you believing more animal protein is best. And then there are large public health organizations who advocate eating less meat and choosing plant-based options more often.To add to all that, a new report published this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine, claims there isn't evidence that we should be eating less red meat for our health. Numerous nutrition experts (from Tufts, Harvard and Stanford) urged the journal not to publish the study saying it would cause confusion and distrust amongst consumers. So what's the answer to how much meat we should be eating? Turns out, like all things nutrition, it isn't so black and white.
Related: This Man Wants You to Eat More Meat
The New Study
Basically, a group of researchers, reviewed the research on red meat and processed meat consumption and health outcomes and analyzed all the data. They considered a reduction in red meat and processed meat intake to be decreasing by 3 servings per week. (so someone went from 4 to 1 or 6 to 3). They only looked at individual health outcomes and not environmental health or animal welfare.
Their recommendations? There was low or very-low evidence that lowering the amount of red meat in your diet would impact cardiovascular health and your risk of developing cancer. Most of the experts on the panel did not advise lowering red and processed meat intake. They also pointed out lots of people had a preference to keep eating red meat and processed meat.
What the Experts Say
The reason people thought this would be confusing? Multiple leading health organizations, including the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, Dietary Guidelines and WHO, call for reducing red meat and processed meats for improved health.
American Cancer Society: Recommends limiting the amount of processed meat and red meat in your diet.
American Heart Association: Recommends limiting red meat, and comparing labels to choose the leanest cuts. Limiting saturated fat.
Dietary Guidelines: Recommends choosing, "A variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), and nuts, seeds, and soy products."
Also, finds strong evidence that limiting meat (including processed meats and poultry) is associated with reduced risk of heart disease and that there is moderate evidence that limiting meat as part of your overall eating pattern can reduce your risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.
So, Is Red Meat Healthy?
There still isn't a simple answer. Red meat delivers good-quality protein as well as nutrients such as, iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and selenium. You'll also get some saturated fat. Now, most of us eat enough protein, but iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies.
One of the troubles with lumping all red meat (and processed meat) together is that it's not all the same. Red meat includes beef, pork, lamb, veal, goat, venison, bison, and elk. Those different meats have different nutrition profiles. Plus, beef alone has so many different cuts. Even if you focus in on ground beef—you can buy 90% lean or 80% lean. Not to mention processed meats—like bacon, ham and sausage. There's a lot of variation in this category.
On top of that, most people sit down to a plate that's more than just meat. It may be a dinner of a cheeseburger on a bun served with a french fries and soda. It could be a steak served with Brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes. Or maybe it's pork with rice and a salad. And if you do decide to cut back on red meat—are you replacing it with refined grains (a big bowl of pasta for example?) or are you amping up your consumption of beans and nuts? Most of us aren't eating enough fiber or seafood. Does red meat play a part in pushing those off our plates?
All that to say, how do you suss out the red meat consumption and reduction in your diet for nutrition studies? They do their best to control for other factors but it's hard and complicated. But up until this week, most experts advised focusing on eating lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats with a variety of protein sources, that included a limited amount of red meat.
While this study didn't look at sustainability and animal welfare those are two issues that are important to lots of people. Beef, along with lamb and goat, ranks at the top of the World Resources Institute list of greenhouse gas emissions per gram of protein.
This paper doesn't change things radically, other than it probably causes some distrust for consumers about nutrition studies. We can't unequivocally say that eating a certain amount of red meat will be beneficial or harmful to someone's individual health, but we also couldn't say that before this paper.
Every food can have a place in a healthy diet. If you eat red meat for dinner seven days a week, what else aren't you eating? Variety is an important part of a healthy diet. Just like you probably shouldn't eat shrimp or tofu every night—you shouldn't necessarily eat red meat every night.