Yes, red meat is in the news…again. Headlines last week announced that we may not have to cut back on red meat or processed meat after all, based on conclusions published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
This stirred up quite a bit of controversy especially since many health organizations offer different advice. The Canadian Cancer Society for example, recommends limiting red meat (beef, veal, pork, lamb and goat) to 3 servings a week (a serving is 85 grams or 3 ounces of cooked meat – smaller than the size of a deck of cards) and avoiding processed meats. The World Cancer Research Fund (WRF) advises that if you eat red meat, limit it to no more than about three portions per week (total of 350-500 grams or 12-18 ounces per week). And the WCRF also recommends eating very little, if any, processed meat like bacon, ham, hot dogs and sausages.
So, is that confusing or what? It sure is! And it took me a while to read through the science to figure it out.
Here are 5 things you need to know about the study to help you understand how and why the guidelines were made:
- This wasn’t a new study about red meat. Basically, a panel of scientists reviewed existing studies looking at the impact of red meat on health. They looked at “absolute risk”. In other words, they considered how many people per 1000 people would likely benefit from eating 3 fewer servings of red meat or processed meat (e.g. going from 7 servings/week of red meat to 4 servings/week or going from 4 servings/week to 1 serving/week). They found that out of 1,000 people, only between 1 to 18 people would have a lower chance of heart disease, type 2 diabetes or cancer if they ate 3 fewer servings of red meat or processed meat.
- The evidence for this guideline is “low” to “very low”. The panel found “low” to “very low” certainty evidence for their conclusions. The panel even admitted that their guideline for adults to “continue current unprocessed and processed red meat consumption” is a weak recommendation. In fact, three out of the 14 panel members didn’t agree with this recommendation.
- Observational studies were reviewed. In observational studies, researchers observe the effect of something – in this case, the effect of eating red meat and processed meat. When it comes to making recommendations though, observational studies aren’t as strong or conclusive as experimental studies in terms of showing a cause and effect relationship. In experimental studies, typically two or more groups are compared – for example, an experimental study could compare the health status of Group A who ate red meat versus Group B who didn’t eat red meat. Plus, many of the observational studies lumped red meat and processed meat together, and didn’t consider other dietary factors or the cooking methods (e.g. broiling versus BBQ).
- Pros versus cons. The researchers believed that for most people, the desirable effects from eating less red / processed meat (a potential lower risk for cancer and heart disease) did not outweigh the undesirable effects (impact on life, burden of modifying cultural and personal meal preparation and eating habits).
- Other issues were not considered. The researchers acknowledge that their guideline didn’t consider issues of animal welfare and potential environmental impact. They admitted that their guideline may be less relevant for people who see these as important issues.
So what’s the bottom line?
Remember that we choose foods for many different reasons – cost, taste, nutrition, health, animal welfare and environmental concerns. No single food completely causes or prevents a health condition. But we do know that an overall healthy pattern of eating plus lifestyle habits can make a big difference to your well-being. News headlines can be sensational and the stories may not always give you the full picture.
As a dietitian and chef’s daughter, I wholeheartedly believe in enjoying delicious, wholesome food. Processed meat can add extra saturated fat and sodium to the diet – these are the nutrients we’re trying to limit. From a nutrient point of view, red meat is packed with protein, iron, zinc and vitamin B12. Whether you choose to eat red meat or not, keep your portions in check. Moderation is truly the key. And make sure to fill at least half your plate with Mother Nature’s superheroes – fruits and veggies.