Apparently, there's not enough evidence to justify telling people to eat less beef and pork, according to a new analysis.

By Faith Brar
October 02, 2019
Shutterstock/Pavel Ilyukhin

For the past several years, doctors and nutrition experts have been adamantly warning the public against eating too much red meat—especially for heart health.

Headlines like "Want to live longer? Hold the red meat" and "10 reasons to stop eating red meat" have been flooding newsfeeds. Not to mention the gold standard American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting red meat consumption and opting for lean meat like chicken and fish with the skin off. Why? Because these meats are lower in saturated fat which raises cholesterol, a major contributor to heart disease. (Related: Bob Harper Reminds Us That Heart Attacks Can Happen to Anyone)

But this week, a new series of analyses published in the world-renowned Annals of Internal Medicine found that almost all dietary guidelines cautioning against red meat are not backed by high-quality scientific evidence, setting off a firestorm within the nutrition science community.

How did researchers draw their conclusions?

The new report is based on three years of analyses conducted by a group of 14 different researchers from seven countries. Together, they looked at over 100 studies that evaluate the link between red and processed meats and the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and death.

From there, researchers rated the data from these studies using the GRADE system, an approach that evaluates the quality of the science and how the research is conducted for the purpose of establishing evidence-based guidelines and recommendations.

Then, using four systematic reviews (which you can read here, here, here, and here), the authors of the report concluded that the links between eating red meat and risk of heart disease/death are actually pretty small. The overall quality of evidence was also found to be "low- to very low-certainty," according to the report.

To be clear, the new findings do not say red meat and processed meats like hot dogs and bacon are healthy, or that people should eat more of them. Rather, the analyses simply note that the health benefits of eating less of these meats are minor at best. So, from a scientific standpoint, the evidence we currently have is not sufficient enough to tell individuals to change their meat-eating habits, the researchers concluded. (Related: Vegetarians Live 3.5 Years Longer Than Meat-Eaters)

Why is the research being scrutinized?

These analyses are being met with harsh criticism by the AHA, the American Cancer Society, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and other major health groups, according to The New York Times.

One of their issues with the new research is the use of the GRADE system to analyze this type of data. Experts like nutrition scientist Frank Hu M.D., M.P.H., Ph.D. of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health argue that GRADE was actually developed to evaluate evidence from drug trials and shouldn't be used to challenge current dietary guidelines. "It's really problematic and inappropriate to use GRADE to evaluate nutrition studies," Dr. Hu told NPR.

For that to make sense, it's important to note that most nutrition science available to us today is carried out using observational studies, which track the eating habits of large groups of people over many years. But the GRADE system considers observational studies, in general, to be low-quality, and most of the studies analyzed in this new report were observational, according to NPR.

What does this mean for you?

The use of the GRADE system isn't the only reason why experts like Dr. Hu are fuming. He told NPR that this new research "gives an impression of a major scientific breakthrough, but this is clearly not the case." Plus, some experts are worried that these findings will harm the credibility of nutrition science and chip away at the public trust in scientific research in general, per NYT.

Then there's the fact that not even all the authors of the controversial report agree with its conclusions. The LA Times reported that three of the 14 researchers said they support reducing red and processed meat consumption—and a co-author of one of the reviews suggested that they delay publishing the full report until more evidence is gathered. (Related: The Number of Push-Ups You Can Do May Predict Your Heart Disease Risk)

At the end of the day, what you put in your body is a personal choice. But the most important thing to remember, Dr. Hu told NPR, is that balance is key in any healthy diet:  "To improve both human health and environmental sustainability, it is important to adopt dietary patterns that are high in healthy plant-based foods and relatively low in red and processed meats."

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