‘Is Eating Red Meat OK, After All? Probably Not’

Remember last month when “an international collaboration of researchers” suggested there was no reason to reduce consumption of red meat? Here’s a response from Frank Hu, chairman of the Nutrition Department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: The recent guidelines published in the Annals of Internal Medicine should not change existing recommendations on healthy and balanced eating patterns for the prevention of chronic diseases. Guidance to reduce red and processed meats is based on a large body of evidence indicating that higher consumption of red meat — especially processed red meat — is associated with higher risk of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancers, and premature death.

While this guidance is supported by both national and international organizations, including the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, and the World Health Organization, consumers should know that the new guidelines were released by a self-selected panel of 14 members. Furthermore, when my colleagues and I closely reviewed the studies informing the panel’s decision, we saw that their findings contradicted their guidance. In short, the three meta-analyses of observational studies actually confirmed existing evidence on the potential for health benefits when cutting back on red and processed meats. However, because they based their analysis on a measure of three servings of red meat per week, the effects of an individual reducing consumption appeared small. But if you consider that about a third of U.S. adults eat one serving or more of red meat each day, the potential health benefits of reducing consumption become much greater…

[N]utrition research is complex, and rarely do [its findings] reverse so abruptly. That’s why it’s so important to look beyond the headlines at the quality of the evidence behind the claims. Still, the publication of these new guidelines in such a prominent medical journal is unfortunate as it risks further harm to the credibility of nutrition science, eroding public trust in research as well as the recommendations they ultimately inform.