By Ana Snyder, M.S., Exercise Physiology; CPT, FNS
New guidelines released in September in the Annals of Internal Medicine say that consumers shouldn’t worry about cutting back on red and processed meats. This information is shocking. Scientists have been claiming links between fattier meats and heart disease, diabetes, and cancer for years. Now, they are worried that people will take this new information to extremes and eat as much red meat as they want. If scientists can’t agree on whether red meat is bad for you, then what should we do?
Many people are concerned about the standards nutritional research is held to. Dietary advice seems to change every few years, showing unreliability and inconsistency. The domino effect this new data would have on every other aspect of our lives is an even bigger worry though. For example, if red and processed meats are “safe,” so is consuming high amounts of fat and salt. Environmental focuses would also likely change. As meat takes a larger part in our diets, we may become less focused on animal welfare and the environmental pollution caused by livestock.
When we think about what red meat is, usually cows come to mind. Beef, however, is just one type of red meat. According to Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries, red meat is actually any meat that is red when raw. This would classify venison, elk, bison, and pork as red meats too. All of these meats are manufactured very differently and have very different levels of fat and protein content. Since they’re all so unique, should they really be lumped together in the same “disease-causing” pool?
For example, one of the main criticisms specialists have with red meat is how high it is in saturated fat. For years there seemed to be a strong link between saturated fat and increased heart disease risk. Naturally, this recent study has caused us to question that as well. Regardless of how scientists choose to interpret this evidence, though, it’s important to note that not all red meats are high in saturated fat. In fact, venison and elk are quite low—having about half that of beef. If saturated fat does indeed cause disease, wild game sources of red meat may be less dangerous.
Let’s examine some of the most common types of red meat in greater detail. As you can see, each is very different and may have its own set of health risks. Some are more processed than others. Some are fattier than others. Some are wild while others are domesticated. In any case, it may be a poor choice to lump them all into a single group.
So what’s the deal? Is red meat bad? Researchers have built up an incriminating case for red meat. Until now, the vast majority of data showed a correlation between red meat and heart disease and cancer.
A study by the National Institutes of Health–AARP claimed that people who ate a lot of red meat over a ten-year period were likely to die sooner. Specifically, they were more likely to die of cancer or heart disease. Yet another study found that 72,000 women who ate a diet high in red meat for 18 years increased their disease risk as well. Unfortunately, these women also ate excessive refined grains, French fries, and desserts. It’s difficult to say if red meat or their other horrible food choices played the biggest hand in their poor health.
Regardless, several studies and systematic reviews of studies have shown a link between cancer and red and processed meats. As a result, scientists have published many recommendations for limiting meat intake. The National Health Service in the UK encourages you to eat a maximum of 70 grams of red meat per day to reduce your risk of colorectal cancer. The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends limiting your red meat intake to 510 grams a week, and The Lancet global report suggests limiting it even more—100 grams per week.
Of course, the meat industry argues there is no link between red and processed meats and cancer. They say that lean red meat fits perfectly into a healthy diet. Since different types and cuts of red meat do have varying amounts of saturated fat, they could have a point. However, researchers believe that heme iron (iron found in red meat) and carcinogens produced as red meat cooks might also be cancer-causing culprits. If that’s true, it could be a danger no matter how much or little saturated fat there is.
So what about some recent studies that match the meat industry’s claims? Published in Annals of Internal Medicine, these new guidelines encourage consumers to eat red and processed meats as much as they want. The fourteen researchers conducting the study did one of the biggest meta-analyses in history to come up with this conclusion. After examining large quantities of previously published research, they claim to have found little proof to support a link between red meat and heart disease, diabetes, or cancer. How is this possible? After all, these experts examined the same bodies of evidence that condemned red meat and came to a completely different conclusion. Confused? You’re not alone.
Let’s delve a little deeper and see what some specialists from Harvard have to say on the matter.
Like many scientists, the Harvard experts are in an uproar over the latest study. After examining the guidelines published by the fourteen scientists, they don’t see enough evidence to back up their claims. In fact, they noted that three of the meta-analyses actually verify earlier health risk concerns. As such, they encourage other health professionals to dive into research and examine claims themselves.
Nutrition is constantly evolving, and all evidence should be taken into account before adopting new concepts. Ideas this revolutionary could harm the integrity of science and public and environmental health. Since the majority of experiments show increased cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes, many scientists don’t think dietary recommendations should change. It might be best to follow The American Institute for Cancer Research’s guidelines and only eat 510 grams per week. A diet high in plant-based foods seems to have a more positive impact on health. These days with all of the vegan and vegetarian options out there, red meat substitutes and yummy veggie alternatives are easy to find.
With all this talk of red meat’s dangers, why even eat it? Well, it turns out red meat benefits are also abundant. It typically has more protein than poultry or fish and it’s very high in iron, zinc, niacin, selenium, and vitamins B-6 and B-12. These components are vital for building muscle and creating a healthy immune system.
Eating red meat in limited amounts can be quite excellent for your health. The leaner your choice of meat, the better. For red meat, the leanest cuts tend to have “loin” in the name. Sirloin steak, pork tenderloin, and lamb loin chops are all examples of leaner red meats. Everything you eat should be eaten in moderation, and red meat is no different! Healthy eating should consist of a variety of protein sources, healthy fats, and carbohydrates.
The newest health guidelines encouraging more meat consumption caused a lot of conflict in the health community. The researchers provide some thoughtful insights into meat consumption, but the majority of evidence collected over the years contradicts their theory. So far it seems the dietary guidelines for meat will remain unchanged as many professionals believe one study shouldn’t overthrow decades of experimentation.