Nutrition scientists disagree with study's findings on red and processed meats
A study released Monday greenlighting the consumption of processed and red meat has much of the medical community seeing red.
A bad diet is the number one cause of poor health, and increasingly the bony finger of accusation has been pointed at this particular part of our plate. This year alone, the EAT-Lancet Commission report, the special report on climate change and land by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and a British Medical Journal study associated increases in red meat consumption with mortality in American men and women. Meanwhile, plant-based protein companies such as Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat have begun to win consumers' affections.
In the midst of this, a new study suggests quite the opposite.
Guidelines published in the Annals of Internal Medicine say there's no need to reduce red or processed meat consumption for good health. Based on five systematic reviews of the relationship between meat consumption and health, a panel of researchers from Dalhousie University and McMaster University in Canada, with the Iberoamerican and Polish Cochrane Centers, says most people can continue to consume red meat and processed meat at their average current consumption levels.
Analyzing the data from five studies that encompassed 54,000 people, the researchers did not find a significant association between meat consumption and the risk of heart disease, diabetes or cancer. They also found that a vegetarian diet provided few, if any, health benefits.
Given the enthusiasm among meat eaters for steaks and burgers, the impacts would have to be much greater to suggest curtailing red and processed meat, said Bradley Johnston, associate professor in the department of community health and epidemiology at Dalhousie University and the lead researcher on the study.
Johnston acknowledged that the study's recommendations are contrary to almost all other guidelines that exist.
Many nutrition and health scientists were gobsmacked by the panel's recommendations.
"We're collectively appalled that this is being pushed in the way that it's being pushed. It just adds to the confusion for patients," says Elizabeth Klodas, a cardiologist and member of the American College of Cardiology's nutrition group. "The conclusions are not the conclusions of the medical community. They were selective in the studies included and the weight they gave them."
She says it's like comparing heavy smoking to moderate smoking over a relatively short period of time, and sarcastically adds: " 'Frankly, people have a hard time quitting smoking, so let's just let them smoke.' We eat 220 pounds of meat per person per year in this country; that's 15 servings a week. And you're going to tell Americans, just keep going? Today we're spending $315 billion per year treating heart disease; on our current trajectory it will be nearly $800 billion by 2035."
Another critic of the study, Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said the Annals of Internal Medicine study also ignored solid science in the arena.
"If you really want to review the evidence, you have to look at all bodies of relevant data. Why did they ignore that vast body of data of carefully controlled randomized studies?" asks Willett, pointing to studies that show that, compared to plant sources of protein, red meat increases blood levels of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, which consistently predict higher risk of cardiovascular disease. He cited studies such as the Lyon Diet Heart Study, one that was not considered in the new study published Monday.