Consuming Red Meat May Not Be As Bad For Us As We Think

barbecue roast meat
Photo by Robert Owen Wahl, c/o Pixabay.

For many years there has been a long running story that consuming too much red meat generated poor health outcomes but a review of the evidence throws cold water on that idea.

For me eating a burger or a sausage, having spaghetti meatballs or enjoying a pork chop covered in piquant sauce is probably up there with the best of the sensory experiences. That’s me ! I’ve also known that it might not be doing me that much good. Those thoughts are at the back of my mind everytime I chomped on a mouthful of salami. They come in part from health advice and reading and commenting on a regular series of articles that often state a risk associated with eating meat generally. 

A major review of the statistical evidence by a panel of scientists now suggests that most of us can continue to eat both red and processed meats without it being an overbearing cause for concern – certainly from a medical point of view. (I’m not referencing any environmental implications by the way). The reaction has already been to suggest such reports present a confusing message about meat consumption. However statistical analysis suggests the concerns over red meat consumption may be overstated. In a more reasoned way what the scientists have actually stated is that the current evidence is not really good enough to make recommendations about consuming red meat one way or the other. They haven’t said red meat is not harmful. 

For many years, study after study linked eating red or processed meat with various health risks, not least bowel cancer and cardiovascular disease (CVD). One study by an international panel of scientists  now regards the idea as to be overdone based on a rigorous statistical analysis of the best quality data available. They conducted four systematic reviews of randomized controlled trials and papers on observational studies. They were examining the way processed and red meat consumption affected the outcomes on cancer and various cardiometabolic issues. Ideally, if they had the money and resources a very, very large population study on eating habits and the associations with any disease would provide extremely high quality, statistically robust levels of data but that isn’t ever to be the case – well not at this moment in time. 

The research group from seven countries  comprised a panel of 14 members. They used rigorous techniques in their assessment and analysis.  This involved systematic review methodology and GRADE methods, which rate the certainty of evidence for each outcome, to move from evidence to dietary recommendations to develop their

There was one review of 12 trials involving 54,000 subjects. The research found no statistically significant or an important association between meat consumption and the risk of heart disease, diabetes, or cancer. A further three systematic reviews of cohort studies that looked at millions of people also suggested a very small reduction in risk among those who had three fewer servings of red or processed meat a week. That association was uncertain.

The authors are quite keen to reject any of the sweeping statements made about the public health risk of consuming red meat:

“It’s a form of patriarchy if we just tell people they should eliminate or reduce their meat consumption,” quoted Bradley Johnston, who is the lead study author. “We don’t believe that there should be broad public health recommendations, almost like scare tactics, for the population as a whole.”

The responses have been critical, probably rightly so. The main issue is providing the public with good quality advice. When evidence is presented which undermines the stated prepositions then it throws doubt on the quality of previous health statements. The vice president of research at the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), said:

“We stand by the rigor of our research methodology and our Cancer Prevention Recommendation that people should limit red meat intake to less than 12–18 oz per week and avoid processed meat. The underlying results reported by the NutriRECs group are actually consistent with this advice, but they dismiss these results based on the limitations of some contributing research methods. We believe this is not in the best public interest. Regularly eating processed meat, and higher consumption of red meat, increases your risk of colorectal cancer; suggesting that there is no need to limit these foods would put people at risk of colorectal cancer and further undermine public confidence in dietary advice.”

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