Is Red Meat 'Safe' Again?

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You have probably seen the headlines this week - “Controversial study says its OK to eat red meat.”, “Is red meat back on the menu?” - or words to that effect, at least. And you may be wondering to yourself why this is now the case, when just a couple of years ago the same publications or news sources were telling us the ‘Red meat causes cancer”, or was unhealthy for X, Y and Z reasons. So what’s changed?

Well honestly, not much has changed. Part of the reason this new study, carried out by the Nutrition Recommendation Consortium (NutriRECs) is that they looked at a lot of the same research that previous organisations, including the WHO (World Health Organisation), have used in the past when claiming that Red and processed meat was bad for our health, probably carcinogenic, and should be avoided. They have looked at the same data, but interpreted it very differently. So, why is that?

Well, to be clear, NutriRECs have done their due dilligence. Their new recommendations, which are that adults can “continue current unprocessed red meat consumption” and “continue current processed meat consumption”, are based on carrying out 5 systematic reviews by 19 researchers. Without denigrating any previous studies, this does suggest that a very high level of scrutiny and analysis has been applied when putting together these updated recommendations.

Their recommendations hinge on two key points. 1) The increased risk of disease, or negative health outcomes, when consuming red or processed meat is relatively small, and 2) The quality of study which has shown an increased risk is very poor. And based off of these two key points, I would be inclined to agree with them, to a certain extent at least.

In most cases, the studies carried out provide only observational data - this means that at no point can the researchers prove causation, i.e. that red or processed meat causes cancer or cardiovascular disease. They can merely observe an association, or ‘link’, between the two things. This is a very obvious shortcoming of observational data, but we also must understand that observational studies identify areas or relationships for further research. They help us to create questions or hypotheses which we can then investigate and test - so they are far from worthless.

However, we need to be careful when making bold claims or recommendations based off of observational data alone. In the case of red and processed meat, most of the studies showing their potential harmful effects are in the form of Food Frequency Questionnaires (FFQs). The way an FFQ works is that subjects are provided with a list of foods, and they simply tick how many times per week they eat each of those foods. Researchers then compare the frequency of food consumption with the health outcomes of the subject to try and find relationships and associations between the two.

So, as you can imagine, there can be a lot of grey area with FFQs. There’s only a limited amount of foods listed, we often don’t know much about their other behaviours (such as smoking), we don’t know if they regularly exercise, and so forth. Which means it’s impossible to know if it is simply the regular consumption of a certain food which leads to the development of an illness, or a combination of factors we aren’t even aware of.

So, if you imagine that most of the studies on red and processed meat have relatively weak validity, and they show a very small increased risk when consuming red and processed meat, we can begin to understand why NutirRECs came to the conclusion that, actually, continuing to consume red and processed meat as we currently are is not going to pose a significant risk to our health.

Of course, the limitations of observational data go both ways. NutriRECs cannot say with any certainty that red and/or processed meat is definitely safe, or definitely doesn’t contribute to the development of certain illnesses and diseases. However, they have taken the view that based on the current body of evidence, the risk to our health is far less than we may have been previously told.

Now, this isn’t to say we should be embarking upon a carnivore diet by any means. As any of our members will know, we recommend a well-rounded diet based off of eating plenty of plants (fruit, vegetables, grains etc.), with a variety of protein sources (based off of preference), sufficient fat intake, and a little bit of whatever you like (regardless of nutritional or health value). Including red meat a couple of times per week is perfectly fine, should you wish to do so.

The key take home point is that red (and processed) meat should never have been fully off the table (for health reasons) in the first place. There is unlikely to be anything wrong with a moderate, regular intake of red and processed meats, particularly when part of a healthful, balanced diet. Don’t feel obliged to eat red meat, but don’t also feel like you cannot have it at all, either.

If you want to check out this new study for yourself, click here.

N.B: It’s interesting to note that a lot of research doesn’t differentiate between red and processed meat, which is why they are usually discussed together. It is possible that they could have varying effects on our health, but it would need to be studied more closely before making any claims.