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Researchers say red meat gets a bad rap

A plate of steak with roasted potatoes, tomatoes and rosemary on a wooden table, followed by a question mark.

Is meat back on the menu?

Oct. 14, 2019—After reviewing more than a hundred studies involving millions of people, a group of researchers came to the controversial conclusion that eating red and processed meat may not be that unhealthy.

Specifically, the researchers found weak evidence that red meat causes heart problems, cancer and diabetes. Rather than advising people to change their consumption of red meat, the researchers suggested people continue their current habits. They published their review in the Annals of Internal Medicine. But not everyone agrees. And recently, questions have been raised about the lead researcher's past ties to the meat and food industry.

Most national and international health organizations still recommend limiting how much red and processed meat you eat. And there are no signs this review will change their mind.

The American Heart Association (AHA), for instance, contends there's strong evidence that reducing saturated fat can lower heart disease risk. Saturated fat is in a variety of foods, including meat and full-fat dairy. Drawing health conclusions about just one kind of food, the AHA says, is overly simplistic.

The meat of the controversy

The uncertainty has a lot to do with how nutritional research is done. Studies in nutrition are almost always observational. That means people fill out food diaries tracking what they eat. But these diaries may not always be an accurate reflection of their diets. And sometimes researchers can look at the same set of food data and come to different conclusions.

Clinical trials could be more informative. But it's impractical, if not impossible, to control what large groups of people eat or don't eat over decades, which is how long it would take to see definitively whether a particular food or diet raises or lowers the risk for a disease.

What's the upshot?

Because randomized clinical trials are the gold standard, the researchers involved in the recent study said the evidence just isn't good enough to urge people not to eat red meat for health reasons.

They did note, however, there may be good reasons other than health to reduce how much red meat you eat. Livestock are a significant source of greenhouse gasses, for instance, and meat consumption plays a role in climate change. Other people choose not to eat meat out of concern for animal welfare.

For health, the AHA suggests focusing on the bigger picture, rather than one food group. It continues to recommend a healthy diet that emphasizes:

  • Fruits and vegetables.
  • Nuts.
  • Legumes.
  • Whole grains.
  • Lean protein and fish.

And it still strongly recommends that people limit processed meats, sweetened beverages and other foods high in:

  • Saturated fat.
  • Dietary cholesterol.
  • Trans fats.
  • Sodium.
  • Refined carbohydrates.

Visit our Nutrition topic center for more information on what makes a healthy diet.

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