Is Red Meat Healthy For You?

Why Is Red Meat So Controversial?

fatty steakThe American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, the World Health Organization and other organizations have been telling us for years that diets high in red meat are likely to increase our risk of chronic diseases. If you are like most Americans, you have been trying to cut back on red meat.

However, the latest headlines are saying things like: “Red meat is actually good for you” and “Most adults don’t need to cut back on red meat for their health”. Where did those headlines come from?

A group calling itself the Nutritional Recommendations Consortium (NutriRECS) has reviewed the scientific literature and said: “The evidence is too weak to justify telling individuals to eat less beef and pork.” They have issued guidelines (BC Johnston et al, Annals of Internal Medicine, 171: 756-764, 2019) saying that adults really don’t need to change the amounts of red meat they are eating.

As you can imagine, that has proven to be a controversial recommendation. Many of the top experts in the field have questioned the validity of the study and have condemned the guidelines as misleading.

However, most of you don’t care about arguments between the experts. Your questions are: “What does this study mean to me?” Is everything I have been told about red meat wrong?” “Is red meat healthy after all? Can I really eat as much as I want?”

Why Is Red Meat So Controversial?

ArgumentIf you are confused by the latest headlines, it’s not your fault. Over the past few decades you have been bombarded by conflicting headlines about red meat. One month it is bad for you. The next month it is good for you. It is fair to ask: “Why is red meat so controversial? Why is it so confusing?”

Perhaps the best way to answer those questions is to review the scientific critique of the latest guidelines saying we can eat as much red meat as we want and then look at the authors’ rebuttal.

The best summary of the scientific critique of these guidelines is a WebMD Health News report. Let me cover a few of the most important criticisms:

#1: The NutriRECS group was not backed by any major health, government, or scientific organizations. The members of this group self-nominated themselves as gurus of nutritional recommendations. In an earlier publication they concluded that the evidence was too weak to justify telling individuals to eat less sugar. But in that review they stopped short of recommending that adults could eat as much sugar as they wanted.

#2: The review left out 15 important studies showing that diets high in red meat are associated with increased disease risk. If those studies had been included in the analysis, the link between meat consumption and disease would have been much stronger. Even worse, the omitted studies met the author’s stated criteria for inclusion in their analysis. No reason was given for omitting those studies. This suggests author bias.

#3: The authors used an assessment method that prioritizes evidence from randomized controlled trials and downgrades evidence from association studies. As a result, multiple association studies showing red and processed meat consumption increases disease risk were discounted, and a few randomized controlled clinical trials giving inconsistent results dominated their analysis.

Let me state for the record that my research career was devoted to cancer drug development. I am a big proponent of the value of randomized controlled trials when they are appropriate.

·       Randomized controlled trial are perfect for determining the effectiveness of new drugs. In this context it is appropriate. In a drug trial it is easy to design a randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial. In addition, every participant already has the disease. If a drug has a benefit, it is apparent in a very short time.

·       However, randomized controlled trials are not optimal for dietary studies. In the first place, it is impossible to design a placebo or have a “blinded study”. People know what they are eating. In addition, diseases like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes take decades to develop. You can’t keep people on specific diets for decades.

·       In addition, because randomized controlled trials are short, they can only measure the effect of diet on disease markers like LDL cholesterol. These disease markers are imperfect predictors of disease outcomes. I will discuss this in more detail next week.

·       Consequently, most of the major studies in nutrition research are “association studies” where the investigators ask people what they customarily eat and look at the association of those dietary practices with disease outcomes. These studies aren’t perfect, but they represent the best tool we have for determining the influence of diet on disease outcomes.

confusion#4: The authors included people’s attitudes about eating meat in their analysis. Because many meat eaters stated they would be unwilling to give up meat, the authors downgraded the association between meat consumption and disease risk.

·       That really had the outside experts scratching their heads. They agreed that people’s attitudes should be considered in discussions about how to implement health guidelines. However, they were unanimously opposed to the idea that people’s opinions should be a factor in crafting health guidelines.

#5: The authors ignored the environmental impact of meat consumption. As I indicated in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”, this should be a major consideration when choosing your diet.

#6: The authors may have been influenced by the beef industry. The NutriRECS group stated that the Agriculture and Life Sciences (AgriLife) program at Texas A&M provided generous support for their study. While that sound innocuous, the AgriLife program receives financial support from the “Texas Beef Checkoff Program”, which is a meat industry marketing program paid for by cattle ranchers.

#7: The beef industry influenced the studies the authors relied on in their review. The beef industry supports randomized controlled clinical trials on red meat and influences the outcome of those studies in ways that minimize the health effects of red meat consumption. I will give some examples of this next week. Unfortunately, these are the studies the NutriRECS group relied on for their recommendations.

What Did The Authors Say About Their Guidelines?

balance scaleBecause I like to provide a balanced evaluation of nutrition controversies, it is only fair that I summarize the authors argument for their recommendations. However, I will add my commentary. Here is a summary of their arguments.

#1: Nutritional recommendations should be based on sound science. In principle, this is something that everyone agrees on. However, as I noted above randomized controlled trials are not always the best scientific approach for studying the health effects of diet.

My comment: In matters of public health it is better to be safe than sorry. Simply put, it is better to warn people about probable dangers to their health rather than waiting decades for certainty. Smoking is a perfect example. The Surgeon General warned the US public about the dangers of smoking long before the evidence was conclusive.

Smoking is also an example of how industry tries to influence scientific opinion. The tobacco industry supported and influenced research on smoking. Industry funded research tended to minimize the dangers of smoking. Next week I will show how the meat industry is doing the same concerning the dangers of red meat.

#2: It is difficult to get good dietary information in association studies. That is because most association studies ask people what they have eaten over the past few decades. There are two problems with that.

1)    Most people have enough trouble remembering what they ate yesterday. Remembering what they ate 10 or 20 years ago is problematic.

2)    People listen to the news and often change their diets based on what they hear. What they are eating today may not resemble what they ate 10 years ago.

My comment: That is a legitimate point. However, in recent years the best association studies have started collection dietary information at the start, the mid-point, and the end of the study. I agree we need more of those studies.

#3: The authors claim they found no statistically significant link between meat consumption and risk of heart disease, diabetes, or cancer in a dozen randomized controlled trials that had enrolled about 54 000 participants.

label deceptionMy comment: That statement is highly misleading. One of those studies had 48,835 participants. That study wasn’t even designed to measure the effect of red meat consumption. It was designed to measure the health effects of low fat versus high fat diets. The difference in red meat consumption between the two groups was only 1.4 servings per day, a 20% difference. Even with that small difference in red meat consumption, there was about a 2% reduction in some heart disease outcomes, which the authors considered insignificant.

That leaves 11 studies with only 5,165 participants, which averages out to 470 participants per study. Those studies had too few participants to provide any meaningful estimate of the effect of red meat on health outcomes.

In addition, the meat industry influenced the design of some of those studies to further minimize the effect of red meat on health outcomes, something I will discuss next week.

#4: The authors found a slight effect of red meat consumption on heart disease and cancer deaths in association studies, but said the decrease was too small to recommend that people change their diet.

My comment: This represents the folly of looking at any single food or single nutrient rather than the whole diet. We need to take a holistic approach and ask questions like: “What are they replacing red meat with? What does their overall diet look like?

For example, let’s look at what happens when you reduce saturated fats, something I discussed in a previous issue (https://healthtipsfromtheprofessor.com/are-saturated-fats-bad-for-you/) of “Health Tips From the Professor”. When you replace saturated fats with:

·       Trans fats, your heart disease risk increases by 5%.

·       Refined carbohydrates and sugars (the kind of carbohydrates in the typical American diet), your heart disease risk increases slightly.

·       Complex carbohydrates (whole grains, fruits and vegetables), your heart disease risk decreases by 9%.

·       Monounsaturated fats (olive oil & peanut oil), your heart disease risk decreases by 15%.

·       Polyunsaturated fats (vegetable oil & fish oil), your heart disease risk decreases by 25%.

·       Unsaturated fats in the context of a primarily plant-based diet like the Mediterranean diet, your heart disease risk decreases by 47%.

While we don’t have such precise numbers for red meat, we do have enough evidence to know that the situation with red meat is similar.

·       Replacing high-fat red meat with low-fat red meat or white meat in the context of a typical American diet will probably have only a modest effect on disease risk.

·       Replacing red meat with plant protein in the context of a typical American diet (think Impossible Burgers or the equivalent at your local Fast Food restaurant) will also probably have only a modest effect on disease risk.

·       Replacing red meat with white meat or plant protein in the context of a primarily plant-based diet is likely to significantly reduce disease risk.

Is Red Meat Healthy For You?

Steak and PotatoesLet’s return to the question I posed at the beginning of this article: “Is red meat healthy for you?” In the context of headlines saying: “Red meat is actually good for you”, the answer is a clear No!

·       The saturated fat in red meat is associated with increased heart disease risk.

·       However, it’s not just saturated fat. Other components of red meat are associated with increased risk of heart disease and cancer. I will discuss those next week.

There are simply too many studies that show an association between red meat consumption and disease risk to give red meat a clean bill of health. We can’t say red meat is healthy with any confidence.

However, that doesn’t mean we need to eliminate red meat from our diet. The health risks of red meat are determined by the type of red meat consumed, the amount of red meat consumed, and the overall composition of our diet. So:Steak Salad

·       If you are thinking in terms of a juicy 8-ounce steak with a baked potato and sour cream, red meat is probably not healthy.

·       However, if you are thinking of 2-3 ounces of lean steak in a vegetable stir fry or a green salad, red meat may be healthy.

Of course, one question I am frequently asked is “What about grass fed beef? Is it healthier than conventionally raised beef?” I will answer that question next week.

The Bottom Line

A group calling itself the Nutritional Recommendations Consortium (NutriRECS) recently reviewed the scientific literature and said: “The evidence is too weak to justify telling individuals to eat less beef and pork.” They then issued guidelines saying that adults really don’t need to change the amounts of red meat they are eating.

As you can imagine, that has proven to be a controversial recommendation. Many of the top experts in the field have questioned the validity of the study and have condemned the guidelines as misleading.

When you examine the pros and cons carefully, it becomes clear that the NutriRECS group:

1)    Put too little emphasis on association studies with hundreds of thousands of participants showing a link between red meat consumption and increased risk of heart disease and cancer.

2)    Put too much emphasis on very small randomized controlled trials that had no possibility of evaluating the effect of red meat consumption on disease risk. In part, that is because many of the randomized controlled trials were funded and influenced by the meat industry, something I will discuss next week.

3)    Did not ask what the red meat was replaced with or look at red meat consumption in the context of the overall diet.

Based on what we currently know:

1)    Replacing high-fat red meat with low-fat red meat or white meat in the context of a typical American diet will probably have only a modest effect on disease risk.

2)    Replacing red meat with plant protein in the context of a typical American diet (think Impossible Burgers or the equivalent at your local Fast Food restaurant) will also probably have only a minor effect on disease risk.

3)    Replacing red meat with white meat or plant protein in the context of a primarily plant-based diet is likely to significantly reduce disease risk.

That means:

1)    If you are thinking in terms of a juicy 8-ounce steak with a baked potato and sour cream, red meat is probably not healthy.

2)   However, if you are thinking of 2-3 ounces of lean steak in a vegetable stir fry or a green salad, red meat may be healthy.

Of course, one question I am frequently asked is “What about grass fed beef? Is it healthier than conventionally raised beef?” I will answer that question next week. Stay tuned.

For more details, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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