A cardiologist’s take on red meat consumption

The Skeptical Cardiologist was recently greeted by headlines announcing that an international panel of 14 unbiased researchers had concluded that it was OK for humans to continue eating red meat and processed meat at current levels.

The startling news was a reversal of what the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the American Heart Association, and the American Cancer Society have been telling us for years and threw the nutritional world into a tizzy. The bottom line recommendation, written in language suggesting a lack of certainty in the evidence and lack of confidence in the advice reads as follows:

“The panel suggests that adults continue current unprocessed red meat consumption (weak recommendation, low-certainty evidence). Similarly, the panel suggests adults continue current processed meat consumption (weak recommendation, low-certainty evidence).”

The guidelines, accompanied by five systematic reviews, appeared in Annals of Internal Medicine under the “Clinical Guidelines” section of this publication from the American College of Physicians.

Much has been written on this event, and I’ve read lots of scathing commentary. In fact, a group of prominent nutrition experts tried to suppress the publication.

I think the best summary comes from Julia Belluz at Vox (“Beef and bacon healthy? A fight raging in nutrition science, explained“).

Belluz does her typically excellent job of explaining the science in a balanced way and includes some of the prominent voices who are outraged by the publication.

As I’ve pointed out (here and here and here), the science behind most nutritional recommendations is weak, and public health authorities often make sweeping dietary recommendations that aren’t justified.

We are making gradual progress in rolling back bans on some healthy food, like eggs, but unjustified bans on other healthy foods, like full-fat yogurt and coconut oil, persist.

When it comes to red meat consumption, the systematic analyses reveal mild associations with poor health outcomes, but these associations don’t prove causality and could easily be due to confounding factors or poor input data.

Thus, if you want to cut back your red meat consumption on the chance that these associations are truly reflective of causation, go ahead. Especially if you have ethical or environmental concerns about the production of red meat.

Just keep in mind that the calories you cut from meat consumption should be replaced by more healthy, nutrient-dense foods like non-starchy vegetables, nuts, dairy fat, avocado, and olive oil and not by low-quality carbs and ultra-processed food, or you may be doing more harm than good.

Anthony Pearson is a cardiologist who blogs at MedPage Today’s Skeptical Cardiologist

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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