When I first heard about the new “meat study” published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, I gave it a look and decided it wasn’t worth writing about. But Twitter felt differently, and for a few days it seemed the study was all anyone interested in nutrition and health was chatting about — with very different interpretations of what it meant.
Now that’s something worth writing about.
The study isn’t new research, but involved a panel of doctors and researchers assessing the methodology of previous research on red meat and processed meats. Social-media responses ranged from slamming the authors to proclamations that “meat is back.” Both conclusions miss the mark. If I could use one word to describe this study it would be “weak.” The authors concluded that the evidence is weak for recommendations to eat less meat, and it’s unclear if reducing meat intake would also reduce the risk of cardiometabolic disease (heart disease and type 2 diabetes), cancer or premature death.
So they issued a weak recommendation to continue current meat-consumption levels. Yes, you read that right. Because the evidence for the status quo is “weak,” they’re issuing a “weak” recommendation to maintain it.
The authors point out that recommendations around meat set by the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and groups like the World Health Organization and the American Institute for Cancer Research are based primarily on observational studies that can’t show cause and effect. That’s a true statement about observational studies, but there’s no way to randomly assign one group of people to eat a lot of meat for several decades, and another to eat little or no meat for several decades, and then see how they compare.
The authors also said their review suggests unprocessed red meat and processed meat are unlikely to cause health problems, but that “this does not preclude the possibility that meat has a very small causal effect.” In other words, eating meat might be bad for you, or it might not.
The authors also focused exclusively on individual health and dietary preferences; specifically, “the panel believed that for the majority of individuals, the desirable effects (a potential lowered risk for cancer and cardiometabolic outcomes) associated with reducing meat consumption probably do not outweigh the undesirable effects (impact on quality of life, burden of modifying cultural and personal meal preparation and eating habits).”
They did not consider animal welfare and environmental issues like climate change and agricultural sustainability, even though the authors acknowledged that these issues are important to some — and that environmental impact may be important from a societal perspective.
So what does this mean for you? First, when considering the relative merits of eating more meat versus less, nutritional context is key. What would you eat instead? More fish, beans, whole grains and vegetables? Or more refined grains and ultra-processed foods? When you eat meat, what do you eat with it? A fluffy white bun with cheese, bacon and a side of fries? Or a small, lean grilled steak with broccoli and a sweet potato?
Unless you have a health condition that precludes doing so, eat meat if you enjoy it — it is a nutritious source of protein. But if you eat a lot of meat, consider diversifying a bit — maybe with some fish and a few meatless meals. And if you generally avoid meat, but occasionally crave a steak or a burger? Bon appétit!