Experts Unpack the Controversial New Recommendations About Eating Red Meat

Photo: Unsplash/Jason Leung
Hot-off-the-presses red meat guidelines are causing quite the commotion. After completing a systematic review on past studies that analyzed the nutritional efficacy of diets including beef and pork, NutriRECS, a newly formed international group of nutritionists and researchers, recommended that adults stick with "current unprocessed red meat consumption" and "current processed meat consumption." It's no surprise that not everyone agrees.

Considering that eating red meat has been linked to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other illnesses, the majority of health professionals recommend cutting back on the amount you put on your plate. The American Heart Association's (AHA) recommends eating only trimmed lean meats—and no more than 5.5 ounces per day. The American College of Cardiology (ACC) is even more restrictive, suggesting that Americans should consume no more than 26 ounces of meat, poultry, eggs combined over the course of a week.

NutriREC's findings fly in the face of all of other guidelines. And according to William Li, MD, author of Eat to Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself, that's a huge red flag.

"The research article is a review of past studies, and delivers an ill-advised message that consumers should feel fine eating red meat and processed meat at current high levels," he tells Well+Good. "This message is contrary to the body of scientific evidence now accepted worldwide that consuming high levels of red meat and processed meat increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other chronic illnesses. It also ignores the fact that industry meat production is a burden to our environment."

"The overwhelming evidence shows that heavy consumption of red and processed meat places a burden on health." —William Li, MD

To reach their highly controversial conclusions, the NutriRECS analyzed past studies concerning how eating red meat or processed meat affected the risk of cardiovascular disease or cancer. After sifting hundreds of observational and randomized trials, they claimed that the negative effects of eating these types of meat could only be observed in larger populations, and thus, they cannot be used to recommend how often an individual should enjoy steak or a burger.

In one study, the researchers even looked at whether those in the United States would consider eating less meat to better their overall health, which Dr. Li says makes their research particularly flawed. After all, recommending something because it echoes the systems already in place has rarely, if ever, prompted progress in the past. "The weaknesses of this research include the paucity of well-designed past studies that specifically examine reducing meat consumption, as well as the inclusion of consumer preferences in the development of their recommendations on maintaining the status quo on meat consumption," he says.

To boot, Melissa Rifkin, RD, of Melissa Rifkin Nutrition, LLC, adds that the research overlooks the existing corpus of studies that have shaped recommendations of the AHA and ACA. "This conflicts with large bodies of evidence throughout decades of observational studies indicating that we limit the intake of red meat and processed meat," she says. "I continue to believe that years of evidence prove to be a better sounding guard than one study."

Dr. Li agrees, adding that years of research have helped Americans make conscious, well-informed decisions about their own physical well-being. One piece of research compiled by just 14 individuals cannot—and should not—reverse the legitimacy of what we know to be true about heart health. "Whether or not an individual eats meat should always be a matter of personal choice and preference—some prefer, others avoid. The key is to make an informed choice based on the scientific evidence," he says. "The overwhelming evidence shows that heavy consumption of red and processed meat places a burden on health."

Even healthy eaters can overdo it on saturated fats—here's how to cut down your intake with ease. And if you're thinking about eating less meat, start here

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