[CW: This post and links contain nutrition minutiae]
You’ve probably heard at some point in your life that meat is “bad for you” at some point or another. In fact, just a few years ago, red meat and processed meats were named “carcinogens” by the World Health Organization. So it may come as a surprise then, that a new set of guidelines coming from an international panel of scientists are saying the amount of meat we’re eating (about 2-4 servings per week) is OK. So what gives?
What the Actual Guidelines Say
Despite what carnivore, keto, LCHF, and Paleo proponents would have you believe, the guidelines do not recommend an all-out meat diet. Instead, they say:
“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)”
In layperson’s terms, this is essentially saying, “You do you… I guess?” Which is based on a very literal, albeit a bit unhelpful, interpretation of the existing research. But in our current environment (aka diet culture), it seems like if you’re not demonizing the latest “bad food du jour,” then you’re seen as “irresponsible” at best, and at worst, accused of killing people and worth suing over.
How Did These Guidelines Come About, Anyway?
The guidelines are based on five systematic reviews: four looking at meat consumption and health risk (specifically, heart health, cancer, and all-cause mortality) and one looking at why people choose to (or not to) eat meat. The overall questions that the panel was trying to answer were:
“1) Among adults, what is the effect of diets and dietary patterns lower in
red or processed meat versus diets higher in red or processed meat intake on the risk for outcomes important to community members? and
2) What are their health-related values and preferences for red and processed meat consumption?”
The systematic reviews included observational studies and randomized controlled trials that looked at people with varying degrees of red meat and processed meat intake for at least six months.
In the end, the reviews had similar findings as existing research, noting that decreasing intake of red meat and processed meat can lower your risk of heart disease and cancer, but the effect is very small (For example, if 1000 people decided to have three fewer servings of red meat per week, four fewer people would die of heart disease over 10.8 years, compared to if their diets stayed the same) and the evidence is weak.
Why Would the Guidelines Recommend Something Different if the Research is the Same?
Nutrition science is hard. Most studies are observational, meaning they look at people with different eating patterns (in this case, high vs. low red or processed meat intake) and see what happens to them over time. Observational studies can only show correlation, not causation. But to design a study to prove that red meat or processed meat causes disease, it would be expensive (heart disease and cancer are diseases that take a long time to develop, so the study would need to go on for a long time) and probably unethical (the lives, let alone the diets, of the people would need to be tightly controlled in order to prove that it was meat, and not something else.)
This is potentially one of the reasons for the differing recommendations—some have criticized the guidelines’ emphasis on the “quality” of the evidence when it is really difficult, if not impossible, to produce high-quality nutrition research.
Another criticism is that the reviews focused on the effects of what the authors considered a “realistic reduction in meat consumption”, which was defined as a decrease of three servings of meat per week, as opposed to say, comparing omnivores with vegetarians/vegans, which could have led to more significant results.
Finally, the panel did not consider animal welfare and environmental impacts of eating meat, stating that they were “outside the scope” of the review, and also did not give a lot of weight to cost, accessibility, and equity.
So… Is it OK to Eat Red Meat or Processed Meat?
There are lots of reasons why people choose to eat, or not eat, red meat, processed meat, or any other food for that matter. As a dietitian whose practice is informed by intuitive eating, mindful eating, and Health At Every Size®, I emphasize body autonomy and “gentle nutrition”. In other words, guidelines like this can help inform our decision, but shouldn’t be seen as the be-all-end-all. Trying to eat according to the latest research can only lead to frustration, especially when our other values are thrown to the side as a result. So if we go back to my initial interpretation of the “guidelines” as saying, “You do you… I guess?” Then I guess you could say that I agree with them.