Red meat: Healthy or not?

If you love crisp bacon for breakfast or a juicy burger for dinner, you were probably excited by the recommendations published in the Annals of Internal Medicine last October. A controversial new study came to the surprising conclusion that adults should continue with their current consumption of red meat and processed meat, contradicting the long-standing guidance of the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, and other health organizations that recommend limiting how much red and processed meat you eat.

Based on their analysis of existing research, the study’s authors concluded there was not enough evidence to prove that eating processed or red meat is harmful to one’s health. However, medical and nutrition experts have questioned the study’s methodology. And, a conflict of interest was later discovered that linked the study’s chief researcher to the meat industry.

So who should you believe?

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), study after study has tied red meat to increased risks of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, and diabetes. For example, one particularly extensive research project looked at 37,000 men and 83,000 women over decades and found that an extra daily serving of processed meat (such as bacon, hot dogs, sausage, and salami) raised the risk of mortality by 20%. In contrast, the researchers calculated that if study participants had consumed fewer than half a serving per day (about 1.5 ounces) of red meat, 9.3% of the deaths in men and 7.6% of the deaths in women could have been prevented.

Nutritional science is complicated

It can be difficult — maybe impossible — to find a definitive answer to the question, “What should I eat?”. Depending on which popular dietary fad you’re reading about, meat is either forbidden or a primary part of your daily meal plan. Rather than trying to choose between Paleo or vegan, ketogenic or Whole30, the best advice is to rely on guidelines from trusted organizations like the NIH, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and many others that recommend a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, while limiting your intake of sugar, salt, and saturated fats.

Follow a healthy eating pattern

Keep these dietary guidelines (published by the US Department of Health and Human Services and US Department of Agriculture) in mind when making your food choices:

A healthy eating pattern includes:

  • A variety of vegetables from all of the subgroups — dark green, red and orange, legumes (beans and peas), starchy, and other
  • Fruits, especially whole fruits
  • Grains, at least half of which are whole grains
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese, and/or fortified soy beverages
  • A variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), and nuts, seeds, and soy products
  • Oils

A healthy eating pattern limits:

  • Saturated fats and trans fats, added sugars, and sodium
  • Fact or fiction?

    With so much contradictory and confusing health information out there, it can be hard to know what’s fact and what’s fiction. Try this fun Myth Busters quiz to see if you can tell the difference.

    Sources: “Unprocessed red meat and processed meat consumption: Dietary guideline recommendations from the Nutritional Recommendations (NutriRECS) Consortium,” Annals of Internal Medicine, November 19, 2019 (corrected version); “Should you keep eating red meat? Controversial study says well-known health risks are just bad science,” USA Today, October 3, 2019; “Here’s the real truth about that confusing red meat study,” Health Nerd, October 2, 2019; “Author of study saying red meat is fine failed to disclose industry funding, journal reveals,” The Washington Post, January 7, 2020; American Heart Association (www.heart.org); American Cancer Society (www.cancer.org); Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov); National Institutes of Health (www.nih.gov); Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (www.health.gov).