Health and Wellness

Study suggests eating less red and processed meat may not improve your health—but there's a catch

@ajknapp | Twenty20

Most of us have heard that red meat and processed meat is not great for your health and should only be consumed in small amounts.

Previous studies have linked red and processed meat intake to an increase in certain cancers and heart disease. The rise of plant-based meat alternatives, such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, has made reducing or eliminating red meat from your diet easier than ever.

But new guidelines published Tuesday in the Annals of Internal Medicine flip this long-held understanding on its head.

The new analysis was conducted by NutriRECS, an independent group of nutritionists and health researchers, who says its mission is to "produce trustworthy nutritional guideline recommendations based on the values, attitudes and preferences of patients and community members."

NutriRECS determined that there's "low- to very low-certainty evidence" that reducing red and processed meat consumption will reduce the risk for developing heart disease or dying from cancer. The group essentially recommends that adults should "continue current unprocessed red meat" and "processed meat" consumption, rather than scale back.

But a large number of nutrition experts and physicians are not board with NutriRECS' findings. Most of the pushback has to do with the way that the findings were construed and the severity of the recommendations.

In fact, experts from the Harvard T. Chan School of Public Health said in a blog post that the paper's aim is "puzzling" and the reasons for their recommendations are "problematic."

A separate group of physicians and public health experts from the True Health Initiative, an organization aimed at "fighting fake facts," wrote a collective letter pleading the authors not to publish the paper "for the sake of public understanding and public health."

The American Cancer Society also issued a statement clarifying that, despite the news, they still "recommend limiting consumption of red and processed meat in order to save lives from cancer."

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"I am surprised by the interpretation of the data and the conclusion/recommendation by the NutriRECS consortium authors," Sylvia Ley, a registered dietitian and assistant professor at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine told CNBC Make It in an email.

The panel reviewed studies that looked at how red and processed meat affect health outcomes, then assigned grades to the research. (The grades came from software that's typically used to rate the quality of scientific evidence.) The systematized grades determined that the past observational studies on meat were "low quality."

Ironically, Ley said the data published in the results and tables of the paper is consistent with previous findings about lower intake of red and processed meat. The guidelines presented in the paper seem to contradict their own findings.

"The panel's blanket recommendation that adults should continue their red meat consumption habits is highly irresponsible," Frank Hu, chair of the department of nutrition at Harvard said in a statement to True Health Initiative. "We are facing a growing epidemic of diet-related chronic diseases and a climate change crisis, both of which are linked to high meat consumption."

The authors in this new study exclusively focused on health-related outcomes and decided that environmental and animal welfare factors were "outside the scope" of this study.

But they did take people's values and preferences into consideration. The authors wrote that, "omnivores enjoy eating meat and consider it an essential component of a healthy diet." The researchers added that most omnivores are hesitant to give up meat, even understanding the "potentially undesirable health effects."

So, what should consumers looking to eat a health-promoting diet do? Ley's advice is to follow the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which note that consumers can get their protein from a variety of sources, not just from meat.

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