The People's Perspective on Medicine

Is Meat OK to Eat Now? Do Food Flip-Flops Make You Mad?

Public health experts have told us for decades that red meat causes heart attacks and cancer. But new studies question that dogma. Is meat OK after all?

There’s another huge reversal in dietary advice. This is the biggest yet! First we were told to avoid eggs, and then we learned eggs are just fine. We were warned to use margarine instead of butter, and then it turned out that trans-fats in most margarines were worse for our health than butter. For decades we’ve been told that eating red meat, especially processed meat, is almost tantamount to a death wish. Is red meat OK after all? Are you thoroughly confused or do these flip-flops drive you crazy?

Have You Read the Headlines?

Depending upon your news service you could read very different accounts of the latest research. Is meat OK or bad for your health. Here are just a handful of conflicting headlines:

“Is meat really that bad for you?” (BBC, Oct. 3, 2019)

“Steak is back on the menu, if a new review of risks of red meat is to be believed” (Reuters, Sept. 30, 2019)

“Red and processed meat are OK to eat, controversial new guidelines claim. Don’t believe it, leading experts say” (CNN Sept. 30, 2019)

“New Studies on Red and Processed Meat Are a Big, Fat Nothingburger” (Union of Concerned Scientists, Oct. 2, 2019)

“Eat Less Red Meat, Scientists Said. Now Some Believe That Was Bad Advice” (New York Times, Sept. 30, 2019

What Does the Research Reveal? Is Meat OK?

The current issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine (Oct. 1, 2019) has created an epic earthquake in nutrition land. It presented four different analyses of nutritional data showing that any health hazard from eating red meat is modest at best. Here is a link to an editorial in the Annals. It is written by Dr. Aaron Carroll and Dr. Tiffany Doherty and  provides a thoughtful overview of the data: 

1) One meta-analysis reviewed the results of 100 studies including a total of 6 million participants. It revealed that dietary patterns, including the amount of meat people usually consume, don’t have a big impact on people’s likelihood of getting cancer and dying prematurely.

2) Another analysis looked at cohort studies that considered how reducing red meat consumption affects the risk of cancer and early death. It too involved 6 million people in 118 studies. It showed only a small benefit from reducing the amount of meat people eat.

3) A third study looked at cardiovascular consequences of eating meat. You guessed it: the risk in these cohort studies was tiny.

4) Finally, the researchers analyzed results from randomized controlled trials comparing diets with different amounts of meat. Such studies are considered the gold standard for medical research. In these 12 studies, red meat had:

“little or no effect on major cardiometabolic outcomes and cancer mortality and incidence.”

Nutrition Establishment Fights Back! Meat OK? Not on Your life!

The backlash has been intense. Many nutrition scientists strongly disagree with the conclusions of these analyses. Public health organizations have been calling for reduced consumption of red meat for decades.

NPR offered the following quotes from renowned nutrition experts: 

“’I am outraged and bewildered,’ says nutrition scientist Christopher Gardner, a professor of medicine at Stanford University. 

“’This is perplexing, given the … clear evidence for harm associated with high red meat intake,’ says Frank Hu, the chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“Gardner and Hu are among a group of scientists who signed a letter to the journal’s editor requesting the papers be held pending further review. Others include Dariush Mozaffarian, the dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts University, as well as Eric Rimm and Dr. Walter Willett, also of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.”

Our Conflict of Interest:

We have interviewed Dr. Walter Willett and Dr. Christopher Gardner many times on our syndicated public radio show.  We have also spoken with Dr. Mozaffarian. We appreciate their research and understand their outrage. They have all been strong advocates of a plant-based diet. We have also interviewed Dr. Aaron Carroll who co-wrote the editorial in the Annals of Internal Medicine

That said, we try to remain objective about new research. We admit that we are not always successful, but we do try. Is meat OK? Listen to our interview with Dr. Aaron Carroll to get his perspective on a variety of “risks,” including bacon and wine. He will explain in understandable language how to make sense of various kinds of research including case-control studies and randomized controlled trials. You will also learn about absolute risk and relative risk. Find out about the pros and cons of wine and spirits. Here is a link to the free podcast.

Show 1141: Which Health Risks Should You Worry About?

So, Is Meat OK or Not?

As we mentioned, Dr. Carroll co-authored a very sensible editorial in this month’s Annals of Internal Medicine. He puts the new research into perspective.

Here are a few of the observations the editorial provides:

“There is controversy over whether consumption of meat, and what kind of meat, leads to poor health outcomes, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. Although many studies report health risks, many—some even examining the same data sets as those reporting a significant risk—do not. Some reviews of the literature conclude that processed meat is carcinogenic, and red meats are ‘probably carcinogenic’. Other reviews conclude that evidence supporting the association between red meat consumption and colon cancer and cardiovascular disease is weak.”

Dr. Carroll and his colleague carefully analyze the four new studies in the Annals of Internal Medicine that conclude reductions in red meat consumption have marginal health benefits. There are also new guidelines in the journal that do not recommend red meat reductions.

The editorialists note:

“This is sure to be controversial, but it is based on the most comprehensive review of the evidence to date. Because that review is inclusive, those who seek to dispute it will be hard pressed to find appropriate evidence with which to build an argument.”

“Research suggests that presenting an individual with information that opposes their beliefs could result in them holding on more tightly to those beliefs.”

The authors also point out that there are other reasons besides health that might inspire people to reduce their meat consumption. Animal welfare and environmental conditions are both considerations. Here is an article in The New York Times that Dr. Carroll has also written about this very issue (New York Times, Oct. 1, 2019). 

The Real Problem With Beef

Reader Feedback Welcome:

What do you think? Is meat OK or should it be shunned? Who should decide food policy? Should decisions be based on science or beliefs? Are you fed up with food flip-flops? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
Show 1141: Which Health Risks Should You Worry About?
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Common sense and paying attention to the way studies are conducted and interpreted can tell you which health risks a real menace.

Show 1141: Which Health Risks Should You Worry About?
Citations
  • Carroll, A.E., and Doherty, T.S., "Meat Consumption and Health: Food for Thought," Annals of Internal Medicine, Oct. 1, 2019, DOI: 10.7326/M19-2620
  • Valli, C., et al, "Health-Related Values and Preferences Regarding Meat Consumption: A Mixed-Methods Systematic Review," Annals of Internal Medicine, Oct. 1, 2019, DOI: 10.7326/M19-1326
  • Zeraaker, D., et al, "Red and Processed Meat Consumption and Risk for All-Cause Mortality and Cardiometabolic Outcomes: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Cohort Studies," Annals of Internal Medicine, Oct. 1, 2019, DOI: 10.7326/M19-0655
  • Han, M.A., et al, "Reduction of Red and Processed Meat Intake and Cancer Mortality and Incidence: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Cohort Studies," Annals of Internal Medicine, Oct. 1, 2019, DOI: 10.7326/M19-0699
  • Vernooij, R.W.M., et al, "Patterns of Red and Processed Meat Consumption and Risk for Cardiometabolic and Cancer Outcomes: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Cohort Studies," Annals of Internal Medicine, Oct. 1, 2019, DOI: 10.7326/M19-1583
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Why can’t each individual just eat what keeps them healthy & feeling good? (Not too many M & M’s haha)

I love the People’s Pharmacy but this article was fairly useless. It seemed to mildly defend the new study but did not really articulate the basis for those who are troubled by it.

There has been a lot of reporting on studies that show meat consumption can lead to health problems and early death (I note that was not discussed when reporting the new study). Were those reports inaccurate? If not, why are they being discarded now?

I think the moderation point is correct. I also think it is worth mention that observational studies are problematic. Using huge numbers (6 million etc.) makes this analysis seem more powerful than it is.

Eating excessive meat is unquestionably bad for the environment. Eating processed meat is surely bad for you. Keep it moderate and clean and you are probably OK.

Dear LDCMA,

We completely agree with you that observational studies (epidemiology) “are problematic.” Sadly, most of the studies that you are referring to that “show meat consumption can lead to health problems,” are observational.

You must have missed the part of our article that refers to randomized controlled trials (RCTs). Here is what we wrote:

Finally, the researchers analyzed results from randomized controlled trials comparing diets with different amounts of meat. Such studies are considered the gold standard for medical research. In these 12 studies, red meat had:

“little or no effect on major cardiometabolic outcomes and cancer mortality and incidence.”

Please do not shoot the messengers. We tried to report on this comprehensive analysis of four studies fairly. We did not come with preconceived ideas of what they should have discovered.

What they’re not saying in the new meat study is that a lead researcher, Bradley C. Johnston, has ties to the red meat industry from as early as 2016. He felt that he didn’t need to disclose that fact. Johnston also received money from a sugar lobbiest right before he released a study that showed sugar wasn’t that bad for you either.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/04/well/eat/scientist-who-discredited-meat-guidelines-didnt-report-past-food-industry-ties.html

In yesterday’s ‘New York Times’, page A19 there is an article about this research. It states that one of the researchers involved in this study, Dr. Bradley C. Johnson, has links to a meat trade group. Not surprising considering the ‘results’ of the study.

People have been eating beef for years. I eat a variety of meat of fish and have meatless meals mixed in. Having a variety of foods lends itself to moderation. I appreciate the plant-based diets as they have contributed many wonderful recipes utilizing fruits and vegetables, but most people need the protein and B12 from meats.

THE PEOPLE WHO SOLD CIGARETTES SAID THEY WERE, “OK.’ THE PEOPLE WHO SELL SUGAR SAY, “EAT MORE’ !! THE RED MEAT INDUSTRY NOW SAYS, ” EAT MORE RED MEAT ? ”

DOES ANYONE EVER LOOK TO SEE WHO DID EACH SET OF STUDIES ? INDEPENDENT RESEARCHERS OR INDUSTRY ‘RESEARCHERS ? WHICH SAID WHICH ?

OUR DYSTRUMPIAN WORLD MARCHES ON !!!

David,

We are very sympathetic to your perspective. That said, we would have NO-zero-nada-nothing-in the way of new drugs if we adhered to your demand for independent researchers. Drug companies sponsor virtually ALL the research on medications and they obviously have a vested interest in the outcomes.

The people who did this research are scientists. The reviewers from the Annals of Internal Medicine are also good scientists. If the research were bogus it would not have been published.

Every couple of month/years you hear all the “experts” screaming how bad meat, eggs, milk are for everyone. My simple thought is….if our food ie meat vegtables and dairy were not contaminated with GMO’s Growth Hormones and Antibotic’s everyone would be alot healthier. Happiness is not lisening to the “experts”.

I believe moderation is the answer. Long long ago, refrigeration was not available and when an animal was butchered, the family and neighbors go together and they enjoyed meat for a few days. Then, they went without meat for several weeks or maybe months.

Biblically, meat is ok. I go by what my healthy parents and grandparents ate.. at 78yrs, so far healthy.

Curiously we have to learn that whole grains, fruits, vegetables and nuts that you prepare yourself and non-carbonated water is the most healthful diet. It would seem intuitive. I guess it shows how young a species we are.

The wheat and oats, etc are contaminated with pesticides and genetically modified causing inflammation for many of us. Daniel Boone reportedly went on a walk about with native Americans for a couple years and did not eat wheat, salt or sugar and lived to a ripe old age. Oh yes he did exercise.

As far as I’m concerned, I will continue to eat a little of everything. I have found that it keeps my cravings in check. My checkups with my doctor continue to be good. I am 73 years of age. So the old saying, ” all things in moderation” seems to work for me.

Honestly, I just ignore them now. You do not know how well the studies were executed. Remember the demise of saccharine? A human could not have consumed that much soda a day, but they said it caused cancer and the diet soft drinks dumped it as their artificial sweetener. This flip-flopping has gone on for decades.

I believe the scientific community believes they know and understand far more than they actually do. We were given canine teeth to help us tear meat. I will continue to use them for their purpose.

Outrage does not belong in scientific research. The resesrch studies should answer the questions about eating red meat, not rhetoric or emtional pleas. Also arguing moderation is not very scientific neither is compromising. We should clarify the facts, present the facts, and come to conclusions based on research. If we can not do that here, why do we need to do research?

Obviously, like life, these group studies are made up of individuals. We have to make our own decisions; good or bad. Our world is not perfect. Neither are those who run it or test it.

I am a type II diabetic. It was not caused by red meat. BUT, the chemicals & processes used in the meat certainly contributed greatly to the onset. Avoiding both now hugely affects my ability to keep my A1c low.

Like the man said; “moderation”. Sugars in any form are poison for me. Not true for a majority of the population. Take the news with a grain of salt.

:) Unless, of course, salt is not good for you. ;)

Were any meat industries funders of any or all of the studies, or the researchers themselves?
Do the universities receive donations/fundings from the meat industry, including non named non profits that are shills for the meat industry?
Any conflicts of interest?

See my response about the pharmaceutical industry. It is almost impossible to eliminate bias. Should a vegetarian be allowed to do research on nutrition? Should a meat eater be allowed to do nutrition research? Eliminating even subtle bias is challenging. If we told the FDA that it could not approve any pharmaceutical that was funded by the drug industry there would be no more medications.

To the earlier commenter: Neal Barnard is great, but keep in mind, he is an animal rights advocate. He absolutely has a bias in favor of a vegan diet.

I am also an animal advocate, but I know that the history of humankind is filled with famine and starvation and I therefore believe we did evolve to eat meat, not that it makes me happy to kill animals for food.

Most beef today has antibotics and hormones in them. That being the case I cannot listen to all the “talking heads” about what is bad and what is good. Used to be eggs were bad. Man has been eating beef and eggs for thousands of years. It is not the meat. It is the chemicals in them. Yes, all things in moderation. Now I have to make a reservation for my local steak house.

I have always been suspicious of statements that begin “X is good (or bad) for you,” because every body is different, and the factors affecting our health are many. I myself follow the blood-type diet, which (like Ayurveda) acknowledges that individuals respond differently to different foods.

Perhaps more than anything is moderation as one poster mentioned. Also portion control. Most folks eat 50-75% more than needed and guess what it goes through the body and you are literally full of ****. As you get older you may need supplements but need to be careful about problems related to possible illnesses. Also consider toxic awareness and occasional fasting and possibly enzymes to help with digestion. Education is the key to a better life and laughing – depression if you’re not careful.

A year ago I was diagnosed with anemia but the iron pills which I was prescribed (two a day) were intolerable in regard to constipation. I can tolerate one pill every other day and I increased my red meat consumption. My cholesterol actually went down and my iron levels came out normal after 6 months. I think everyone is different and as they say, moderation in all is important. I was a vegetarian for a few years when I was young and I have to say it did not agree with me, I had digestion issues the entire time which stopped for the most part when I reintroduced meat into my diet.

Everything in moderation. We’re carnivores/ hunter gatherers, now at the grocery store, not off the land. Find meat that is clean and ethically grown, chicken, and pork as well, clean produce, then wash it well I feel most people will be just fine unless a specific disease prohibits a food group.

I have long believed that it’s the diet as a whole that is important. When it comes to consuming red meat, it is probably not a question of do you consume it, yes or no, but how much and with what? Surely there’s a big difference between sitting down to a plate of meat and potatoes versus a huge, colorful leafy green salad with a small burger on the side.

Balance!! That is what I strive for and a lot of fiber, vegetables and fruit. I do not overdo the red meat and include varied forms of protein.

I watched a video re cow slaughtering in the US.
The feeding and handling practices of beef are very questionable.

The seemingly conflicting studies do lead to frustration with the scientific community. The problem is exasperated by the media’s seemingly blind reporting of the conflicting information. The media is without an understanding of what scientists are actually stating in many cases making me wonder if they are qualified to report on these subjects.

I think all the red meat studies are pretty useless until we break down consumption of unprocessed, fresh red meat, from processed red meats, which are full of carcinogenic preservatives.

My cardiologist (who has also done research in the field of “nutritional cardiology”) tells me that if I had disregarded all my “dietary/politically correct” friends who, in the 80s, 90s, and 00s, told me that, instead of beef and pork, I should to east gobs and gobs of pasta, bread, potatoes, soybean tofu, beans, rice, etc. not only would my weight be less and more easily maintained, but my triglycerides and inflammation would have much lower. (These are the two primary causes of my heart problems)

In the age of climate destabilisation, global warming and draught, pound for pound, live stock, and beef especially, require far more water, and emit far more methane and CO2 than does a plant-based diet. Beyond our anthropocentric fixation of individual health there are also many reasons to consider the health of our ecosystems and global impact.

The most important reason not to eat meat is the resources needed to feed cows, pigs, and chickens. Eating lower on the food chain is better for the environment.

I’m comfortable with the new studies, and not surprised. Another angle not addressed is sleep/digestion factor and red meat. As I’ve aged, I’ve noticed that I don’t rest as well after dinner of red meat. Slight constipation also follows such a dinner. For years, my husband enjoyed sirloin steak, grilled med rare 3 times a week with no adverse reaction.

These conclusions are good for those of us who have continued to eat meat, including red meat. Because of all the warnings however, I have changed the type of meat I eat. I buy organic grass fed, with no preservatives, nitrites/nitrates or added hormones, etc. When are researchers going to start looking at the differences in meat to see if meat filled with chemicals versus organic meat affects health/mortality? Maybe I am wasting my money buying the expensive meat!

As a biological anthropologist who teaches a biocultural approach to nutritional anthropology, I’d be interested in your views as an anthropologist. I find all these types of “nutrition wars” interesting and informative regarding culture but not so much regarding biology, health, evolutionary medicine.

Agree with ‘everything in moderation’. I’m a healthy and healthy weight 62 yr old. I exercise and i always eat a variety of foods. I eat less red meat than in the past, but steak and **bacon! are a part if my life!
A healthy lifestyle, regular physicals and common sense will serve you better than these frequently changing study results.

It appears to me that the results of many of these studies are directly related to who is doing the study. How can you trust them? I am still going to drink coffee, eat eggs, eat some meats, say no to prescription drugs, continue to fast, take some supplements, use the doctor as the emergency option or last resort and continue to do research on healthy living. I think the problems arise when you over-do something. But it seems more and more to me that fructose is about the most harmful substance you can eat. Yet, sugar is put into everything.

The old adage “all things in moderation”should apply in the meat controversy for most folks. That said, I personally have benefited from following a keto diet the last few years. I have lost nearly 100 lbs & have never felt better. I eat plenty of meat but also lots of fresh non starchy veggies. All of it as pure & free of chemical additives as possible. Bottom line is everyone has to figure out what works best for them. With diet there’s no “one size fits all”.

38 years ago we had no tv so we listened to the radio during the day. One day on a local talk program at noon I heard an “expert” saying that Americans needed to eat more dairy every day, we didn’t get enough vitamin D and so on. We needed to drink milk, eat cheeses ans so on.
The next day, exactly 24 hours later, I again had the radio on while I ate lunch.
The days guest on the talk show was another “expert”. This one was explaining how Americans took in too much fat and sodium and that one of the culprits was, WAIT FOR IT!, DAIRY!!!!
We needed to limit our intake of milk, drinking only non fat, eating less cheese, and so on. Thee two programs were exactly 24 hours apart. And ever since then I’ve just let these flip flops roll off my back.
I’m a 24 year breast cancer survivor so maybe I’m doing something right.

I am almost 60 years old and there is not a single food item that I enjoy that does not have a risk associated with it. Wine, coffee, cheese, my mother’s pound cake, smokey ribs—-all have warning signs! There is a degree of pleasure in the eating ritual. And while pleasure certainly adds to the journey of life, there must also be a balance. So, for the remainder of my journey I am going to live it in moderation as it relates to my food choices, continue to reduce my stress level, and exercise. I will not be held captive by a laundry list of what someone says I can and can’t enjoy—-which, I should point out, changes as often as I do laundry!

I think that if we separate CAFO red meat from grass fed and finished we might see more clearly the effects on our health. It may be the hormones and antibiotics and GMO corn fed to CAFO beef that is the source of danger.

According to Dr. Neal Barnard of Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, the four meta studies all showed significant reductions in diseases, even if only three meals per week were meatless. It was in the editorial that it was recommended to eat meat due to the inconvenience of eating a plant based diet. The PCRM has filed a complaint with the FTC for false and irresponsible advertising. One of the researchers, Piper, who evaluated the meta studies asked the Journal not to print the editorial recommendations to continue eating meat. 500 researchers from Yale have asked the Journal to correct the error.
Check out pcrm.org for details

Unfortunately the editorial uses “many” so often it is as bad as the studies it proposes to summarize! How many is “many”? And if the metadata reports are using data from studies that use questionable methods where the original data is suspect, combining them is hardly better. I’m not sure you helped much with what you provided here

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