Red Meat and Your Health: Should You Cut Back?

Carving up the latest studies on red meat to reveal what we know — and what we don’t.

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What Type Of Studies Were Done?

The news headlines stem from a collection of five meta-analyses — studies that analyze existing data, in order to summarize overall trends [see lead research article by Johnston, BC et al]. The five studies were limited to human data, and included many large observational studies as well as one randomized controlled trial. Each study compared rates of disease and death from common conditions (cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes) in those who consumed more red meat (either processed or not) to those who consumed less red meat.

What Did They Find?

In many ways, the findings were familiar: those who ate less red meat tended to have a lower risk of disease and death.

How Did The Authors Evaluate The Quality Of Evidence?

The authors used the GRADE framework for ranking evidence, one that was developed for clinical decision making. This framework ranks all observational studies, in which we observe people’s diets but don’t control them, as “low”. Such studies are, by necessity, the bread and butter of nutritional science.

Same Story, Different Ending

The biggest criticisms of this latest study relate to how they are translated (or not) into dietary recommendations. The three big issues are:

  • Studies comparing vegetarians and meat-eaters.
  • Laboratory and animal studies, which inform potential mechanisms and biological plausibility.

The Bottom Line

It’s impossible to predict the precise impact of a dietary change. The best we can do is make educated guesses, based on large populations. Given this uncertainty, it’s not surprising that different advisory groups reach different conclusions based on their priorities (e.g. public health vs individual; environment; other) and their views on the appropriate bar for evidence.

Written by

Scientist (PhD Genetics @Stanford) * Mother * Passionate about science-based healthy choices * Lifelong learner * Founder: Fueled by Science

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