Red Meat: to eat or not to eat?

Our conflicted attitude about eating red meat was on full display last week with the publication of a new “guideline” from the NutriRECS Consortium. The report was an extreme exercise in statistical analysis of other studies about meat and health. The basic conclusion: you can keep eating red meat, even processed red meat. It won’t kill you.

At which point all hell broke loose. The usual suspects from mainstream nutrition and health organizations screamed bloody murder. How dare they suggest red meat won’t kill you! We know better! We’re the approved “experts”, not you! You could practically see their snarling facial expressions jump off the page.

I had never heard of the NutriRECS Consortium, so I looked it up. It’s a collection of health and nutrition scientists with impressive credentials, from around the world. And by the way, none of them reported any funding from red meat-producing sources. Shocking!

So what about this new guideline? I’ve never been impressed by the claims that red meat is deadly. For one thing, if your diet is loaded with red meat, you aren’t eating other foods that may in fact improve your health. There are people who eat that way: unbalanced one-dimensional diets. As one of the study authors pointed out, a lot of researchers who claim meat is bad just cherry-picked the meat consumption data, ignoring the other aspects of meat-heavy diets.

Let’s say you run a study and half of the subjects cut back on meat, by half or maybe they completely eliminate it. If their risks for health problems decrease, is it because they aren’t eating meat? Or because they had to fill in their diets with other kinds of foods. Vegetables? Grains? Fruit? Legumes? More salads? More pasta with tomato sauce? Pizza with vegetables instead of sausage? Yogurt and cereal instead of sausage egg sandwiches? Less salt? More fiber? More vegetable fats? It’s more accurate to conclude that a diet that’s overly dependent on meat is not healthy because it’s an unbalanced diet, not because meat is inherently unhealthy. This is not rocket science.

The NutriRECS Consortium published their findings as guidelines. A big No No in the opinion of the “official” experts. Guidelines are their exclusive responsibility because….. hmmm. They’re in with the health and diet In Crowd? They’re Main Stream Media darlings? They work at Hahvahd? They work for the government, approved source of all official guidelines? For me, the most hilarious outcome is the hissing outrage from the official experts. They’re the anointed ones; everyone else should shut up. Anointed by whom, you might ask? By each other. In Crowd membership is reserved for people with correct opinions.

I have to say, it was gutsy of this Consortium to publish their findings as Guidelines. But I always like people who shake up the entrenched status quo. And the diet/nutrition advice industry definitely needs a shake up. As Consortium members noted:

We have saturated the market with warnings about the dangers of red meat. It would be hard to find someone who doesn’t “know” that experts think we should all eat less. Continuing to broadcast that fact, with more and more shaky studies touting potential small relative risks, is not changing anyone’s mind.

Aaron Carroll, MD, MS, and Tiffany Doherty, PhD,

And isn’t that the point: convincing people to eat more healthful diets? I sometimes think that’s not actually the goal of our official “experts”. They’d rather just dish out scolding judgment from their ivory towers. Sometimes is seems like meat eating is now a marker for class. Elitists are all gushing over (highly processed) plant burgers while the peasants eat meat.

What do I do? I’m not changing anything about my red meat consumption. It’s already low, and I’m fine with that. I don’t recommend meat heavy diets at all (I’m looking at you, Paleo fanatics!). I also don’t recommend huge portions. Who needs a 16 oz steak? Or an 8 oz steak for that matter? You just don’t. All the data I see about protein intake indicates eating about 30 grams per meal is sufficient, and that’s about as much as you’d get from a meal with a modest 4 oz hamburger. So ditch the giant portions. You need more of other sorts of foods on your plate. And by that I mean real food like vegetables, grain foods, fruit, legumes and nuts. NOT plant burgers.

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