- A new study finds that eating red meat isn’t associated with increased risk of cancer or heart disease.
- This goes against long-held scientific opinion that red meat is associated with an increased risk of certain health conditions.
- But experts say this doesn’t mean you can eat burgers every day, and that more research needs to be done.
We’ve heard it for years: Cut back on red meat in favor of lean meats like fish or chicken. But now researchers say there’s evidence red meat may not be quite as bad for our health as we’ve thought.
A rigorous review of the evidence finds little to no health benefit from reducing red or processed meat consumption from average levels. But don’t think this means you can go and have a burger every day.
While the study seems to fly in the face of decades of research, the study authors actually looked at past research to understand the risks of consuming red meat.
Researchers didn’t find a statistically significant or important association between meat eating and heart disease, diabetes, or cancer risk after looking at 12 randomized trials involving about 54,000 people.
“It’s not necessarily new research. They’ve taken large bodies of previous research and put them into a single study called a systematic review, which analyzes previous studies in great detail,” said Dena Champion, registered dietitian at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and not associated with the study.
They found there was less risk for those consuming three fewer servings of red or processed meat per week, although they claim “the association was very uncertain.”
Based on a series of five high-quality systematic reviews investigating the relationship between meat and health, a panel of experts with NutriRECS advises that most people can eat red and processed meat at present, average consumption levels.
For adults in North America and Europe this means about 3 to 4 times per week.
“NutriRECS is a group of scientists and public partners from around the world interested in improving the quality of nutritional guidelines using international standards set forth by AGREE, the GRADE working group, and the National Academy of Medicine,” lead author of the recommendations, Bradley Johnston, PhD, associate professor at Dalhousie University, told Healthline.
Johnston said he and his fellow researchers were aware that current guidelines on red and processed meat consumption left room for improvement, “particularly with respect to systematic review methodology, and presentation of the absolute magnitude of effect,” which is the absolute risk per 1,000 people followed over time.
He added this was also true of the way studies had assessed public values and preferences and the certainty of the estimates for meat consumption and the risk for cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
Johnston emphasized that although ethical or environmental concerns weren’t addressed when making the recommendations, “A number of the guideline panel members eliminated or reduced their personal red and processed meat intake for animal welfare or environmental reasons.”
After looking at the randomized trials, the researchers discovered that eating meat did not appear to put people at increased risk for a host of health conditions, including heart disease and cancer.
However, after analyzing additional studies with millions of participants, the researchers did find evidence of small reduction in risk.
She said high-temperature cooking like frying and grilling has been associated with potentially carcinogenic chemicals created by the flame and smoke they create.
“Until we have definitive research showing this is safe, avoid cooking meat directly in an open flame or hot surface for a prolonged period of time. Turn your meat over continuously during cooking and remove charred meat before consuming,” she cautioned.
“Of course, deep-frying or battering — that’s not a healthy way to cook foods since you’re adding even more fat and calories, so that’s certainly something to think about,” added Champion.
The findings also don’t mean we can eat unlimited amounts of meat.
“This isn’t an endorsement of gluttony. The study had no way of answering whether more than ‘moderate’ consumption made any difference. Likewise, the study couldn’t easily break down the different types of meats or how they were prepared,” said Dr. Joshua S. Yamamoto, FACC, cardiologist, co-founder of the Foxhall Foundation and co-author of “You Can Prevent a Stroke.”
Wood advises this doesn’t change how experts view processed meat. Wood says people should significantly limit their processed meat intake.
She says these meats are high in sodium and saturated fat, which have been
“Most of the data suggests large amounts of red and processed meat leads to poor health outcomes; however, most of it is observational by nature, that’s how we get a lot of our recommendations,” said Champion. “What these authors are saying is that these findings are weak and low-quality, but this doesn’t mean that red and processed meats are healthy or that you can eat as much as you want.”
Wood said we should aim to make our diet plant-based at least 90 percent of the time and enjoy red meat conservatively. “Fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, and whole grains are lower in calories and beneficial, not only for health but to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight,” she said.
“Current guidelines should guide the public toward plant-based eating, primarily for the overwhelming
An examination of several studies involving a very large number of people finds that moderate consumption of red and processed meats doesn’t negatively affect health.
Experts say that this doesn’t mean that eating these foods is necessarily healthy or that we can eat unlimited quantities without consequences. They add that high sodium and saturated fat consumption are still associated with increased health risks.
They also point out the overwhelming positive health impact associated with a plant-based diet that includes generous amounts of fruits and vegetables.