study that finds eating meat bad for cancer, heart disease, diabetes recommends eating meat

A new study has recommended that people continue to eat red meat and processed red meat in the same quantity they always have. But, that flies in the face of a huge body of current scientific evidence. So, what happened?

If you’re confused by the recent study, you’re not alone: the recent study is confused by the recent study. Its recommendations are made seemingly in ignorance of its own findings. And several of the panel members disagree with the recommendations of the panel. So bad is this study, that Harvard nutrition experts who are some of the world’s most respected nutrition researchers tried hard to get the publication of the study postponed.

The new study claimed to use five reviews that informed their recommendation to keep eating red and processed meat. But one of those reviews is not a review of the health consequences of eating red or processed meat at all: it is a review of taste preferences regarding meat consumption. This review has no place in arriving at conclusions about the health effects of eating meat nor the development of dietary guidelines. Another of the reviews was not a review of studies on reducing meat. It was study of low fat diets, not of low red or processed meat diets. Indeed, the review was not a review at all, since it only included one (irrelevant) study.

That leaves three, not five reviews, to combat the huge body of existing studies. And, despite the conclusion of the new study, the three reviews do not combat the conclusions of the huge body of existing studies. Despite the recommendations of the self-appointed panel, all three of their meta-analyses found statistically significant reductions of premature death, death from cardiovascular disease, death from cancer and risk of type II diabetes when red and processed meat consumption is reduced. The actual conclusion of their meta-analysis of large cohort studies is that eating less red or processed meat lowered total mortality by 13%! It specifically lowered death from cardiovascular disease by 14% and death from cancer by 11%. Risk of type II diabetes went down by 24%. Hardly numbers that lead to the conclusion that you should ignore the heavy and solidly supported advice to cut down on red and processed meat.

Another serious flaw of the new study is that they employed an inappropriate evidence grading scale, unfairly labeled the evidence for reducing meat consumption as weak, then weighted the weak evidence of the studies too dominantly over the conclusions of all the studies. The Harvard nutrition experts argue that the authors of the new study used a quality of evidence scale that is appropriate for drug studies but not nutrition studies. Had they used accepted quality of evidence scales that have been adapted to nutrition research, the Harvard researchers say, the evidence for reducing red and processed meat would have been not “very weak,” but “moderate” or better. It is for reasons like these that a dissenting member of the new study’s panel, Dr. John Sievenpiper, professor of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto, complained that the authors of the new recommendations “chose to play up the low certainty of evidence . . . as opposed to the protective associations that directly support current recommendations to lower meat intake.”

The conclusion to reduce the amount of red meat and processed you eat would have been even stronger if the researchers had considered studies that don’t just consider meat reduction but also what replaces the meat.  The problem with a lot of dietary research is that it compares eating meat to not eating meat without asking what the meat is being replaced with. If you replace red or processed meat with another food that is bad, like a different kind of meat, eliminating meat won’t look as good as if you replace the meat with something that is good, like a legume. Several more careful recent studies that have used this methodology have arrived at even stronger evidence in favour of cutting back on meat.

The Harvard researchers have also pointed out that the results may have been even more dramatic if the amount of meat the people were eating was larger. The researchers used a fairly small three servings a week of red or processed meat as their starting point; whereas, may North Americans eat much more meat than that a week. Cutting back on red and processed meat may have a more dramatic effect on people who are not already relatively cutting back.

And finally, of the fifteen members of the panel, three disagreed with the conclusion and voted against the recommendation, leaving eleven. Of those eleven, three were community members and not scientists, leaving eight scientists. Of the eight, six were listed as “methodologists” or some other kind of researcher, leaving only two who were “nutritional scientists.”


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The Natural Path is intended for educational purposes only and is in no way intended for self-diagnosis or self-treatment. For health problems, consult a qualified health practitioner for a comprehensive program.

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