You likely saw headlines in the last month that a new study challenges the widespread recommendation to cut back on red and processed meats. Is this just another confusing nutrition study, or is there more to it?

You likely saw headlines in the last month that a new study challenges the widespread recommendation to cut back on red and processed meats. Is this just another confusing nutrition study, or is there more to it?

First, let’s clarify the terms “red meat” and “processed meat.” Processed meats are any meats that have been modified from a natural state by being salted, cured, fermented or smoked, or by adding chemical preservatives. Examples include hot dogs, bacon, ham, sausage and lunch meats. Red meats are from any mammal and include beef, pork, veal, venison, lamb and goat.

A team of international researchers published five systematic reviews in the journal “Annals of Internal Medicine” that suggested there is no health reason to eat less red meat. Based on these studies, the authors concluded that the increased risks of disease associated with eating red and processed meat were small and that cutting back on these foods wouldn’t be beneficial for most people. This contradicts the recommendations of most major health organizations including the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, the World Health Organization, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and many others.

Although the headlines imply differently, the researchers are not saying that red meats or processed meats have been proven healthy or that we should eat them more often. Their point instead is that the evidence that eating less red meat improves health is weak and there could be many other lifestyle factors contributing to the increased heart disease and cancer rates associated with red meat intake.

For example, they found that if 1,000 people cut back to three servings of red or processed meat per week, the result would be just seven fewer cancer deaths.

This review used a research rating system called GRADE to determine which studies would be reliable enough to be included in their meta-analysis. This is a rating system used mostly for drug trials; it had not been used previously for nutrition studies. By using these criteria, many long-running and highly reputable observational studies on red meat intake and health outcomes were disqualified, including The Lifestyle Heart Trial, PREDIMED and DASH studies.

Typical nutrition studies rely on observational studies. Observational studies track what people eat over many years without intervention or influence on their diet. These can show an association between diet and disease, but they cannot prove diet caused the disease. Controlled case studies compare a person with a particular disease to a similar person without that disease and then look back on how they ate. As you can imagine, neither of these types of studies are very accurate because people tend not to tell the truth about their eating habits or they don’t remember.

Cohort studies are more trustworthy. This type of study follows people with known exposure, such as eating red meat, over time to see if, when and how many develop a particular outcome, such as heart disease or cancer. But again, these rely on the honesty of the people reporting their diet.

The gold standard is the randomized control trial. Ideally, you would take two groups of people who are similar in every way and assign one to eat red meat and the other not to eat red meat, follow them for a period of time and see what happens. This, of course, is very rare and difficult to do for diet.

Using the GRADE system to evaluate nutrition studies may not be good practice. Diets are not like drugs. What we eat today may influence our health decades later, not immediately. Diets are varied and complex, making it extremely difficult to single out one component as harmful. Every person is different — we don’t all eat the same, weigh the same, exercise the same, or have the same lifestyle, family history or environmental influences.

At any rate, it does not appear that Americans have been listening to the last decade or so of recommendations urging people to cut back on red and processed meats. A study in the “Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics” published in June 2019 found that our processed meat intake is virtually unchanged over the past 18 years. According to the USDA, we are eating about 110 pounds of red meat per person per year. This equates to about four and a half servings of red or processed meat weekly, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The recommendation is for no more than three servings per week for a healthy diet.

Headlines with contradicting advice add to the confusion of what to eat (or not eat) for good health. How many times have you read that eggs are bad, then good, then bad again? This changing information leads to people not trusting any recommendations and eating whatever they want. Nutrition is an evolving science. Experts base recommendations on the best available evidence at the time.

So what should you do? We should eat most of our food close to its natural state, cook it ourselves, and be sure to eat a wide variety of foods to get all the nutrients we need. There are no “good foods” or “bad foods,” but some foods are less healthy than others. Eat the less healthy foods less frequently and in moderation.

Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the Cardiopulmonary Rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.