Is Red Meat Bad for You? How to Navigate the Ever-Changing Nutrition Science

October 10, 2019

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Is red meat bad for you?

The latest research published by the Annals of Internal Medicine seems to completely reverse decades worth of research linking red meat consumption to a higher risk of death, saying that “the evidence is too weak” to back up the recommendation of eating less red meat.

What does this new research mean? Well, it does not mean that we should be increasing our consumption of red meat. Many might take it this way, but it’s much more nuanced than that. As the New York Times article that addresses this research reminds us, the links/evidence still exist, while small, and researcher bias is still an issue, especially when research is strongly tied to the food industry.

It’s important to remember that nutrition science and research isn’t the end all be all. We don’t need to run to our kitchen and throw everything away each time a new study comes out. In fact, we’ve written about this very topic – meat and the risks associated with its consumption – before. Science changes frequently, and it’s important to learn how to best analyze research for ourselves in order to make our own health choices mindfully.

How is nutrition research conducted, and how does it impact public health?

There are two major types of studies used to conduct nutrition research:

  1. Randomized clinical trials are conducted by assigning one diet to a group of participants and either a different diet or no diet to another group (the control group). This type of study is considered the gold standard because it (1) prevents manipulation of results based on researcher/participant bias; (2) can attribute a health improvement or decline based on the outcomes of the control group; and (3) allows for direct comparison of results between treatment and no treatment (control group), which results in baseline recommendations for a particular diet or intervention. The main issue with nutrition-focused randomized clinical trials is that it’s nearly impossible to ask people to stick to a diet, especially for a significant length of time.
  2. Observational studies are conducted by researchers asking people what they eat and then looking for links to health. These studies are simpler to conduct than randomized clinical trials, and most nutritional science is based on observational studies. The issues with these studies are that (1) it’s hard to know exactly what people are eating; (2) people don’t have perfect memories, so their food recordings may be flawed; and (3) people who eat a particular food more than others, such as meat, may have different lifestyles and make different food choices than those who eat less meat or no meat at all. These are called confounding factors, and they complicate research findings.

The links to health made by observational studies are often used to inform public health initiatives and policies. For example, the researchers in the new red meat study concluded that “if people were to reduce meat consumption by three servings a week, there might be one to six fewer heart attacks per 1,000 people.” From a public health point of view, that’s significant, and it can save thousands of lives.

The scientific community continues to debate how to best compile data to make informed decisions for the greater public, but as you can imagine, that’s difficult to do perfectly.

So is red meat bad for you?

Red meat contains fat – specifically, saturated fat. It’s recommended that less than 10% of daily fat calories come from saturated fat, with the American Heart Association recommending as low as 5%–6%. This is because saturated fat consumption is linked to higher levels of bad cholesterol, LDL, as well as inflammation levels. High consumption of red meat and processed meats has also been linked to an increased risk of heart disease and cancer.

The newly released red meat study argues that while the health effects of red meat and processed meat consumption are detectable for the larger population, an individual within that population cannot reasonably make the conclusion that red meat is bad for them.

Many critics of this study claim that this conclusion is flawed because it gives the public the impression that past studies are wrong or inconclusive. Observational studies provide links to health – they do not prove cause and effect – and existing links to health can still be significant when it comes to diet.

What does nutrition science mean for you, the bio-individual?

If you’re feeling discouraged or like you can’t trust the research you read, we understand. It’s difficult to tell what’s accurate and what’s not. Consider this question instead: “What’s right for me?” We have so much access to information, but we need to learn how to make sense of it all without feeling overwhelmed.

Your body will always know what supports health – from the food you eat to your environment to the relationships and careers you pursue. This body wisdom won’t change based on the latest research.

That’s bio-individuality in action! It’s the core of what we teach in our Health Coach Training Program, and it’s one reason why Health Coaches are so valuable: They encourage you to access what’s already inside you so that you can make the right choices for you.

How can Health Coaches help their clients navigate nutrition science?

First, share this article with them, as well as this New York Times article about the biggest takeaways from the latest research regarding meat consumption.

Second, open a dialogue. The answer to what works for particular clients is often right under their noses; they just need a little encouragement and support.

Integrative Nutrition Health Coaches are equipped to have these kinds of conversations in a safe space for clients to navigate their health. If you’re interested in learning more about what Health Coaches do, join a virtual webinar with us and explore what makes our program world-renowned.

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