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Limitations on Meat Consumption Challenged

An international group of researchers caused an uproar by questioning the trustworthiness of guidelines recommending limitations on consumption of red and processed meat.  

Led by Bradley C. Johnston, PhD, Department of Community Health and Epidemiology, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, 19 researchers from 10 different countries reviewed the evidence supporting the current guidelines and conducted four reviews of their own. Their findings, published November 19, 2019, in the Annals of Internal Medicine, question the certainty of the evidence—there are no randomized controlled trials—supporting guidelines recommending moderate consumption of red meat and little, if any, processed meat (like bacon, sausage, hot dogs, ham, jerky, and deli meats).

(It may be impossible to establish clear connections between disease and eating meat. It’s impractical to keep people on specific diets for years on end.)

Dr. Johnston and his colleagues are not saying it is okay to eat as much meat as you like. They acknowledge that their assessment may be “excessively pessimistic” and “that generating higher-quality evidence…will test the ingenuity and imagination of health science investigators.”

For the time being, they recommend that adults continue their current consumption of red and processed meat.

If you’re not eating meat, don’t start now. If you are, understand that the dangers are unclear and subject to interpretation. (Moderation may be a wise middle ground.)

Several groups sent letters to the journal’s editor requesting that publication be postponed for further investigation. Harvard professor Walter Willett, MD, one of the signers, called it “the most egregious abuse of data I’ve ever seen.”

Another complained that “considerations of environmental or animal welfare did not bear on the recommendations.” That livestock accounts for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and multiple commissions have called for eating less meat to help save the planet. “This is unconscionable unless the panel members are not aware of or deny the negative impact of high red meat consumption on the environment,” the protest declared.

Ultimately, journal editor-in-chief Christine Laine, MD, held firm against the pushback. “This pre-publication campaign to ‘retract’ the articles prior to publication is not the appropriate way for scientific discourse to occur. Those involved in the campaign who are researchers should know better,” she wrote in a statement.

*  * *

The Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter, where I first learned of the controversial paper, quotes its editor-in-chief Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, as follows: “This new research actually shows similar harms from consuming red—and especially processed—meats as prior studies, but these authors chose to downplay these finding.”

For full details, you can read the entire paper online: https://annals.org/aim/fullarticle/2752328/unprocessed-red-meat-processed-meat-consumption-dietary-guideline-recommendations-from

Current Guidelines

It’s helpful to know the dangers set forth in the various guidelines.

Generally speaking, the consensus connects processed meats to higher risk of colorectal cancer, stroke, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. While unprocessed red meats (beef, pork, and lamb) are considered less harmful, higher levels of intake are discouraged. See the chart in Milk in the Middle: https://www.cbass.com/milk.htm

In 2015, the World Health Organization concluded that processed meat is carcinogenic to humans and that red meat is “probably” carcinogenic to humans.

Similarly, the World Cancer Research Fund recommends limiting red meat consumption to moderate amounts and consuming very little processed meat.

*  *  *

The Tufts Letter recommends keeping an open mind and wait for more information. In the meantime they suggest favoring fish, poultry, beans, nuts, tofu, yogurt, and cheese over red or processed meat most of the time.

My Take

I agree with both the new paper and the Tufts Letter. There is probably more to be learned about meat consumption and surely about global warming. I intend to let the scientific discourse continue—and keep doing what I’ve been doing while I wait.

The only meat Carol and I eat regularly is ground turkey. Overall, ground turkey is seen to be healthier than beef. However, it really depends on the lean meat to fatty meat ratio that you find in the ground turkey.

Carol makes a ground turkey loaf that includes additions to keep it moist, improve its nutritional profile, and keep the dish lean by reducing the amount of turkey in each serving.  It’s quite satisfying and tasty.


 Carol and I favor moderation. It keep meals satisfying and healthy.

Photo by Bill Reynolds


January 1, 2020

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