The New Guidelines On Meat Are Exposing The Fault Lines In Nutrition Advice

The skeptical cardiologist this morning was greeted by headlines announcing that an international panel of 14 unbiased researchers had concluded that it was OK for humans to continue eating red meat and processed meat at current levels.

The startling news was  a reversal of what the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the AHA and the American Cancer Society have been telling us for years and threw the nutritional world into a tizzy. The bottom line recommendation, written in language suggesting a lack of certainty in the evidence and lack of confidence in the advice reads as follows:

The panel suggests that adults continue current unprocessed red meat consumption (weak recommendation, low-certainty evidence). Similarly, the panel suggests adults continue current processed meat consumption (weak recommendation, low-certainty evidence).

The guidelines were accompanied by five systematic reviews, and appeared Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine, as part of the “Clinical Guidelines” section of Annals which is published by the American College of Physicians.

Much has been written on this event and I’ve read lots of scathing commentary. In fact a group of prominent nutrition experts tried to suppress the publication.

I think the best summary comes from Julia Volluz at Vox  (Beef and bacon healthy? A fight raging in nutrition science, explained. – Vox)

Volluz does her typically excellent job of explaining the science in a balanced way and includes some of the prominent voices who are outraged by the publication.

As I’ve pointed out (here and here and here) the science behind most nutritional recommendations is weak and often public health authorities make sweeping dietary recommendations that aren’t justified.

We are making gradual progress in rolling back bans on some healthy food, like eggs but unjustified bans on other healthy foods like full-fat yogurt and coconut oil persist.

When it comes to red meat consumption the systematic analyses reveal mild associations with poor health outcomes but these associations don’t prove causality and could easily be due to confounding factors or poor input data.

Thus, if you want to cut back your red meat consumption on the chance that these associations are truly reflective of causation go ahead. Especially if you have ethical or environmental concerns about production of red meat.

Just keep in mind that the calories you cut from less meat consumption should be replaced by more healthy nutrient-dense foods like non-starchy vegetables, nuts, dairy fat, avocado and olive oil and not by low quality carbs and ultra-processed food or you may be doing more harm than good.

Skeptically Yours,

-ACP

12 thoughts on “The New Guidelines On Meat Are Exposing The Fault Lines In Nutrition Advice”

  1. If Ansel Keys never had the pleasure of being born we wouldn’t have an obesity epidemic and likely half if not less CVD.

  2. I eat lots of Jerky both beef and buffalo which has no fat. I have been eating this for years and at almost 74 years old have never felt better in my life. 3 to 4 times a week I do 22 mile mountain runs above 9000 feet and at a fairly good 5.5 to 6 mph pace. I find that red meat seems to give me a boost that my blueberries, almonds, blackberries, chia seeds, and pure 100% cocoa powder do not. I can definitely tell the difference when I eat 10 ounces of jerky the day before a run. Even a good old fashion hamburger with some fat, tomatoes, onions and jalapenos does the trick. My cholesterol is 164 total, LDL is 86 and triglycerides right around 100. My resting heart rate is 38 bpm and has been at this level for nearly 45 years. I have no diabetes or heart disease. NOW, something some of you may have read is that the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico do not eat meat. I learned how to run from these people and can say they will eat all the red meat or any other meat the can get their hands on and into their mouths. They just can’t find enough in Cooper Canyon running wild and the average Tarahumara does not have the money to buy meat on any regular basis. Now who was that diet peddler who started a physician’s group to push a vegetarian diet? Didn’t his name start with O and did he or did he not the same as claim that the Tarahumara eat a close to vegan diet?. The man never lived with or run with these people a day in his life and his claim is 100% bogus that these great runners don’t eat meat.

    Tanks Doc for the update!

  3. Ansel Keys will be remembered for his rabid hostility towards the idea of ‘sugar’ being dangerous – and those who held this view, such as John Yudkin.

    That, and the concept of “Diet” being the… key driver of CVD.

    Don’t leave George McGovern out of the spotlight. His work – for which he claimed did not have the luxury of waiting for scientific proof – was equally damaging.

    1. Perhaps George McGovern will be remembered more by historians for the misguided government campaign to vilify fat than his landslide loss.
      ps. its Ancel and Keys has become quite a polarizing figure. He is vilified by paleo, keto and Atkins followers.
      Whereas I think he got some things wrong the idea that he is a charlatan is overblown rhetoric. This article (https://www.bluezones.com/2017/08/top-experts-come-together-to-address-nutrition-myths/) gives the view from the vegan side to balance the propaganda from the carnivores.

  4. To think about diet, just look at our physiology: flat grinding teeth-not fangs and claws of carnivores, carb digesting enzyme in saliva where food 1st enters. The inability to digest rotten meat like carnivores: Humans can do anything they want, but the human physiology is physiologically at least 90% (need not be 100%) organic unprocessed whole food (90% again) vegan. ACP has it DEAD wrong re food. BUT I do respect his writing style, technical insights, politeness & many other good traits.

  5. Thank you for providing the link to the Vox article which in turn made reference to PCRM.
    PCRM provide a thorough background and evidence-based analysis of the issues with the meat article here:
    https://www.pcrm.org/news/blog/journal-advice-eat-cancer-causing-meats-science-or-clickbait
    It’s disappointing that some health journals publish sensational articles in the interests of increasing circulation and revenue, that are in turn picked up by mainstream media outlets that repeat and further publicise the sensational findings, yet do little to nothing to critically analyse the cynical reasoning behind the sensational headline. Thank you to you and organisations like PCRM, who provide analysis and have an interest in helping people arrive at an informed decision about the choices they have to improve their health outcomes.

    1. Jim,
      Thanks for your comments. totally agree with disappointment in the media’s constant attempts to overhype new nutritional studies.
      However, i have to take issue with your fondness for PCRM. Despite the neutral title of this organization it has a strong vegan, animal rights agenda and consistently distorts the evidence on saturated fat and meat consumption.

      1. I think there is a fundamental problem with nutritional studies in that long term studies rely almost exclusively on self reported intake of food. As most of us get older it becomes harder to remember what we had to eat the day before or the week before much less recalling past years of consumption. Short term dietary studies, although more controlled in a metabolic lab, really don’t offer much insight into long term health repercussions because our ability is so limited in what can be tested. Yes we can test advanced lipids, some metabolic biomarkers but we don’t have the knowledge/ability to truly know what might be beneficial long term. It’s interesting to read about what scientist think might be targets for advancing longevity, but in my opinion we are still far off from understanding what will universally extend lifespan and health span.

        The other issue that also seems glaringly obvious is the appeal of getting headlines. In many cases these nutritional “correlations” or coincidences become touted fodder for the elimination diet zealots who believe food group A or B is evil and should be avoided it all costs. All of this undermines the progression of the science of nutrition and how it interacts with human physiology and frustrates those who are trying to control their health destiny by following a “healthy diet”.

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