Don’t Believe the Hype, Red and Processed Meats are Bad for You
Every time we eat, we expose ourselves to risk. Food could arrive from a contaminated farm, a food-handling mistake could get someone sick, or eating too much of a favorite food could increase your chances of having a heart attack. We often hear about the risks of an unhealthy diet, but what does it mean to eat healthy? Eating a variety of different foods in moderation seems to be a good place to start. When it comes to what you should eat, you’ll quickly find that there's a lot of information out there. Knowledge is power, and we want to help you get a handle on the facts.
The American College of Physicians publishes a journal called the Annals of Internal Medicine. On October 1, 2019, the journal included an article featuring new recommendations for eating red meat and *processed meat. Causing quite the controversy, the article stated that individuals should continue eating red meat and processed meat in whatever quantity they already were. The article didn’t offer any limitations on how much red and processed meat should be eaten.
Facts can keep you safe. Facts can save your life. That’s why it’s important to understand why we can’t take the American College of Physicians’ new red meat and processed meat recommendations at face value. While it would be nice to have science on our side, as we enjoy burgers and brats day in and day out, the fact is - we don’t. In fact, science says it’s important to eat burgers and brats in moderation, or your heart can get sick.
Which is exactly why leading health experts and organizations are both distressed and baffled by the article. Several have spoken out, calling the new recommendations reckless, irresponsible and dangerous. Experts warn of the very real consequences that can result from eating too much red meat and processed meat. Consequences like breast cancer, intestinal cancer and prostate cancer. Your health matters, as does the health of your loved ones. That’s why it’s important to eat red meat and processed meat in moderation.
*Hotdogs, sausages, salami, pepperoni, bratwurst, ham, salted meat, cured meat, dried meat, jerky, canned meat and bacon are all examples of processed meat.
What exactly is going on here?
On October 1, 2019, the Annals of Internal Medicine published the American College of Physicians’ new recommendations detailing how much red meat and processed meat is healthy to eat. The updated recommendations came from a team of researchers who work for nutriRECS, which is a data analysis firm. Data analysis is a set of tools that helps researchers organize many different pieces of information into patterns. These patterns can reveal meaningful clues, or even entire answers to many of our most pressing questions.
It’s important to understand this team of researchers didn’t discover any new information. Their job was to take another look at studies that already existed and re-analyze the data. In total, five studies were reviewed. Four of these studies looked at the relationship between how much red meat and processed meat someone eats and the likelihood of that person experiencing heart disease, cancer or death. The nutriRECS research team used a system called GRADE to re-analyze the data. The GRADE system has its own specific tools for organizing bits of information. It’s important to consider how the tools a researcher uses will influence what kinds of patterns are revealed, and therefore what clues and answers might be discovered.
GRADE is a system that values experimental data over observational data. Experimental data comes from conducting experiments. In an experiment, every condition needs to be controlled and compared. By contrast, observational data comes from watching and recording what happens in a given situation. In observational research, conditions don’t have to be controlled, but they are compared.
Should experimental data be worth more than observational data when it comes to studying what we eat? Collecting experimental data on how much red meat and processed meat should be eaten would mean controlling everything about many people’s lives for a very long time. Some experiment participants would eat one way, and some participants would eat another - for decades. Once every participant had lived their full and natural life, autopsies would be performed. Perhaps at that point, we’d have enough long term data to start drawing possible conclusions. So, it’s easy to see why gathering experimental data sometimes isn’t practical, possible or ethical. This is why studies researching what people eat are usually observational.
When the research team at nutriRECS used the GRADE system, that meant excluding a lot of important observational data from the re-analysis. It also meant that the modest amount of experimental data that did exist could skew the results. Despite the possible shortcomings of using GRADE to re-analyze the data from these four studies, the nutriRECS team still came to the same conclusion as nearly every leading health expert and organization: those who eat greater amounts of red meat and processed meat experience an increased likelihood of heart disease, certain cancers and death. The nutriRECS team felt the connection, while noticeable, wasn’t very strong. Of course, it’s important to remember that the connection may have been stronger if more observational data had been used.
The fifth study the nutriRECS team considered was a collection of data on consumers’ thoughts, feelings and cultural attitudes toward meat. Unsurprisingly, the study found that many people from a great variety of backgrounds had an attachment to eating meat and felt a deep unwillingness to give it up. The nutriRECS team took the information from this fifth survey and combined it with the information from the first four studies. Because the attitudes, feelings and values in the fifth survey were so compelling, and because the connection between red meat, processed meat and health risks in the first four studies wasn’t strong enough, the nutriRECS research team issued a new recommendation suggesting that people continue eating red meat and processed meat in whatever quantity they previously were.
When it comes to maintaining your health, what’s the bottom line?
In 2015, the World Health Organization published a research paper asking if eating more red meat and processed meat would increase the odds of a human being developing cancer. It turned out that there was a very strong connection between frequently eating red meat and processed meat and developing colorectal cancer (colorectal cancer is cancer of the lower intestine and bowels), breast cancer (anyone of any gender can get breast cancer), prostate cancer and stomach cancer. In April of 2019, the European Journal of Epidemiology (Epidemiology is the study of sickness and how it spreads) published a study which followed the lives of 120,000 Netherlanders (aka the Dutch). The data that was collected showed that regularly eating processed meat increased the risk of death by up to 10%. A similar 2019 study was conducted in Japan on 50,000 individuals, which found that eating processed meats on a daily basis increased the risk of death by at least 13%, and possibly by as much as 20%. Those are seriously concerning numbers.
Again and again, studies show that eating red meat and processed meat increases the likelihood of suffering heart disease, certain cancers and death. Experts agree that a healthy portion of red meat is twelve to eighteen ounces per week. Additionally, very little (if any) processed meat should be eaten. In fact, the more plant-based your diet is, the better. So, cut back on meat and pile on the veggies! Of course, this advice doesn’t mean you need to become a vegetarian to be healthy. It DOES mean that portions, proportions and moderation matter!
Portions, Proportions and Moderation - A Plan!
Unless you have allergies, most foods are on the table when it comes to choosing what to eat, as long as a wide variety of different foods are eaten in appropriate portions, proportions and in moderation.
Portions: How much of a certain food should you eat?
For instance, it’s best to eat four ounces of red meat (or less) in a sitting, and twelve to eighteen ounces of red meat (or less) in a week.
Proportions: How much room on your plate should a certain food take up?
Imagine a plate that’s divided up into four equal slices. Proteins (like red meat or poultry) should take up one of the plate slices. A starch (like potatoes) or a grain (like rice or pasta) should take up another slice of the plate, and the remaining two slices should be veggies and fresh fruits.
Moderation: How frequently should a certain food be eaten?
It’s best to eat processed meats very rarely. Experts suggest eating four ounces a month (or less).
So, what does it mean to eat healthy? It means learning about the foods we eat, and it means considering portion size, plate proportions and moderation. It means sticking to the facts, even when a new recommendation might encourage decisions we would prefer to make. You might want to eat a cheeseburger every day, but that’s a decision you would probably regret down the road. The data indicates eating a cheeseburger every day will increase your risk of a heart attack, stroke, and stomach cancer. So choose to eat a cheeseburger once a week instead, and opt for a salad rather than french fries.
Southwest Health is happy to provide you with the information you need to make the best decisions possible - for yourself and for your family.