For years the Department of Health has urged us to limit consumption of red meat and processed meats because of concerns that these foods are linked to heart disease, cancer and a range of other ills.But on Monday, in a remarkable turnaround, an international collaboration of researchers produced a series of analyses concluding that the advice, a bedrock of almost all dietary guidelines, is not backed by good scientific evidence.
If there are health benefits from eating less beef and pork, they are small, the researchers concluded. In fact, the advantages are so faint that they can be discerned only when looking at large populations, the scientists said, and are insufficient to advise individuals to change their meat-eating habits.
“The certainty of evidence for these risk reductions was low to very low,” said Bradley Johnston, an epidemiologist at Dalhousie University in Canada and leader of the group publishing the new research in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
The new analyses are among the largest such evaluations ever attempted and may influence future dietary recommendations. In many ways, they raise uncomfortable questions about dietary advice and nutritional research, and what sort of standards these studies should be held to.
But the report has already been met with a furious backlash from the medical fraternity, public health officials and the growing anti-meat lobby. For example, the lead author of the EAT-Lancet Commission which in January advocated a plant-based diet for both environmental sustainability and health, rubbished the new work.
Holding little back, Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, and himself a vegan, said “This report has layers of flaws and is the most egregious abuse of evidence that I have ever seen.”
He said many of the participants of the study were young and unlikely to succumb to illness in the short time period involved in the trials. “The magnitude of risk reduction by replacing red meat with healthy protein sources is similar to that of many drugs we use for treating high blood cholesterol and blood pressure, and we spend massive amounts of money on this,” he added.
While the new findings are likely to please supporters of popular high-protein diets, they seem certain to add to public confusion over dietary advice that seems to change dramatically every few years. The conclusions represent another in a series of sudden dietary reversals involving salt, fats, carbohydrates and more.
The prospect of a renewed appetite for red meat also runs counter to two other important trends: a growing awareness of the environmental degradation caused by livestock production, and longstanding concern about the welfare of animals employed in industrial farming. Have we found the very subject we can argue endlessly over when Brexit finally fades in the rear-view mirror?