Over the last couple of decades, research has gone up and down about whether or not it is safe to eat red meat. Recently, scientists from the University of Washington decided to take a deep-dive into the existing research to determine how much of a health risk red meat really is, if it is one at all. Their findings have determined that eating things like beef really isn’t the big, bad health no-no that we have been told it may be.
Is red meat not as bad for your health as we thought?
If you are a burger or steak lover, this is the kind of news for you: some scientists are saying that eating red meat should no longer be considered a health risk. The group of researchers from the University of Washington quantified the evidence for the health risk associated with various behaviors, such as smoking, eating few vegetables, and eating red meat. When looking into the studies and claims made against red meat, the scientists found that the evidence against it was all pretty weak. All the studies, they discovered, were reasonably flawed. What they also found was that the real risk wasn’t eating too much red meat, but rather, eating too few vegetables. (1)
The findings were part of the Global Burden of Disease study. This is a more than 30-year-old research project led by IHME and was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The goal was to quantify the magnitude of all major diseases, risk factors, and intermediate clinical outcomes in a standardized way to make it easier for people to make informed decisions about their diet and health. They have done so by giving things star ratings in terms of risk, with low or no stars being better than four or five stars. (2)
Not a Zero Risk
One thing that the researchers were quick to point out was that their findings don’t suggest that there is zero increase in health risk from eating red meat or not eating enough vegetables. More so, they are saying that the evidence and connection to poor health outcomes is much lower than, for example, smoking and lung cancer. The findings also suggest that for red meat to have such a heavy impact on one’s health, that person would need to be eating a lot of red meat, especially processed red meat. (3)
“It’s important to recognize that a low-star rating doesn’t mean that there is no connection between a dietary habit and a specific health outcome—in most cases, it suggests that there may be a link, but the body of evidence is not yet clear,” said Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) and his colleagues in an email. “A person who wants to minimize health risks should still take those low-star ratings seriously. For example, in the case of red meat, someone who wants to assume no level of risk shouldn’t eat it. The Burden of Proof analysis is intended to help people make informed choices. It is intended to both inform and complement—but not replace—expert guidelines and physicians’ advice.”
Criticism of The Star Rating System
Many nutrition experts, doctors, and scientists have criticized this system as being overly simplistic. Nutrition is a very challenging topic to do studies on for many reasons. First of all, we don’t have a single method of collecting nutrition information that isn’t flawed. Most studies have to rely on participants self-reporting the food that they eat in a day.
Typically, people underestimate the amount of nutritionally poor foods that they are consuming and overreport the number of vegetables and healthy foods they are eating. What previous studies have tried to point out, experts say, is not necessarily that eating red meat is incredibly bad for you, but rather, that eating a diet that is focused more on vegetables and less on meat is generally better for your health.
Still, the researchers say that their new rating system is not here to replace nutrition advice from nutritional experts. Rather, the idea is that it simplifies things for people a bit more and gives them some context to the claims that they are seeing in the news and on social media. Yes, red meat may be connected to certain health outcomes, but the actual threat to an average person’s health who only eats red meat once or twice a week is relatively low.
“The general public often only hears about nutrition studies via news reports and social media that don’t include this nuance,” the research team said. “Our hope is that the Burden of Proof system will help those who aren’t experts, including consumers and many policymakers, better understand our level of confidence in the links between specific risks and health outcomes.”
Keep Reading: 7 Daily Habits To Support Your Immune Health This Cold & Flu Season
- “New System Ranks Evidence for Health Risks of Eating Red Meat, Smoking, and More—But Critics Say It’s Overly Simplistic.” Scientific American. Tanya Lewis. October 10, 2022.
- “Burden Of Proof.” Vizhub
- “Red meat is not a health risk. New study slams years of shoddy research.” Big Think. Ross Pomeroy. November 12, 2022.