A new study in the news this week has found weak evidence that reducing red and processed meat by three servings a week produces a smaller than expected reduction in the risk of disease.
From this, the authors conclude that red and processed meat is not as harmful as previously thought and that adults can continue to eat meat at current levels. Predictably this has led to headlines saying ‘meat is back on the menu’.
The study looked at the effects of cutting meat consumption by just three portions a week, without saying what amount people were consuming to start with.
A study looking at smokers cutting down by just 10 cigarettes a day might produce similar results (a small reduction in risk of disease), but how sensible would it be to suggest they continue smoking?
All the evidence from this study was assessed to be low or very low in certainty – so at best, the results are unreliable.
Many of the participants were young and unlikely to suffer illness in the short time period involved in the trials. You don’t develop bowel cancer two weeks after eating a bacon sandwich.
Layers of flaws
Experts have slammed the study’s conclusions. Professor Walter Willett is Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and lead author of the EAT-Lancet Commission, which advocates a plant-based diet for both environmental sustainability and health.
He said: “This report has layers of flaws and is the most egregious abuse of evidence that I have ever seen.”
In a comment on the Annals of Internal Medicine website, Public Health Officer Henning Ansor, of the Public Health Department in Santa Barbara County in the US, said: “For the Annals to publish this article (and for the authors to even write it without concern for the environmental effects of food choices) shows, to what extent we as physicians, are out of touch with the real world. It is a disgrace!”
The World Cancer Research Fund does not accept the study’s new interpretation of the evidence either.
Dr Giota Mitrou, Director of Research Funding and Science External Relations said: "It could be putting people at risk by suggesting they can eat as much red and processed meat as they like without increasing their risk of cancer.
"The message people need to hear is that we should be eating no more than three portions of red meat a week and avoiding processed meat altogether. We stand by our rigorous research of the last 30 years and urge the public to follow the current recommendations on red and processed meat.”
To find out more about the links between meat and disease see Viva!'s The Meat Report: