Sat, Oct 05, 2019 - Page 13 News List

How risky is eating red meat? New papers provoke controversy

Evidence that red meat can lead to cancer and other bad health outcomes is weak, researchers say, since other diet and lifestyle factors could be at play

AP, NEW YORK

A chef cuts pork ribs at a restaurant in China. Cutting back on red meat is standard medical advice to prevent cancer and heart disease — but a review of dozens of studies has concluded that the potential risk is low and evidence uncertain.

Photo: REUTERS

Eating red meat is linked to cancer and heart disease, but are the risks big enough to give up burgers and steak?

A team of international researchers says probably not, contradicting established advice. In a series of papers published Monday, the researchers say the increased risks are small and uncertain and that cutting back likely wouldn’t be worth it for people who enjoy meat.

Their conclusions were swiftly attacked by a group of prominent US scientists who took the unusual step of trying to stop publication until their criticisms were addressed.

The new work does not say red meat and processed meats like hot dogs and bacon are healthy or that people should eat more of them. The reviews of past studies generally support the ties to cancer, heart disease and other bad health outcomes. But the authors say the evidence is weak, and that there’s not much certainty meat is really the culprit, since other diet and lifestyle factors could be at play.

Most people who understand the magnitude of the risks would say “Thanks very much, but I’m going to keep eating my meat,” said co-author Gordon Guyatt of McMaster University in Canada.

It’s the latest example of how divisive nutrition research has become, with its uncertainties leaving the door open for conflicting advice. Critics say findings often aren’t backed by strong evidence. Defenders counter that nutrition studies can rarely be conclusive because of the difficulty of measuring the effects of any single food, but that methods have improved.

“What we need to do is look at the weight of evidence — that’s what courts of law use,” said Walter Willett, a professor of nutrition at Harvard University who was among those calling for the papers’ publication to be postponed.

Willett, who has led studies tying meat to bad health outcomes, also said the reviews do not consider the particularly pronounced benefits of switching from red meat to vegetarian options.

The journal, Annals of Internal Medicine, defended the work and said the request to have it pulled before publication is not how scientific discourse is supposed to happen. Guyatt called the attempt to halt publication “silly.”

In the papers, the authors sought to gauge the potential impact of eating less meat, noting the average of two to four servings a week eaten in North America and Western Europe. They said the evidence for cutting back wasn’t compelling. For example, they found that cutting three servings of red meat a week would result in seven fewer cancer deaths per 1,000 people.

Based on the analyses, a panel of the international researchers said people do not have to cut back for health reasons. But they note their own advice is weak and that they didn’t take into account other factors, such as animal welfare and the toll meat production has on the environment.

There was dissent even among the authors; three of the 14 panelists said they support reducing red and processed meats. A co-author of one review is also among those who called for a publication delay.

Those who pushed to postpone publication also questioned why certain studies were included or excluded in the reviews. Harvard’s Frank Hu also noted that about a third of American adults eat at least one serving of red meat a day. He said the benefits of cutting back would be larger for those who eat such high amounts.

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