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Red Meat Is Not the Enemy

There are people in this country eating too much red meat. They should cut back. There are people eating
too many carbs. They should cut back on those. There are also people eating too much fat, and the same
advice applies to them, too.
Whats getting harder to justify, though, is a focus on any one nutrient as a culprit for everyone.
Ive written Upshot articles on how the strong warnings against salt and cholesterol are not well supported
by evidence. But its possible that no food has been attacked as widely or as loudly in the past few decades
as red meat.
As with other bad guys in the food wars, the warnings against red meat are louder and more forceful than
they need to be.
Americans are more overweight and obese than they pretty much have ever been. Theres also no question
that we are eating more meat than in previous eras. But weve actually been reducing our red meat
consumption for the last decade or so. This hasnt led to a huge decrease in obesity rates or to arguments
from experts that it is the reason for fewer deaths from cardiovascular disease.
The same reports also show that we eat significantly more fruits and vegetables today than we did decades

ago. We also eat more grains and sweeteners.


This is the real problem: We eat more calories than we need. But in much of our discussion about diet, we
seek a singular nutritional guilty party. We also tend to cast everyone in the same light as eating too
much.
I have seen many people point to a study from last year that found that increased protein intake was
associated with large increases in mortality rates from all diseases, with high increases in the chance of
death from cancer or diabetes. A close examination of the manuscript, though, tells a different story.
This was a cohort study of people followed through the National Health and Nutrition Examination
Survey, or Nhanes. It found that there were no associations between protein consumption and death from
all causes or cardiovascular disease or cancer individually when all participants over age 50 were
considered. It did detect a statistically significant association between the consumption of protein and
diabetes mortality, but the researchers cautioned that the number of people in the analysis was so small
that any results should be taken with caution.
The scary findings from two paragraphs up are from a subanalysis that looked at people only 50 to 65. But
if you look at people over 65, the opposite was true. High protein was associated with lower levels of allcause and cancer-specific mortality. If you truly believe that this study proves what people say, then we
should advise people over the age of 65 to eat more meat. No one advises that.
Further, this study defined people in the high protein group as those eating 20 percent or more of their
calories from protein. When the Department of Agriculture recommends that Americans get 10 to 35
percent of their calories from protein, 20 percent should not be considered high.
If I wanted to cherry-pick studies myself, I might point you to this 2013 study that used the same Nhanes
data to conclude that meat consumption is not associated with mortality at all.
Lets avoid cherry-picking, though. A 2013 meta-analysis of meat-diet studies, including those above,
found that people in the highest consumption group of all red meat had a 29 percent relative increase in
all-cause mortality compared with those in the lowest consumption group. But most of this was driven by
processed meats, like bacon, sausage or salami.
Epidemiologic evidence can take us only so far. As Ive written before, those types of studies can be flawed.
Nothing illustrates this better than a classic 2012 systematic review that pretty much showed that
everything we eat is associated with both higher and lower rates of cancer.
We really do need randomized controlled trials to answer these questions. They do exist, but with respect
to effects on lipid levels such as cholesterol and triglycerides. A meta-analysis examining eight trials found

that beef versus poultry and fish consumption didnt change cholesterol or triglyceride levels significantly.
All of this misses the bigger point, though. Its important to understand what too much really is. People
in the highest consumption group of red meat had one to two servings a day. The people in the lowest
group had about two servings per week. If youre eating multiple servings of red meat a day, then, yes, you
might want to cut back. I would wager that most people reading this arent eating that much. If you eat a
couple of servings a week, then youre most likely doing fine.
All the warnings appear to have made a difference in our eating habits. Americans are eating less red meat
today than any time since the 1970s. Doctors recommendations havent been ignored. Were also doing a
bit better in our consumption of vegetables. Our consumption of carbohydrates, like grains and sugar,
however, has been on the rise. This is, in part, a result of our obsession with avoiding fats and red meat.
Were eating too many calories, but not necessarily in the same way. Reducing what were eating too much
of in a balanced manner would seem like the most sensible approach.
Last fall, a meta-analysis of brand-name diet programs was published in the Journal of the American
Medical Association. The study compared the results from both the individual diets themselves and three
classes, which included low-carbohydrate (like Atkins), moderate macronutrient (Weight Watchers) and
low-fat (Ornish). All of the diets led to reduced caloric intake, and all of them led to weight loss at six
months and, to a lesser extent, at 12 months. There was no clear winner, nor any clear loser.
Where does that leave us? Its hard to find a take-home message better than this: The best diet is the one
that youre likely to keep. What isnt helpful is picking a nutritional culprit of bad health and proclaiming
that everyone else is eating wrong. Theres remarkably little evidence that thats true anytime anyone does
it.
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