How risky is eating red meat? New papers provoke controversy | TribLIVE.com
Health

How risky is eating red meat? New papers provoke controversy

Associated Press
1745416_web1_1745416-385bdd78d1274c9e9ac067f1d6eb7121
A man makes a submarine sandwich with mortadella, cooked salami, ham, Genoa salami and sweet capicola at a delicatessen in Massachusetts. An international team of researchers is questioning the advice to limit red and processed meats, saying the link to cancer and heart disease is weak. Their conclusions were swiftly attacked by a group of prominent U.S. scientists who tried to stop publication of the research, arguing it sends the wrong message.

NEW YORK — 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 U.S. 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 Dr. 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 Dr. 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 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 panelist said they support reducing red and processed meats. A co-author of one of the reviews is also among those who called for the papers not to be published.

Those who pushed to delay publication also questioned why certain studies were included or excluded in the reviews.

Another critic of the research, Harvard’s Dr. Frank Hu, 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.

Still, other researchers have criticized nutrition research for producing weak and conflicting findings. Dr. John Ioannidis, a professor of medicine at Stanford University, said advice based on weak evidence can distract from clearer, more effective messages, such as limiting how much we eat. He was not involved in the study or the protest.

As for his own diet, Guyatt said he no longer thinks red or processed meats have significant health risks. But he said he still avoids them out of habit, and for animal welfare and environmental reasons.

Categories: News | Health Now
TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.