Is processed red meat back on the menu? You may have seen this headline in the news lately and i thought i should make a few clarifications. Nutrition research is incredibly challenging to carry out, and studies tend be undertaken via self-reported food questionnaires. If someone asked you how often you eat processed red meat what would you say - 3 times/week? 2 times/month? Have you ever thought about it, and have you counted? You see how difficult that question is to answer, unless you continuously made a food diary AND looked back and counted. In addition, you have to follow a cohort for a rather large time to get any sort of statistically relevant difference to analyse, so you’re looking at not just one opportunity for an inaccurate answer, but several. In addition, a persons diet and lifestyle has an extraordinary number of variances. How did you cook your meat? How many purple vegetables did you eat that same week - do you eat full fat or semi-skimmed dairy? ALL these ‘confounders’ matters in the outcome.
This is some of the criticism the team of scientists made when reviewing the current evidence for red/processed meat and current recommendations, and they felt the evidence is not conclusive.
How we cook our red meat and how many antioxidant foods we consume is hard to study well as again it creates a huge amount of variances to compare against each other. In addition, you might assume that a person who eats less red meat COULD be a health conscious type with an interest in health overall, as appose to a person who fries rashers of bacon for breakfast every morning. What the person might be switching their meat for is another enormous factor. Are they beans and lentils instead? If so the fibre in beans will transform your heart health, diabetes risk and colon health, creating different results. Even if the plate contained beans AND meat, the beans would confer some benefit, again skewing the results.
Because nutrition research is so vague, what we tend to do is accumulate studies, and then take a view of the total results. There will be conflicting results in the studies, so often the total results will keep varying or be generally inconclusive, until it has reached a certain point of ‘robustness’. We’re talking mountains of papers including small studies which have little statistical significance, and larger studies with more statistical oomph, but often using people cohorts that are subpopulations of some sort, meaning there may be other lifestyle or behaviours which are typical of that cohort.
Nevertheless, we start to notice the total results appear to lean a certain way and we might be able to conclude that the evidence is now sufficiently ’robust’, and THIS is usually when recommendations are made, but again, it’s rarely clear cut.
Media reporting on the subject of meat and health is currently like Chinese whispers. Understanding statistical science is complex, and even the best statisticians will disagree on how to interpret the results. With regards to meat consumption, there has been an explosion of media and online reporting on this issue by laypeople and unqualified people, creating confusion and backlash. i think however, that we can safely say that processed foods including meat but also cheese (think pre-shredded cheese) are generally a bad idea.
As a little interesting anecdote, i can tell you that my mother (73) has had full fat cream in her coffee every day of her adult life. She also loves cheese, butter and was brought up on red meat (note - unprocessed and grass fed). Her cardiovascular health is that of someone in their 20’s. She does however, eat no processed food, has eaten organic since the 80’s, now grow her own organic vegetables, and has always been lean.
So - what to do? How do you navigate this flip-flopping of recommendations if you’re not a statistician? I’d say you’d be pretty safe by following one rule which will get you pretty far; The one rule of choosing ‘natural state’ foods - kinder to you and kinder to the environment.