Let Them Eat Steak: The Fight Surrounding Meat’s Place In Our Diet, Explained
The world of fitness and wellness is never one to shy away from debate, particularly when it comes to what foods we should and shouldn’t be putting into our bodies. For years the focus was on kale, then shifted to quinoa, before settling on kombucha and various other “infusions” that were seen to detoxify the body and render our skin more dewy than Gwyneth Paltrow emerging from a steam room.
But while these fads came and went, the verdict was largely synonymous. Which is why a recent debate surrounding the place of meat in our diets has rattled scientists and dieticians alike, inciting a fight that doesn’t look like it will be quieting down anytime soon.
It all started with a recent study published in the journal, Annals of Internal Medicine. A group of 14 researchers, led by Dalhousie University epidemiologist Bradley Johnston, sought to examine the impact of red meat consumption on cancer, cardiovascular disease, and mortality, among other effects, as well as people’s values and preferences regarding red meat. The conclusion upended years of nutrition advice on meat, with researchers suggesting there’s no health reason to eat less red meat.
The study’s authors argue that people can “continue their current consumption of both unprocessed red meat and processed red meat.” So whether you’re a fiend for salami or enjoy a few sticks of biltong, the evidence suggests cutting back has no health impact – or if it does, it’s incredibly small. Researchers believe the evidence of harm is so minor that it would be misleading to suggest people should avoid meat.
Stanford meta-researcher John Ioannidis, a critic of nutrition science who was not involved in the research, said in an interview with Vox that “These papers provide a nice counterbalance to the current norm in nutritional epidemiology where scientists with strong advocacy tend to overstate their findings and ask for major public health overhauls even though the evidence is weak.”
The debate has largely gone the other way, with numerous studies declaring we need to cut back on our consumption of meat. In 2015, the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) announced people should cut back on processed meats if they want to avoid certain types of cancer. Similarly, the American Heart Association has suggested curtailing meat consumption for better health.
Not surprisingly, researchers from these organisations have been quick to attack the study and its findings. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which has endorsed a plant-based diet, even went so far as to file a petition with the Federal Trade Commission in response to the studies, asking the agency to “correct false statements” in the report, which they feel are a “major disservice to public health.”
Another flaw other scientists were quick to pick up on was the study’s omission of meat’s impact on climate, water, land and pollution which also serve to significantly impact human health.
Ultimately, what seems to be the bigger takeaway from the study and ensuing debate is that when it comes to nutrition, even the best-available evidence is far from conclusive. Even the guideline recommendation states: “The panel suggests that adults continue current unprocessed red meat consumption (weak recommendation, low-certainty evidence). Similarly, the panel suggests adults continue current processed meat consumption (weak recommendation, low-certainty evidence).”
It seems that while past studies have been emphatic in their discourse, this study was one of the first to declare that we still aren’t really sure when it comes to meat’s health effects. So, should you eat meat or not? That’s for you to decide.