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Red meat in the spotlight: is it really bad for us?

There’s been a lot of stories about certain foods being bad for us, only for another piece of research to say otherwise. So what are the facts when it comes to red meat?

Red meat in the spotlight: is it really bad for us?

Red and processed meat has again been making headlines with new research claiming it’s not as bad for us as previous research suggests.

The World Health Organization (WHO) classified processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen in 2015, with red meat also added to Group 2A of the watch list.

But findings from an international research team led by Dalhousie University and McMaster University in Canada claim the 2015 report overstates the dangers of eating red meat.

The 3-year study controversially recommends adults should “continue [their] current unprocessed red meat consumption”.

The study’s findings have reignited the discussion around how much meat we should be consuming, and there’s plenty of media outlets joining the discussion.

But are these new findings as simple as they sound?

Consumption assumption

According to the UK’s NHS, the new research does not assess a particular level of meat consumption but instead looks at the effect of reducing intake by three servings per week.

This means we don’t know how much me at the people involved in the study were consuming before they joined in, so it’s hard to tell if the results are accurate. What if the participants were already eating at the level recommended by the WHO in 2015?

According to the NHS’s analysis, “what it does not mean is that people can increase their intake or eat as much red and processed meat as they want without ill effect.”

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Image|Cancer Research UK
How the IARC carcinogenic classification scale works

Good food questions

We’ve heard a in recent years about how certain foods can be dangerous to our health.

There was an uproar when it was revealed bacon and other processed meat could cause due to the use of nitrates and nitrites in the curing process.

Red meat has been connected with type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, some types of cancer (such as bowel cancer) and premature death – no mistaking the implications on the last one.

Even vegan and vegetarian alternatives have ended up in the spotlight, with meat alternatives and soy products having concerns raised about them too.

So who should we trust with our dietary health and are the suggested dietary guidelines are still correct?

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The use of nitrates and nitrites in cured meat create N-nitroso compounds, which have been shown to cause cancer.

Getting to the heart of the issue

In August 2019, the National Heart Foundation of Australia updated their advice on how much meat, dairy and eggs we should consume.

They loosened restrictions on unflavoured full-fat dairy products like milk, yoghurt and cheese and increased the amount of eggs we can safely consume.

But they also recommended reducing red meat intake to under 350 grams a week and limiting processed meat as much as possible.

It might seem like the Heart Foundation jumped the gun. That is until you realise these recommendations were made by many of the world’s dietary bodies 4 years ago.

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So is the weekly roast off the table? it depends how much red meat you’re consuming.

Serving up the evidence

When it comes to changing food guidelines, evidence is fortunately the most important factor taken into account.

Dr Amelia Harray is a Lecturer and Adjunct Research Fellow at Curtin University’s School of Public Health.

She’s also a Research Fellow with the Telethon Kids Institute in the Children’s Diabetes Centre and specialises as a dietitian and nutritionist.

“Nutrition research is ever evolving,” says Amelia.

“It’s important for leading health organisations to ensure their advice is based on the most current evidence.”

Amelia says the recommendations released by the Heart Foundation are based on the results of many studies related to the incidence and risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease and stroke.

The new recommendations by the Heart Foundation suggest eating no more than 350 grams of red meat a week, down from 455 grams.

“This reflects changes in the evidence and a specific focus on cardiovascular disease risk and incidence,” says Amelia.

“The average Australian eats approximately 560 grams of red meat per week – above both sets of evidence-based recommendations.”

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Image|Niki Mossop
Dr Amelia Harray

Food for thought

One of the biggest misunderstandings about these recommendations is we’re being told to “cut” meat – red and white – out of our diets.

You might have noticed neither the Heart Foundation guidelines nor the 2015 WHO recommendations suggest completely cutting red meat out of our diet – just limiting it as part of a diverse diet.

“Unprocessed lean red meat in small to moderate amounts can provide the body with essential nutrients such as iron, protein, B12 and zinc,” says Amelia.

“These nutrients can be provided by other foods within the lean meat, poultry, fish and alternatives food group.”

It’s all about managing how much red meat we intake in the same way we limit oils, sugars and fats.

While certain types and quantities of these components have a role to play in nutrition, eating too much of them on a regular basis can lead to health problems such as obesity and diabetes.

Similarly, the evidence shows that too much red meat in our diet can cause problems, but it still has an important role to play in moderation.

So yes, red meat is still on the menu.

In fact, it was never taken off.

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