Still Life with Apples, Meat, and a Roll

Objective Dialogue About Red Meat and Health?

Is it possible to have objective dialogue about red meat and health? Is it easy to find? The simple answer is yes and no. In Lancet this year, a pair of letters tell the story of why it’s so hard. These letters concern weaknesses in a massive analysis of the global burden of disease from 2020 that attributed a “substantial increase” in the burden of disease between 2017 and 2019 to red meat.

Researchers from the World Cancer Research Fund International point to serious issues with this estimate in the most recent letter to the editor. They wrote:

“Not only does the increase in the estimated burden appear implausible, but the lack of transparency in the assumptions underlying the calculations undermines the authority of the GBD estimates.”

Questions About an Important Study

The Global Burden of Disease (GBD) project draws attention because it has made “important contributions over the past 30 years,” according to the authors of the earlier letter regarding problems with the estimates of health burden from red meat. Perhaps because they view the GBD project as so important, they express considerable alarm about problems with the risks assigned to dietary factors in the latest edition of this study:

“Unless, and until, all new or updated reviews and meta-analyses pertaining to all dietary risk factors are published, having undergone comprehensive independent peer review, we think it would be highly inappropriate and imprudent for the GBD 2019 dietary risk estimates to be used in any national or international policy documents, nor in any regulatory nor legislative decisions.”

Shaping Science to Support Policy Goals?

There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about excessive red meat consumption. But many of those reasons are about the health of the planet. Production of red meat seems to contribute to climate change and thus raises important policy concerns. The planet is in trouble.

Thus, many activists jump right to the conclusion that red meat must be drummed out of our diets all over the world. The problem with that is that red meat is a dense source of many essential nutrients. So in some parts of the world, where red meat consumption is not excessive, it plays a vital role for nutrition. Livestock also has great economic value for low income communities.

A More Nuanced Approach

Thus in a recent commentary for the American Journal of Health Promotion, Matthew Smith and Samuel Myers suggest a more nuanced approach to policy regarding red meat:

“In summary, for those who can afford it, transitioning away from high levels of red meat consumption is necessary to lower humans’ dietary footprint and improve health. For the remaining red meat production, increasing its environmental efficiency will improve the sustainability outlook of cattle. For the hundreds of millions of people dependent on livestock for economic stability and relatively low but crucial levels of nutrition, maintaining subsistence livestock production is vital for preventing poverty and malnutrition.”

Yet again, in nutrition and health, one size does not fit all. Objective dialogue about red meat should inform dietary, economic, and environmental policy. Not dogma.

Click here and here for the two letters of concern about GBD estimates for red meat disease burden. Click here for the original study. For the commentary by Smith and Myers, click here. For further perspective on scientific controversies with red meat, click here and here.

Still Life with Apples, Meat, and a Roll; painting by Vincent van Gogh / WikiArt

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September 10, 2022

One Response to “Objective Dialogue About Red Meat and Health?”

  1. September 13, 2022 at 11:41 pm, David Brown said:

    Excerpt from the article by Smith and Myers: “Though cattle generate methane both through digestion and from their manure, roughly half of the greenhouse gases from beef production is caused by emission of nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide from growing large volumes of grain and fodder that are then fed to cows.”

    An alternative to the concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) approach is the Holistic Planned Grazing method promoted by Allan Savory.

    In truth, the disease burden is not related to red meat consumption which amounts to 22% of total meat consumption. Rather, it is the arachidonic acid content of monogastrics such as poultry (36%) and swine (35%) that needs to be addressed.