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Is Red Meat Safe For Human Consumption?

Six medical papers released Monday are causing a massive uproar among the global medical community by reaching the jaw-dropping conclusion that a diet of red and processed meat isn't bad for a person's health.

The papers produced by a group called NutriRECS contend it’s perfectly fine to eat red meat because researchers involved in crafting the papers couldn’t find any links associating the consumption of red meat to health problems like heart disease and cancer. This incredible conclusion is completely at odds with accepted medical findings linking red meat consumption to higher mortality, among other unhealthy outcomes.

A recently published study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that every extra daily serving of unprocessed red meat (steak, hamburger, pork, for example) increased the risk of dying prematurely by 13 percent. Processed red meat (hot dogs, sausage, bacon, and the like) increased the risk by 20 percent.

NutriRECS describes itself as "an independent group with clinical, nutritional and public health content expertise, skilled in the methodology of systematic reviews and practice guidelines who are unencumbered by institutional constraints and conflicts of interest, aiming to produce trustworthy nutritional guideline recommendations based on the values, attitudes and preferences of patients and community members."

The highly controversial NutriRECS papers used data from existing studies to analyze the links between eating red and processed meat and life-threatening conditions like cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes. They found the evidence was too weak to say for sure if there was a link.

The studies included five meta-analysis (which are essentially studies of studies) and reviews of existing data plus a set of guidelines.

What was more alarming for doctors were NutriRECS' conclusions. These recommend adults don’t change the amounts of red and processed meat they eat.

This absurd recommendation contradicts the U.S. federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO) and numerous studies and books published over the last decade. WHO has stated eating red meat is probably carcinogenic.

“It’s the most egregious abuse of data I’ve ever seen,” Dr. Walter Willett, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said. “There are just layers and layers of problems.”

Dr. Willet was among a large number of doctors that signed a letter addressed to Dr. Christine Laine, editor-in-chief of the Annals of Internal Medicine that published the six papers. Several groups have sent letters to the journal’s editor requesting publication of the papers be postponed for further investigation. One of the signatories is an author of one of the six papers.

One of the letters from True Health Initiative (THI), an organization dedicated to fighting preventable diseases, sought “to request and recommend that the Annals preemptively retract publication of these papers pending further review by your office. We do so on the basis of grave concerns about the potential for damage to public understanding, and public health.”

Among the flaws in the NutriRECS papers cited by its critics are the papers' inappropriate analysis; its use of contradictory data; its omission of studies that would have had a bearing on the conclusions and asking the wrong questions.

Red Meat In 2015, the World Health Organization stated that red meat is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” mali maeder/Pexels

Many of the experts worry these six papers might cause serious harm if the public take the NutriRECS guidelines to mean they can eat as much meat as they want.

“It leads back to this misconception that nutrition is hard and confusing, that we don’t know how to eat, that doctors can’t agree,” Jennifer Lutz, executive director of True Health Initiative, noted.

“We do know the best diet for human health and also the planet: plant-based. We are not a vegan or vegetarian organization. We have council members who are paleo. We believe in the spectrum, that there’s more than one way to be healthy."

As might be expected, NutriRECS defended the papers.

“Our approach has been very different than previous approaches,” Dr. Bradley Johnston, PhD, an author on all six papers and a co-founder of NutriRECS. Dr. Johnston is an associate professor of community health at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada.

He concluded people who like meat should not stop on health grounds.

“Based on the research, we cannot say with any certainty that eating red or processed meat causes cancer, diabetes or heart disease,” he added.

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