We cut through the noise and get to the bottom of the truth about red meat

Published January 10, 2020

Chances are you’ve heard that red and processed meats aren’t the smartest choices when it comes to healthy eating. What’s more, as medical experts and public health officials have warned for what feels like forever, there appears to be a link between high consumption of these foods and the risk of heart disease, some cancers, Type 2 diabetes, and overall mortality.

That’s why an October 2019 study published in the medical journal, Annals of Internal Medicine is having everybody scratch their heads: In the meta-analysis of existing studies, which analyzed the health impact of red and processed meat on 4 million people worldwide, researchers concluded that while there have been negative health outcomes associated with eating patterns rich in these foods, there’s no strong proof of cause-and-effect.

Wait, wait, wait. What counts as red or processed meat?

Red meat includes all forms of beef, pork, lamb, veal, goat, and nonbird game (e.g., venison, bison, and elk). Processed meats (e.g., sausages, luncheon meats, bacon, and beef jerky) are products preserved by smoking, curing, salting, and/or the addition of chemical preservatives.

Why are experts questioning the health effects of these foods?

One of the considerations for this group of researchers was the kind of studies that have led health experts around the world to recommend eating red meat in moderation: The data we have is mostly observational, meaning it looks at how people eat and seeks to draw conclusions about whether those foods may contribute to disease risk down the road. Meanwhile, the most reliable research is experimental, meaning it introduces something new (i.e., eating X ounces of red meat a week) to a particular group of people, then compares the outcomes to that of a control group, or a similar group of people who sit out of the experiment. Only the latter approach can illuminate a cause-and-effect relationship, or lead researchers to determine with little doubt that a particular variable led to a specific outcome and recommend say, exercising caution when choosing between a veggie burger or a beef one.

For what it’s worth, it’s pretty much impossible—not to mention immoral—to conduct the kind of experiment that would prove high consumption of particular food directly contributes to deleterious health outcomes. (Who’d sign up?!)

Plus, if you’ve been to the frozen section of your supermarket lately: There’s lots of variety of ingredients in veggie burgers these days, which can make the nutritional comparison between meat and meat alternatives much more nebulous when food-shopping!

Making sense of the new research

Here’s what we know for sure: Diets that are high in saturated fat, which is often found in red and processed meats, have been shown to raise your “bad” blood cholesterol levels, which can increase your risk of coronary heart disease, one reason why the USDA recommends limiting your intake of these foods. In addition, there is evidence that links diets lower in red and processed meats to lower risks of some types of cancer and type 2 diabetes. And choosing foods that are high in fat contribute to higher calorie intake overall, which can throw a wrench into your weight loss plans.

We also know that everyone’s dietary patterns and personal risk factors are different. Meaning? The quality of your diet largely depends on the sum of its parts, not one piece of your plate. And its effects on the body can vary based on existing health conditions, your personal needs, and the food choices that you make consistently over time.

This new research doesn’t change any of these facts. It simply reiterates what we already know, which is that scientific studies have limitations and examining eating patterns is challenging: Evaluating the long-term effects of each and every bite you take is difficult in part because it would require study subjects to adhere to highly prescriptive diets, which isn’t exactly realistic in real life.

That being said, when you reduce red and processed meats and replace them with substitutes like lean protein from poultry, seafood, eggs, or plant-based options (like black beans or chickpeas), the change-up could benefit your health since you’ll naturally  cut back on saturated fat and sodium, which helps promote better health overall.

But back to the meat: Is it back on the menu, or what?

The truth is that it was never off the menu for good reason: The choices you make the most over the course of time are the ones that play a role in determining your long-term health and weight management. It’s why WW never outlaws certain foods in the name of weight loss or wellness. No single food is good or bad, healthy or unhealthy—it’s all about developing healthy habits that impact your regular pattern of eating.

Should you worry about your red and processed meat consumption?

Although the American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat to fewer than 7 percent of your total caloric intake, the USDA provides no specific safe level of red meat intake beyond advising adults to “limit” red and processed meat intake. The thing is, moderation is entirely subjective. After all, a daily bacon eater who cuts back to consuming it three times a week may still eat a lot of bacon relative to someone who consumes it even less often.

So, before you recruit your fingers and toes to see how your habits measure up to the ever-elusive goal of “moderate intake,” consider this: Zeroing in on the food groups that you aren’t eating enough of—like whole grains, nuts, and fruits—could benefit your health even more than worrying about the foods you already eat, according to a recent meta-analysis published in the medical journal, Lancet. And since it seems like there’s always a new study telling us what not to eat-- I’d argue that it’s more important than ever to focus on what we can do more often, right?!

RELATED: The low-down on protein

The bottom line:

Because the SmartPoints® system already accounts for calories, saturated fat, sugar, and protein, simplifying otherwise complicated nutritional information, you don’t have to rewrite your grocery list every time a new study surfaces. Focusing on lean protein sources like skinless chicken and turkey breast, eggs, fish, and shellfish can help you achieve lower intakes of red and processed meat—that is, if that’s your goal.

Otherwise, staying within your personalized SmartPoints Budget and making the most of your ZeroPoint foods will naturally help you shift toward a healthier pattern of eating.

As always, WW will continue to follow emerging science and dietary trends. But when it comes to making recommendations, we look at the totality of the science on a particular topic, not just one study.

Jackie London is a registered dietitian (RD), certified dietitian nutritionist (CDN) and holds a bachelor of arts degree from Northwestern University and a master of science degree in clinical nutrition from New York University. WW’s head of nutrition and wellness, London is also the author of Dressing on the Side (and Other Diet Myths Debunked): 11 Science-Based Ways to Eat More, Stress Less, and Feel Great About Your Body, and previously served as Good Housekeeping’s nutrition director.