If you have considered cutting back on meat in your diet because of health concerns, now there’s good news for those of us who enjoy nutritious, protein-rich meat.
This fall, a newly published study has upended long-standing nutrition advice about meat consumption and our health.
The study, published in the “Annals of Internal Medicine,” found that eating red meat or processed meats doesn’t increase our risk of heart disease, cancer or other chronic health conditions. In other words, there’s no health benefit to eating less red meat or processed meat.
The international group of scientists examined around 100 nutrition studies on the effect of meat on individual health.
The group concluded that the links between eating red meat and disease and death were small, and the quality of the evidence was low to very low. They noted that moderation is the key to a healthy diet.
“Research has consistently shown that one food or dietary pattern doesn’t cause a health risk,” explains Rochelle Gilman, a registered dietitian with the Iowa Beef Industry Council.
Gilman said the new study reaffirms what the current U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend, that Americans can eat up to 5 ounces of lean protein per day. Most Americans eat, on average, about 2 ounces of beef per day, Gilman notes.
“The (researchers say) that it is OK to continue with the current level of beef consumption,” she says.
And let’s admit it: Real meat tastes really good. The new nutritional study concludes that it doesn’t make sense to recommend limiting meat intake for our health, given that the evidence of any risk is so low – and current meat eaters are extremely unlikely to quit eating meat.
However, a big question remains: Why is nutritional advice always changing?
It turns out, most nutritional research is based on observational studies, which are prone to human error, experts say.
In observational studies, researchers ask participants to guesstimate how many servings of a certain food they eat (whether it’s coffee, vegetables or meat).
Then the researchers comb through the data to find any correlation to health impacts, typically in the near future - in weeks or months, instead of years. And we all know correlation doesn’t imply causation.
That’s why nutrition advice is always changing, because it’s so difficult to track what people eat over the course of a lifetime.
“I know there is a lot of frustration with nutrition research in the public,” Gilman says. “One study will tell you one thing, and then another study will tell you another. But nutrition research is really hard to do.”
So what does this all mean if you’re trying to eat healthy? That it’s OK to eat meat – or not – if you so choose. You aren’t increasing your risk of cancer or heart disease if you enjoy bacon and eggs for breakfast.
Gilman recommends following the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, which haven’t changed much over time.
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend that Americans follow the MyPlate pattern of eating: Fill one-half of your plate with fruits and vegetables; one-fourth of your plate with lean protein, which can include lean meat; and one-fourth of your plate with whole grains, plus a serving of dairy.
“The scientific evidence shows that dietary balance, variety and moderation, along with physical activity, provides the foundation for a healthy life,” Gilman says.
She notes that it’s important to eat a wide variety of foods, including both animal-based and plant-based proteins, because each food offers its own unique nutrients that are beneficial.
For example, a 3-ounce serving of lean beef provides 10 essential nutrients for only 170 calories. “There’s not a lot of protein sources that offer that nutrient mix and high-quality protein for that amount of calories,” Gilman says.
Specifically, lean beef is a complete protein that provides zinc, iron and B vitamins, which can support our health through all stages of life – from pregnancy to our senior years.
“Zinc, iron and protein are really important for cognitive development, growth and development of our kids. And protein helps maintain our strength, energy and vitality into adulthood, so we can remain independent as we age,” Gilman says.
In addition, new research shows that lean beef as part of a heart healthy diet can support cardiovascular health.
Gilman notes that nearly 40 cuts of beef are now considered lean, according to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines.
“It all goes back to incorporating more of those lean cuts into your diet, and eating those lean cuts with fruits and vegetables, whole grains and dairy,” Gilman says.