Experts chew over message on meat that’s hard to digest

It was the kind of news, the Vegetarian Society had been waiting for.

After the Department of Health last year advised the public to cut down on red meat consumption following links to bowel cancer, US researchers went one further. The report which came out of the Harvard Medical School claimed eating large amounts of red and processed meat can lead to an earlier death, particularly from cardiovascular disease and cancer.

The Harvard research looked at the diets of more than 120,000 people over a period of up to 28 years, and concluded that one daily serving of unprocessed red meat (about the size of a deck of cards) was associated with a 13 per cent increased risk of death, and one daily serving of processed red meat (two slices of bacon) was associated with a 20 per cent increased risk.

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“A large number of studies have previously reported positive health outcomes for vegetarians, so the Harvard findings came as no surprise,” says the Vegetarian Society’s Liz O’Neill. “The most important message for consumers is that they don’t need to eat any red meat, or indeed animal flesh of any kind. A balanced vegetarian diet is delicious, nutritious and sustainable.”

O’Neill says it’s already known that vegetarians are less likely than meat eaters to suffer from diabetes, heart disease and other medical conditions, and adds: “This new study is a welcome endorsement of a meat-free lifestyle. A well-planned vegetarian diet really can make you feel better inside and out.”

However, before we all swear off fillet steak forever, like so much of the research related to the health implications of our food consumption, the devil was in the detail.

“Billions of people eat meat in moderation and are healthy,” says registered dietician Ursula Arens, a spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association. “Likewise, so are millions of people who don’t eat meat, as long as they have access to other nutritious foods.”

She stresses that meat is a healthy food with lots of positive nutrients, including protein, iron, zinc, and vitamins D and B12. But she also warns that too much meat leads to diets high in saturates, and processed meats are particularly high in salt/nitrites.

Arens points out that as well as the Harvard study finding increased risks with high meat intakes, it also showed better health in vegetarians and those who got protein from foods like nuts.

Suggesting that the findings should be treated with “some caution” in relation to other populations, as they were from a US population she adds: “The issue isn’t whether meat is good or bad, it’s how much? Two to three times per week is healthy, two to three times per day is bad.”

The Meat Advisory Panel (MAP), a group of healthcare professionals and scientists who provide independent information about red meat and its role in the diet, says the Department of Health’s recommended 500g of cooked meat a week is a reasonable target, but points out that most people don’t need to cut down on red meat to remain healthy.

MAP member Dr Carrie Ruxton says the majority of people don’t need to change their intake, with just a few exceptions.

“Women and girls could do with eating a bit more red meat, as there’s quite widespread iron deficiency among this group,” she says. “Some men who eat very large portions of red meat every day could think about switching a few of those to fish or white meat.”

Dr Ruxton is concerned that the Harvard study is observational, rather than a controlled experiment, and she explains: “This is just a snapshot. Lots of things contribute to the risk of early mortality, but the researchers have only pulled out one possible link.

“It’s an interesting, valid study, but it’s not the right kind of study to then jump to a public health message. It unnecessarily alarms a lot of people, who may change their diet and have a reduced iron intake and suffer cognitive function problems.”

Dr Ruxton adds that a controlled trial published this year by US nutritionist Mike Roussell compared a group of people who ate a healthy low meat diet, with a group who ate a healthy high meat diet. Both groups experienced improvements in heart health indicators, with levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol falling by around 10 per cent in both groups.

“If meat was the problem, the high meat eating group should have had worse outcomes,” she says. “But in fact, both diets performed the same way.”