What is the deal with meat consumption and the risk of developing disease? Are all the scary headlines true? What do scientists really say about meat? If you are wondering whether to cut back on steaks or not, read carefully.

Science versus news headlines

Meat and disease appear in the same sentence so often that it feels like it’s common sense that meat is harmful. But is it really? We need to be careful and distinguish between something being discussed often and something being proven; especially when the headlines are so confident in their statements. But what does “linked to” or “associated with higher risk” really mean?

Most of what we know about the effects of meat on health is based on large observational studies. Imagine scientists asking a large number of people what they have been eating for the past few years, combining that with their health status, and then trying to discover patterns in the data. Obviously, this is not a bulletproof method. And that’s why the actual scientific papers almost always stress that their results show associations, not necessarily proof of causation. Keep that in mind for other headlines with shocking truths about any food.

Why is read meat so heavily implicated?

If you start digging into scientific literature on meat and disease, the first thing that you’ll see is that poultry and fish are associated with a neutral or even a lower risk of developing heart disease, cancers, type II diabetes, obesity, and of overall mortality. OK, that leaves us with the enemy number one: red meat. There is no shortage of studies associating it with just about any disease, but when you go through what falls under the “red meat” label, you start seeing the problem. In older studies especially, you will find not only bacon, salami, and sausages in there, but more shockingly, whole hamburgers and hotdogs as well. I’m not sure what that tells us about the consumption of a good steak.

Processed meat is the only culprit

If you take a look at studies that differentiate between red meat and processed meat you start seeing a different picture. The only association that remains is a weak one between red meat and colon cancer. Several mechanisms have been proposed that tried showing causation, but none succeeded so far. All the other high risks of developing many kinds of diseases remain solely on processed meat.

It seems to me that most of the bad rep that meat gets should be directed towards processed meat. So, if you are worried about the risk of developing modern disease, then cut back on sausages, bacon, and processed foods in general. Good quality steak now and again is not the enemy; in fact it’s quite the opposite.

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