Should meat be back on the menu? One study says yes

Whether you include meat in your diet has become as controversial as saying you’re either Team Johnny or Team Amber. But has eating meat become unfairly demonised?

Absolutely, say authors of a recent Australian study which found eating meat still offers important benefits for overall human health and life expectancy.

Three experts weigh in on whether meat consumption is good, bad or somewhere in between.

Does eating meat boost human longevity?

Contrary to negative messaging around meat, the Meat Intake Study has suggested regular consumption of unprocessed meat can reduce the risk of early death and even increase longevity.

The study examined the association between meat intake and life expectancy at a population level, based on ecological data provided by the UN.

Senior study author Maciej Henneberg says the team looked at the diets of more than 218,000 adults from over 50 countries, without any preconceived ideas about what the results would be.

“There is so much conflicting literature – some say not eating meat is beneficial to human longevity, others say meat eating is healthy,” Dr Henneberg says.

“The result came out as a positive correlation between meat consumption by country and life expectancy by country.”

Dr Henneberg says the team went into the study without bias.

“We are not against vegetarianism,” he says.  “(But) it is difficult to criticise our results because they are based on worldwide data.”

Food and nutrition scientist Dr Emma Beckett says the findings aren’t terribly surprising, given the study’s parameters.

“It’s what’s called an ecological study, which compares data on whole countries on a per capita basis, not data from individual people within those countries,” she says.

“I don’t think the findings mean ‘meat is a health food and grains aren’t’ – too much of anything is potentially bad.

“All food is and can be a source of nutrition.

“It’s all about context – meat can be part of a healthy balanced diet, but it also doesn’t have to be.”

Are plant-based diets healthier than meat diets?

The favourable findings for a diet including meat come as the popularity of plant-based diets skyrocket.

Doctors For Nutrition co-founder Dr Heleen Roex says an appropriately planned plant-based diet can be healthy, nutritionally adequate and may assist in preventing and treating certain diseases.

But Dr Henneberg says studies on vegetarianism that show it may be healthier than diets including meat are generally localised studies and don’t take into account the wider population.

“In Western societies, most vegetarians are people who consciously choose a healthy lifestyle – exercise, monitoring their health status by medical check-ups, avoiding excessive use of alcohol and drugs etc,” he explains.

“So vegetarians are to a larger extent healthier than the rest of the population, but not especially because of their diet.”

A healthy diet is well-balanced

There’s no one-diet-fits-all when it comes to choosing an eating plan that works for you, with Dr Beckett saying balance is the key to any healthy diet.

“The healthiest diets come from combining all the teams together for variety and moderation,” she says.

“The more different foods you eat the more likely you are to get the full range of nutrients you need. Meat and cereals offer unique (both good) combinations of nutrients but also have their own textures, tastes, etc.

“Why do we need to pit one against the other? Eat both if you like them, don’t eat the ones you don’t; there isn’t one perfect way of eating.”

How to make a healthy choice

Dr Beckett says seeing a nutritionist to help devise an eating plan for your specific needs, rather than be guided by study results or shiny marketing, is the best way to make sure you get it right.

“Nutrition science will always evolve as humans, food supplies and the world changes, but we shouldn’t shift our diets off the back of a dazzling press release; the body of evidence is considered together as a whole when our population based guidelines are written,” Dr Beckett says.

Written by Andrea Beattie.