Is red meat back on the menu?

New research that suggests eating red meat isn’t as bad for us as previously thought might have meat lovers rejoicing – but is it really safe to crank up the barbecue?

For years we’ve been told to limit red meat and processed meat in our diet.

The Heart Foundation recommends eating no more than one to three serves of lean red meat each week, and avoiding processed or deli meats like bacon and salami that contain saturated fats that increase heart disease risk.

But a new review of research into meat consumption and health, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, has reignited debate after finding there is little reason for red and processed meats to be off the menu.

What the new research says about red meat

A team of researchers reviewed various studies into meat consumption and health, and found most people could continue consuming red and processed meat at their current levels.

They did not find a statistically significant association between meat consumption and the risk of heart disease, diabetes or cancer.

The review authors suggest most of the dietary recommendations about meat consumption and health risk are weak and based on low-certainty evidence.

They say eating less red and processed meat may have little impact on our long-term health – but noted there may be reasons other than health for reducing meat consumption, such as animal welfare and environmental considerations.

What experts say about the new research

The reaction to the researchers’ new guidelines on meat consumption has been mixed.

Dietitian Dr Joanna McMillan says the review backs up a recent Lancet report that found other dietary factors had a far more significant impact on health and mortality.

“The bottom line is that the evidence of health benefits in terms of reducing our risk of heart disease, diabetes or cancer from reducing meat consumption from 3-4 times a week is low to very low,” she says.

But University of Newcastle nutrition and dietetics professor Clare Collins strongly disagrees with the findings, saying that evidence suggests “high intakes of red meat and processed meat increase the risk for a range of adverse health outcomes, particularly colorectal cancer or bowel cancer”.

“While the risk for red meat does not increase until red meat intake rises above 500g per week, for processed meat adverse health risk appears to increase once you eat any amount regularly – meaning there is no safe level,” she says.

In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) panel looked at more than 800 studies on red meat, processed meat and cancer risk.

It concluded processed meat was carcinogenic and red meat was probably carcinogenic, says Clare Hughes, of the Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee at Cancer Council Australia.

“Eating too much red and processed meats was most commonly associated with bowel cancer,” she says.

Should I reduce meat intake?

Red meat does provide protein, iron, zinc and vitamin B12.

Catherine Saxelby, dietitian and nutritionist at the Foodwatch Nutrition Centre, believes most people can still enjoy red meat as part of a balanced nutritious meal that combines vegetables and grains.

“I don’t believe one needs to go vegan or cut out meat the way many people now do,” she says.

“One can still enjoy the benefits of vegetables without swearing off all meat. It’s about reducing meat consumption, saying no to processed meats, and boosting consumption of vegetables.”

Cancer Council Australia recommends eating only 65g of cooked meat per day, or two serves (130g) three to four times a week.

It also recommends avoiding burnt or charred meat as well as processed meats like salami, frankfurts, bacon and ham.

Written by Sarah Marinos