To eat meat or not to eat meat: that, scientists say, is the question

Illustration for article titled To eat meat or not to eat meat: that, scientists say, is the question
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Late yesterday afternoon the Annals of Internal Medicine, the official journal of the American College of Physicians, released new guidelines based on “5 high-quality systematic reviews” that say that it’s totally okay for people to continue eating red meat at their current rate: three to four servings per person per week in Europe and North America. These guidelines are based on reviews of 61 articles that appear to show that the link between red meat and cancer is minimal, in addition to a vote by a panel of 14 doctors from seven countries. If doctors and scientists say it, it surely must be so, so yay! More red meat for everybody!

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However, not everyone was convinced. Mark Bittman, for one, read the report before the press embargo was lifted and noted that the new guidelines directly contradict other previous guidelines established by other organizations, notably the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health, that argue that cutting back on red meat is not only better for the health of individual humans but also for the environment. According to Bittman, “many heads of research institutes, chief physicians, professors, and others in the field have been trying to intervene regarding the publication of the material: They are alarmed that a self-appointed group can issue dietary ‘guidelines’ to the public in a prominent medical journal.”

Obviously, they didn’t succeed, but since the findings were released, the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, among others, have condemned the findings, and the New York Times reports that the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a group advocating a plant-based diet, filed a petition with the Federal Trade Commission against the Annals of Internal Medicine.

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In his online magazine Heated, Bittman interviewed another Dr. David L. Katz, a specialist in nutrition. Katz believes that issuing a blanket guideline is irresponsible: instead, he says, the Annals should have simply said, “Here’s what we found. We have limited confidence in the data.” That wouldn’t have created as much of a stir, though.

Now, though, Katz is afraid that these guidelines will undermine public faith in nutrition science. Since he’s the founder and CEO of Diet ID, a digital tool to help people manage their diets, this is quite literally his bread and butter. But he does have a point that nowhere in the introduction to the Annals reports does anyone mention the environmental cost of eating red meat or the increase of commercial alternatives—quite a curious thing, considering those things have formed so much of the basis of the conversation about eating meat in the past year.

Aimee Levitt is associate editor of The Takeout.

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DISCUSSION

I have been saying for years that all this talk about food that is “good for you” and “bad for you” is doing more harm than the relative nutritional value of the food under discussion.

Because nobody is taking into account the damage to everyone’s mental health that food moralizing does, creating disordered eating, cult-like adherence to fad diets, and everything else wrong with people’s relationship with food.

There is more to quality of life than cholesterol level. When I chow down on my favorite foods, I get a lasting mood lift and a feeling of well-being and life satisfaction that someone of my extremely modest economic means has no business having in today’s America.

When I eat something utterly ridiculous, I laugh afterward like “gods bless America that this insane thing exists” (this is inevitably a fast food entrant into the “biggest thing we can convince Americans to eat” sweepstakes). Hell, I’ve been known to cook such things in the comfort of my own kitchen!

Life was meant to be enjoyed. Gods worthy of worship do not create mortals to suffer. I have cut my red meat consumption and traded it for chicken and pork because it’s a no-cost mental effort thing to mitigate the beef industry’s effects on the climate (but I’ll still eat a cheeseburger when someone else is being a preachy jerk about it because my sense of spite is stronger than my sense of civic duty)...

My point is if you like meat, eat meat. Happiness is the best form of preventive medicine.