Despite this advice, Americans do not eat meat in moderation, and never have. Since the 1960s, the per-capita intake has doubled. The average man eats more than his own weight in meat every year (even as that weight has increased by 30 pounds since 1960). Americans eat meat in quantities that are double the global average.
The new guidelines were released in Annals of Internal Medicine, a prestigious medical journal published by the American College of Physicians. Robert McLean, the ACP’s president and a rheumatologist at Yale, told me that they were the result of an editorial decision by the journal, not the ACP, but he nevertheless defended the analyses. “They did not say that eating red meat is safe,” he said. “They said that the data suggesting it’s as harmful as we once thought is inconclusive. They’re not saying to go out and eat all the red meat you want.”
Indeed, the guidelines are not telling people to eat all the meat they can. But the explicit recommendation that adults “continue their current levels of meat consumption” seems detached from any concept of what current levels of meat consumption are, or what they mean for human health. Around the world, global meat production has grown by five times since the 1960s. In the early 1980s, the average Chinese person ate 30 pounds of meat a year. Today that number is nearly 140 pounds, in a country that has grown to more than 1 billion people. Globally, meat consumption is projected to increase by 75 percent over the next three decades.
The health effects of this consumption are significant, and on track to become much more so. Yet the guidelines ignore the most important way in which food affects our bodies, minds, communities, and so much else that constitutes health.
The day before the news reports came out, on a Sunday morning, I got a frenetic call from the physician and researcher David Katz. A fellow in the ACP, he was mobilizing his colleagues internally and throughout the nutrition world in preparation for the publication of the guidelines.
Annals of Internal Medicine was, in fact, about to devote the better part of an entire issue to the consequences of eating meat. Six articles were being published by the same group of authors from NutriRECS. This is uncommon. Getting even a single study published in the journal is considered a high achievement. And the findings of the studies were, overall, predictable: High intake of meat and processed meat was associated with an elevated risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancers—though the authors said they had “low certainty” in their own findings.
The news alerts came down to the sixth article, which was the set of “clinical guidelines.” In it, the researchers concluded that because of the “low quality evidence,” adults should continue eating meat as they do. To arrive at this conclusion, the authors used a technique known as GRADE, which subjectively evaluates different types of evidence. For example, a drug would not simply be recommended because it is effective; the amount of effect would be considered alongside things such as reliability, side effects, and other costs. Based on its analysis, the group decided that the evidence of meat’s harms to health was not strong enough to recommend that people stop eating meat altogether. And because it deemed this evidence weak, it chose to recommend that people do not attempt to change their habits.