FILE - In this Jan. 18, 2010 file photo, steaks and other beef products are displayed for sale at a grocery store in McLean, Va. The meat industry is seeing red over the dietary guidelines. The World Health Organization’s cancer agency says Monday Oct.26, 2015 that processed meats such as ham and sausage can lead to colon and other cancers, and red meat is probably cancer-causing as well. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

FILE - In this Jan. 18, 2010 file photo, steaks and other beef products are displayed for sale at a grocery store in McLean, Va. The meat industry is seeing red over the dietary guidelines. The World Health Organization’s cancer agency says Monday Oct.26, 2015 that processed meats such as ham and sausage can lead to colon and other cancers, and red meat is probably cancer-causing as well. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

VIDEO: Canadian doctor says blowback to meat study is ‘hysterical,’ more discourse needed

Evidence that links red meat consumption to bad health outcomes is weak, study claims

A renowned Canadian doctor and researcher whose work challenges well-worn advice to limit meat consumption is dismissing mounting criticism as “over the top” and “hysterical.”

Gordon Guyatt says he knew the series of papers he and his colleagues published in the Annals of Internal Medicine this week would elicit blowback.

But he did not expect anything like the widespread torrent of condemnation that continues to stream forth, among them letters to the editor excoriating the methodology and a petition by a Washington-based doctors’ group to retract the work because it allegedly “promotes physical harm to those who follow its dangerous advice.”

“It’s completely predictable and they’re doing themselves no favours from my point of view about these sort of hysterical statements about: It shouldn’t be published, let’s keep it out of public view, let’s not have scientific discourse operate as it should operate,” says Guyatt, a celebrated professor and researcher at Hamilton’s McMaster University who supervised a team of global researchers.

“It’s hysterical. It’s a hysterical response.”

ALSO READ: Weather Network’s anti-meat video ‘doesn’t reflect true story’: cattle ranchers

Guyatt, who supervised a research group with a panel of 14 members from seven countries, says the analyses sought to gauge the potential health impact of giving up burgers and sausage — how much cancer risk could be reduced by eating less meat?

At the same time, researchers assessed the quality of the evidence used in previous dietary studies using an evaluative system known as GRADE, and tried to assess how inclined most people actually were to forsake steak for their health.

Their findings: evidence that links red meat consumption to cancer, heart disease and other bad health outcomes is weak, and if there is a benefit to giving up meat products, it’s small. That’s how they interpreted previously reported data that a reduction of three servings per week offered seven fewer cancer deaths per 1,000 people.

Given that the increased risks are slight and uncertain, cutting back wouldn’t be worth it for people who really enjoy meat, concludes Guyatt, named Canada’s Health Researcher of the Year in 2013.

“What we are saying is: This is a value and preference-sensitive decision,” he explains of the work, co-led by Bradley Johnston, an associate professor at Halifax’s Dalhousie University.

“So far, nobody has cared about the downside of quality of life reduction associated with decreasing or stopping eating meat.”

Still, critics including Dr. David Jenkins, professor of Nutritional Sciences and Medicine at the University of Toronto, chastise the work for being too narrow.

“We don’t live in a vacuum with nothing else happening,” says Jenkins.

“They’re fine to be skeptics and that’s healthy but … it’s not only nutritional science that people want to have weighed in the balance — we’ve also got things like climate change, we’ve got things like environmental destruction, we’ve got things like basically humane treatment of animals.”

Jenkins fears the work could further confuse the general public and other health professionals, taking special issue with the publication’s headline that declared: “New guidelines: No need to reduce red or processed meat consumption for good health.”

Jenkins was among a group of scientists who pressed the Annals of Internal Medicine to postpone Monday’s publication pending further review, deeming the headline inaccurate and “a major disservice to public health.”

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which includes 184 Canadian physician members, also sent a federal petition to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission asking for a retraction, saying false claims in the review ”would discourage individuals from avoiding meat and from replacing meat with more healthful food choices, putting them at risk for major health problems.”

“All I’m saying is: if somebody says there’s a weak chance that if you walk across the street, you’ll get shot, I would rather stay on the opposite side of the street,” says Jenkins.

“The evidence against us giving up meat may be weak, but it’s there. And the evidence for us eating more meat is not there.”

Despite an avalanche of press coverage and conversation, the studies did not appear to change recommendations on healthy and balanced eating.

If anything, they appeared to entrench them further, with Health Canada and the Dieticians of Canada holding firm on their advice to favour plant-based proteins.

Kate Comeau of the Dietitians of Canada says food debates between scientists can be confusing for the public, especially because nutrition studies can rarely be conclusive when it’s impossible to measure the effects of any single item.

“My hope would be that Canadians don’t lose hope or lose trust in science. Science is so important to our understanding of health and how our bodies work,” says Comeau.

“What’s so exciting about being in 2019 is that we’re seeing a lot of this debate happen — scientists are talking on Twitter and we can all watch … That’s exciting but it can also be confusing,” she adds.

“What this study was showing was that the reality is, it’s really hard to have strong evidence.”

Guyatt’s analysis doesn’t suggest red meat or processed meats are healthy or that people should eat more of them, but Guyatt also doesn’t discount the possibility that people who eat a lot of meat are in good health.

“I’m sure there are millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions of people who eat a lot of meat who are in good health,” he says.

Still, he says there needs to be greater acceptance that there is a lot of uncertainty in life, and that on some issues, definitive conclusions cannot be drawn.

“They’ve taken a pretty extreme stance and pushed very hard. And that’s been going on for a long time,” says Guyatt, referring to those who oppose meat.

“When that is fundamentally challenged, it is very threatening. And when it is challenged by credible academics with compelling evidence on which to challenge it, that intensifies the threat.”

Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Dr. Albert de Villiers, Chief Medical Health Officer for the Interior Health Authority. (Contributed)
‘People need to start listening’: IH top doc combats COVID-19 misconceptions

Dr. Albert de Villiers says light at the end of the tunnel will grow in step with people’s adherence to PHO guidance

(File)
One death and 82 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health

1,981 total cases, 609 are active and those individuals are on isolation

Youth Climate Corps members April Gariepy, Summer Monkman and Linn Murray at work in West Arm Provincial Park, fall 2020. Photo: Submitted
Youth Climate Corps members April Gariepy, Summer Monkman and Linn Murray at work in West Arm Provincial Park. fall 2020. Photo submitted
VIDEO: Kootenay youth climate group works to protect Nelson’s water supply

Youth Climate Corps members spent five weeks thinning forest in West Arm Park

Interior Health has set up a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site in Castlegar. Photo: Betsy Kline
Castlegar doctors and mayor urge residents to take COVID-19 seriously as cases are confirmed in the city

“Your doctors would like you to understand we do now have Covid cases here”

Photo: Black Press file
Trail traffic stop yields stolen cheque investigation

Trail RCMP will continue enhanced impaired driving enforcement this holiday season

Motorists wait to enter a Fraser Health COVID-19 testing facility, in Surrey, B.C., on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Another 694 diagnosed with COVID-19 in B.C. Thursday

Three more health care outbreaks, 12 deaths

Good Samaritan Mountainview Village located at 1540 KLO Road in Kelowna. (Good Samaritan Society)
First long-term care resident dies from COVID-19 in Interior Health

Man in his 80s dies following virus outbreak at Mountainview Village

A demonstrator wears representations of sea lice outside the Fisheries and Oceans Canada offices in downtown Vancouver Sept. 24, demanding more action on the Cohen Commission recommendations to protect wild Fraser River sockeye. (Quinn Bender photo)
First Nations renew call to revoke salmon farm licences

Leadership council implores use of precautionary principle in Discovery Islands

Ten-month-old Aidan Deschamps poses for a photo with his parents Amanda Sully and Adam Deschamps in this undated handout photo. Ten-month-old Aidan Deschamps was the first baby in Canada to be diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy through Ontario’s newborn screening program. The test was added to the program six days before he was born. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Children’s Hospital Eastern Ontario *MANDATORY CREDIT*
First newborn tested for spinal muscular atrophy in Canada hits new milestones

‘If Aidan had been born any earlier or anywhere else our story would be quite different’

(Pixabay)
Canadians’ mental health has deteriorated with the second wave, study finds

Increased substance use one of the ways people are coping

A coal-fired power plant seen through dense smog from the window of an electric bullet train south of Beijing, December 2016. China has continued to increase thermal coal production and power generation, adding to greenhouse gas emissions that are already the world’s largest. (Tom Fletcher/Black Press)
LNG featured at B.C. energy industry, climate change conference

Hydrogen, nuclear, carbon capture needed for Canada’s net-zero goal

People line up at a COVID-19 assessment centre during the COVID-19 pandemic in Scarborough, Ont., on Wednesday, December 2, 2020. Toronto and Peel region continue to be in lockdown. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
COVID-19 vaccine approval could be days away as pressures mount on health-care system

Many health officials in regions across the country have reported increasing pressures on hospitals

Stock photo courtesy Cliff MacArthur/provincialcourt.bc.ca.
Double-murder trial in case of Cranbrook couple killed adjourned until January

The trial was adjourned following an application from the defence related to COVID-19

Most Read