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.

Just Posted

Sylvan Lake and area residents vent frustration over rural crime

Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer visited Sylvan Lake Thursday as part of a rural crime tour

Sylvan Lake Town Council keep utility rates the same for gas and electricity

Council defeated the motion to increase the ATCO gas rate at the Oct. 15 meeting

Sylvan Lake RCMP arrest man in Fox Run area hit and run

The arrest was made with the help of information provided by alert Sylvan Lakers

Pilot project proposed for Sylvan Lake and Rimbey RCMP

Chief Superintendent Shahin Mehdizadeh spoke about the project at Tuesday’s meeting of council

Town of Sylvan Lake announces new community bus

The CARE-a-van is available for both for-profit and non-profit organizations

VIDEO: Alberta teen found guilty of shooting German tourist, leaving him paralyzed

The boy, who cannot be publicly identified, was from the Stoney Nakoda First Nation

Leaders pour it on with rallies, boosts for candidates as campaign reaches peak

The federal election campaign has reached a crescendo

Not a political question: Thunberg calls for climate action in Alberta

Edmonton police estimated the size of the crowd at about 4,000

Rebels drop third straight against Oil Kings

Rebels have given up 19 goals, scord 2 in three games

Zantac, the over-the-counter heartburn drug, pulled in Canada, U.S.

Health Canada also investigates possible carcinogen in some ranitidine drugs

Greta Thunberg calls for climate action in Alberta, but doesn’t talk oilsands

Swedish teen was met with some oil and gas industry supporters who came in a truck convoy

Scheer denies spreading ‘misinformation’ in predicting unannounced Liberal taxes

Conservative leader had claimed that a potential NDP-Liberal coalition could lead to a hike in GST

Kawhi Leonard, former Toronto Raptor, welcomed back to Vancouver at pre-season game

Fans go wild at pre-season game between L.A. Clippers and Dallas Mavericks at Rogers Arena

Greens and NDP go head to head on West Coast; Scheer takes fight to Bernier

Trudeau turns focus to key ridings outside Toronto after two days in Quebec

Most Read