For years, nutrition and health experts have been telling us to cut back on our intake of red meat. Now, a controversial new analysis says this advice was largely unwarranted.

In a report published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, an international group of researchers undertook what they called the most expansive and rigorous review of studies pertaining to the effects of red-meat consumption on human health. The trials involved millions of people.

The conclusion? The evidence is too weak to show that current consumption rates pose a health risk or to justify the broad-scale recommendation to trim back on red-meat intake (including the processed varieties). 

Wait, what? Now we should have no beef with eating our current rates of red meat? This, to no surprise, provoked a robust counterprotest by many experts and institutions citing piles of research with compelling evidence that a higher intake of red meat is indeed risky to health.

So why the sudden challenge to conventional wisdom?

Behind the headline: The authors of this latest study say they employed a different approach when evaluating the literature. They rated observational studies—which compose  the bulk of the available nutrition research—as less reliable than controlled studies. Different math, different results.

Suffice it to say there is a lot of interpretation when it comes to human nutrition research, and it’s possible to make the data say pretty much anything you want it to. Everyone will claim that science is on their side. Researcher bias can influence how the data is interpreted, and people may look for evidence to confirm what they already believe is true. Of note, the authors of the review exonerating red meat did not consider environmental impact in their analysis. And as is so often the case with nutrition research, the ones caught in the crossfire are hapless consumers who just want to know what they should and shouldn’t be eating.

Do you have any concerns about eating red meat in the context of a healthy diet? Are you still willing to counsel clients to reduce their intake? Do you think studies like this erode public trust in nutrition science and research? How have you balanced conflicting studies in your own dietary choices?