In October 2019, the Annals of Internal Medicinepublished controversial guidelines advising Americans to carry on consuming red and processed meat at current amounts. The guideline authors characterized meat-eaters as somewhat incapable of dietary change, and portrayed the benefits for reducing red and processed meat intake as insignificant. These guidelines contradict previous studies that link processed meat and red meat with early death and an increased risk of disease, including cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cancer.
If omnivores are confused, it's hard to blame them.
Americans are eating less meat, but not less processed meat
To frame their argument, the article authors referenced an average meat intake from North America and Western Europe of two to four servings per week. But we are not France, and about a third of Americans eat more than this. In fact, on average we eat about five servings (17 ounces) of red and processed meat per week.
We have made progress decreasing our consumption of unprocessed beef, pork, and lamb over the past two decades. But our intake of processed meat remains unchanged: sausage, hot dogs, and ham reign among the nation's most beloved processed meats.
Red meat and processed meat increase disease risk
The message from the Annals guidelines was perplexing and, at times, poorly translated by the media, with some headlines goading Americans to go full speed ahead on their intake.
This is particularly alarming, because recent research indicates eating 3 1/2 more servings of meat per week is associated with a higher risk of death. Consuming more than three additional servings may sound like a significant escalation. But consider that a standard serving equals about 3 ounces, a portion the size of a deck of cards. Eating a steakhouse filet, which typically weighs up to 12 ounces, you could consume roughly 3 1/2 servings in a single meal.
The connection is stronger for processed meats, which have a smaller standard serving size. For bacon lovers, eating a mere four slices more of thick-cut bacon a week is enough to increase risk of death.
Red and processed meat have also been associated with an increased risk of cancer. According to the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer, there is sufficient evidence to label processed meat as a carcinogen (a cancer-causing substance). Consuming a daily portion of less than two ounces per day — the equivalent of two slices of ham or bologna — is associated with increased cancer risk.
Eating less red meat makes room for healthier foods
Unfortunately, outlining the health hazards of red and processed meat sends a negative message and misses the bigger picture: many of us simply do not eat enough protective foods, and eating less meat would allow space for the foods we are neglecting.
According to the USDA, close to 90% of Americans do not eat the recommended amount of vegetables per day. (Most people should aim for two to four cups daily depending on their age and sex.) Adults are not eating enough legumes, like beans and lentils, nor are we consuming enough seafood. The good news is that replacing some red and processed meat with whole grains, vegetables, and marine and plant-based proteins may help you live longer.
This is helpful for our collective health too, as livestock are responsible for 14% of greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change and threaten our planet. (Seafood practices also contribute to global warming, but only lobster and crab come close to cattle, our country's most popular red meat and the animal responsible for the greatest greenhouse gas emissions.)
Shift focus to the foods you should eat more of
Ultimately, we do Americans a disservice if we cast them as incapable of making change. We can't assume that it would be a burden to switch from beef jerky to nuts or from ham to tuna.
But asking how much meat is too much is, perhaps, the wrong question. Rather, we should really be asking: what do we need to eat more of instead?