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Meat & Expertise

I wish I could feel vindicated by those five new super-controversial meta-analyses just published by the Annals of Internal Medicine contradicting nearly everything we’ve ever heard about the health risks to individuals of eating red and processed meats. (Good overviews here and here.)

But I feel sad — and not just because I haven’t eaten meat for more than 30 years.

I feel sad for science. For nutritional scientists and doctors who have built careers around communicating decades of observational studies on this subject as if they were RCT holy writ. Studies, it turns out, people bought only up to a point.

Just look at the least-reported of the new Annals articles, reporting on four systematic reviews of what people already think about eating meat, and “their willingness to change their consumption habits in the face of health concerns,” as Aaron E. Carroll and Tiffany S. Doherty put it in an editorial in the same issue.

Here’s what that article finds, according to Carroll and Doherty:

  • Many people think they’ve already reduced their meat consumption (and, by extension, aren’t going to reduce it further);
  • Others feel the negative health effects of meat are insignificant compared with, say, tobacco use;
  • Others report they’ve changed other aspects of their lifestyles to become healthier, so they don’t feel the need to cut back meat eating;
  • Still others haven’t reduced their meat consumption because of “mistrust of the scientific information provided.”

That, my friends, is not a portrait of successful science communications. No wonder Carroll and Doherty are willing to wave the white flag on the “more studies, please” approach:

Given the findings presented in this issue, it’s hard to argue that this is a misinformed set of beliefs…But in this case, it’s not even clear that those who disbelieve what they hear about meat are wrong. We have saturated the market with warnings about the dangers of red meat. It would be hard to find someone who doesn’t “know” that experts think we should all eat less. Continuing to broadcast that fact, with more and more shaky studies touting potential small relative risks, is not changing anyone’s mind.

In case you missed the message there — no more studies about meat, please — they say it even more strongly in the next paragraph:

Moreover, it may be time to stop producing observational research in this area. These meta-analyses include millions of participants. Further research involving much smaller cohorts has limited value. High-quality randomized controlled trials are welcome, but only if they’re designed to tell us things we don’t already know.

Here’s the most shocking move — Carroll and Doherty go on to say that, if we’re going to continue telling people to eat less meat, we need to sell them on benefits other than health:

It’s also probably time for a major overhaul of the methods for communicating nutritional data in ways that might get through to target populations and change health outcomes. One finding from the studies reviewed by Valli and colleagues that may hold promise is that there are many reasons other than health to reduce meat consumption. Ethical concerns about animal welfare can be important, as can concerns about the effects of meat consumption on the environment. Both of these issues might be more likely to sway people, and they have the added benefit of empirical evidence behind them. And if they result in reducing meat consumption, and some receive a small health benefit as a side effect, everyone wins.

Cue Greta.

Of course, many public health officials have denounced the Annals package as dangerous. I can’t blame them. Live by the study (and the publicity you can get for it); die by the study.

Or you could be an expert, as Carroll has been for years about meat eating and risk, and outline what the evidence base suggests is a rational approach to eating.

It’s why, in the polluted science communications environment around nutrition, I turn to Carroll for insight and guidance. He’s earned by trust through clear, unbiased, compelling explanations of the body of evidence. For me, he’s built authority.

And that should be the goal of any researcher seeking to make public impact. Not just adding to a pile of studies and denouncing the ones you think are dangerous.