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Is Meat Good or Bad?

You’ve been hearing for decades that it’s a good idea to cut back on red meat. But a controversial studyTrusted Source, released last week in Annals of Internal Medicine, turned that long-standing advice on its head and started a contentious debate.

It found no statistical evidence that eating less red or processed meat will provide health benefits to an individual.

The flip-flopping of nutritional advice is nothing new. Eggs, fat, coffee, and even chocolate have gone from bad to good and sometimes back again. The volleying is enough to confuse anyone.

How can you avoid getting whiplash from health advice that seems to change almost every day?

And more importantly, how do you know what you can trust?

Why nutritional guidance changes

If news on nutrition leaves you perpetually confused, you’re not alone.

2018 survey of 1,009 Americans found that 80 percent of respondents came across conflicting advice on nutrition, causing 59 percent to doubt their dietary choices.

“When new research comes out, it’s fascinating and compelling — but people don’t realize that research evolves constantly and there’s no endpoint to it,” said Kris Sollid, a registered dietitian and senior director of nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council, which published the survey.

While researchers are constantly trying to figure out the effects of food on the human body, nutrition science isn’t cut and dry.

“There are a lot of things you can’t control for in studies,” said Lauri Wright, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“Are participants really being compliant to a particular diet, or accurate in how much they reported to eat? There are lots of measurement flaws and problems with memory recalls,” she said.

Even if researchers find a relationship between a health benefit and a particular food or nutrient, it’s difficult to determine whether there’s some other factor (such as a lifestyle choice) that’s also at play.

“People that don’t eat red meat generally have more healthful body weights — that’s an observation,” said Wright. “But people who eat less meat also tend to eat more fruits and veggies, and they may exercise more because if they’re already eating less meat, they’re probably already concerned about their health.”

Controlling for all of these factors is practically impossible in any one study. But when data collected in a variety of ways over a long period of time shows consistent findings, experts can be more confident in making specific recommendations.