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Update October, 2019


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Health & Wellbeing
 

How risky is eating red meat? New papers provoke controversy

In this June 5, 2014, file photo, a man makes a submarine sandwich with mortadella, cooked salami, ham, Genoa salami and sweet capicola at a delicatessen in Massachusetts. An international team of researchers is questioning the advice to limit red and processed meats, saying the link to cancer and heart disease is weak. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File)

Candice Choi

New York (AP) — Eating red meat is linked to cancer and heart disease, but are the risks big enough to give up burgers and steak?

A team of international researchers says probably not, contradicting established advice. In a series of papers published Monday, the researchers say the increased risks are small and uncertain and that cutting back likely wouldn’t be worth it for people who enjoy meat.

Their conclusions were swiftly attacked by a group of prominent U.S. scientists who took the unusual step of trying to stop publication until their criticisms were addressed.

The new work does not say red meat and processed meats like hot dogs and bacon are healthy or that people should eat more of them. The reviews of past studies generally support the ties to cancer, heart disease and other bad health outcomes. But the authors say the evidence is weak, and that there’s not much certainty meat is really the culprit, since other diet and lifestyle factors could be at play.

Most people who understand the magnitude of the risks would say “Thanks very much, but I’m going to keep eating my meat,” said co-author Dr. Gordon Guyatt of McMaster University in Canada.

It’s the latest example of how divisive nutrition research has become, with its uncertainties leaving the door open for conflicting advice. Critics say findings often aren’t backed by strong evidence. Defenders counter that nutrition studies can rarely be conclusive because of the difficulty of measuring the effects of any single food, but that methods have improved.

“What we need to do is look at the weight of evidence — that’s what courts of law use,” said Dr. Walter Willett, a professor of nutrition at Harvard University who was among those calling for the papers’ publication to be postponed.

Willett, who has led studies tying meat to bad health outcomes, also said the reviews do not consider the particularly pronounced benefits of switching from red meat to vegetarian options.

The journal, Annals of Internal Medicine, defended the work and said the request to have it pulled before publication is not how scientific discourse is supposed to happen. Guyatt called the attempt to halt publication “silly.”

In the papers, the authors sought to gauge the potential impact of eating less meat, noting the average of two to four servings a week eaten in North America and Western Europe. They said the evidence for cutting back wasn’t compelling. For example, they found that cutting three servings of red meat a week would result in seven fewer cancer deaths per 1,000 people.

Based on the analyses, a panel of the international researchers said people do not have to cut back for health reasons. But they note their own advice is weak and that they didn’t take into account other factors, such as animal welfare and the toll meat production has on the environment.

There was dissent even among the authors; three of the 14 panelists said they support reducing red and processed meats. A co-author of one review is also among those who called for a publication delay.

Those who pushed to postpone publication also questioned why certain studies were included or excluded in the reviews. Harvard’s Dr. Frank Hu also noted that about a third of American adults eat at least one serving of red meat a day. He said the benefits of cutting back would be larger for those who eat such high amounts.

Still, other researchers not involved in the reviews have criticized nutrition science for producing weak and conflicting findings. Dr. John Ioannidis, a professor of medicine at Stanford University, said such advice can distract from clearer, more effective messages, such as limiting how much we eat.

As for his own diet, Guyatt said he no longer thinks red or processed meats have significant health risks. But he said he still avoids them out of habit, and for animal welfare and environmental reasons.


As with adults, no easy way to address weight with children

Kids eat lunch at an elementary school in Paducah, Ky. It is far easier to avoid gaining weight than to lose it, so getting kids to eat well and exercise is crucial. But how to do that effectively is extremely difficult — and sensitive. (Ellen O'Nan/The Paducah Sun via AP)

Candice Choi

New York (AP) — Red, yellow, green. It's a system for conveying the healthfulness of foods, and at the center of a debate about how to approach weight loss for children.

This month, the company formerly known as Weight Watchers provoked a backlash when it introduced a food tracking app for children as young as 8. The app uses a well-known traffic-light system to classify foods, giving children a weekly limit of 42 "reds," which include steak, peanut butter and chips.

Obesity is a growing public health issue that nobody is sure how to fix, and around one in five children in the U.S. is considered obese, up from one in seven in 2000. Childhood obesity often leads to adult obesity, and to higher risk for conditions including heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

Getting kids to eat well and exercise is crucial, but figuring out how to do that effectively is extremely difficult — and sensitive. For some, the app was a reminder of bad childhood experiences around weight and shame, in public and at home.

"I don't think we appreciate the bias and stigma that families struggling with weight face," said Dr. Stephanie Walsh, medical director of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. That can make it even more stressful for parents worried about their children's health, she said.

There is no easy answer for achieving a healthy weight, regardless of age. But when it comes to addressing the topic with children, pediatricians and dietitians say there are best practices to consider.

Talking it out

Parents may feel a conversation is not necessary, particularly with younger children, and that they can alter behavior by making lifestyle changes. But experts say a talk can be constructive, especially if the changes are going to be noticeable.

The key is to approach the subject with kindness and caring, and avoid blaming any of the child's behaviors. Children should also understand that any changes would be intended to make them feel better, and not about how they look.

As uncomfortable as addressing the issue may seem, failure to do so may make a child feel worse if they're being teased at school or feeling bad about themselves.

"In some ways, just to get it out there may be sort of a relief," said Tommy Tomlinson, an author who recounted his lifelong struggle with weight in "The Elephant in the Room."

 Making changes

Any adjustments to meals and activities should involve the entire family, so children don't feel singled out. This is tied to the belief that the most powerful way to help a child change their behavior is by setting an example.

Framing changes in a positive light is also key, Walsh said, whether that's suggesting new recipes to try together or asking about activities they might be interested in.

"Keep things upbeat," she said.

Then there is the matter of giving guidance on foods. Parents might not like the idea of directing children to a dieting company's app, especially since it gives older children the option to "upgrade" to a coaching service that costs $69 a month.

The company that now calls itself WW says the app is based on Stanford Children's Health's Weight Control Program, but views vary on the traffic-light system.

Dr. Sarah Hampl, a pediatrician specializing in weight management at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, said it can be an easy way to understand a complicated topic. Experts say the system can help adults eat better as well.

But Kaitlin Reid, a registered dietitian at UCLA, said it's a way of classifying foods as good and bad, which should be avoided. Seeing any foods as bad might result in feeling guilty whenever eating them.

 What to avoid

When Tomlinson was 11 or 12, he was taken to a doctor who gave him diet pills. Few health professionals would do that today, and there's broad agreement on other mistakes to avoid.

Using the word "diet," for example, could imply there's something wrong with the child, and that the changes are short-term.

Trying to scare children by warning them about potential medical problems isn't helpful either. And if parents are making broader lifestyle changes, they shouldn't feel the need to intervene or scold every time a child reaches for a sweet.

"Guilt and blame are not good motivators for change," said Stephen Pont, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Dell Medical School. By the same token, experts say parents should avoid making negative comments about their own bodies.

Regardless of whether parents see noticeable changes right away, Pont said, there are long-term benefits of instilling healthier habits in children.

  


HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

How risky is eating red meat? New papers provoke controversy


As with adults, no easy way to address weight with children