Are you suffering from nutritional whiplash?

Do you feel like you are suffering from whiplash when it comes to nutrition recommendations? If so, you’re not alone. It seems like every other week we hear contradictory information about what we should put on our plates. A few weeks ago, plant-based meat alternatives were dominating nutrition news. Nutrition types like myself were stating that eating meat and other animal foods – if you want to do so- in moderation was fine.

This week it’s all about not eating less meat – red meat and processed meat.

In case you haven’t heard, supposedly new “recommendations “ were published in a series of studies in the journal, Annals of Internal Medicine, which state that we don’t need to moderate our meat intake.

But before you put a huge hunk of meat on your plate, here’s some food for thought.

Make plant foods the centrepiece of your plate
Nutrition recommendations about meat eating have not changed – in spite of the headlines that these sensational studies are getting. (Keep in mind that current nutrition recommendations which involve a consensus of scientists with a bounty of research don’t make headlines. They’re not sexy. Those individual studies that go against the grain are the stuff of headline making.)

These new studies evaluated previous research utilized different methods then what scientists have previously used. When researchers analyze nutrition data, they often use what’s called observational or population research. This is where scientists look at all kinds of factors in various groups and seek out associations. This kind of research needs to be interpreted properly by the experts in order to find real links. For example, you might find a link on hot days between eating ice cream and drownings. Is eating ice cream a cause of drowning? Of course not but if you looked at everything that happens in greater numbers in the summer, those two might show up together.

As a result, observational research on its own does not show cause and effect.

But if you put it together with animal research and those conducted in laboratories, large observational studies can send you in the right direction.

Comparing apples to apples
Observational research alone, however, does not compare to clinical research. This is where two identical groups of people are evaluated with one group being put on one regimen and the other, on another routine. But in some cases, this kind of clinical research is not possible to conduct. For one, it can be unethical to put people on certain diets for years when you suspect the outcome could be harmful. Add in the incredible expense of doing such research and it’s unlikely to happen.

That being said, if scientists do their research well, they can come up with a consensus. This is how the recommendations to moderate meat intake came about.

Now when you look at these new studies, they were analyzed using some of the same criteria as would be used for pharmaceutical research. The scientist did not put as much credit or weight on observational research. But even their choice of studies to analyze makes one scratch their head.

For example, you might think that if scientists wanted to see the differences in changing meat consumption patterns, they would compare meat eaters with non-meat eaters. But no, the scientist did not compare vegetarians with meat eaters.  They compared different meat eaters. They also did not include animal or laboratory research. They only used the observational research and then cherry-picked even those studies.

Simply put, they seem to have an agenda to shake things up. Even a co-author on one of the meta-analyses, Dr. John Sievenpiper, professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto, strongly disagreed with the panel’s conclusions and recommendations. He thought the panels should have stressed the protective associations that directly support current recommendations to lower meat intake. He also requested that they make changes to the paper. He states, “unfortunately, I never saw the galley proofs to ensure that these changes had been made.“

You can read a very detailed analysis of the whole issue on the Nutrition Source from the Harvard School of Public Health.

One last point to consider and one you likely have heard many times: if you are making meat the centrepiece of your plate, then you are likely missing out on arsenal of weaponry that can help defend against disease including vegetables, fruit, whole grains, pulses and nuts and seeds.

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Categories: Nutrition News, Rosie's Rants

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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