In late September, the Annals of Internal Medicine published a dietary guideline recommendation claiming that there is no need to reduce red and processed meat for good health.
According to the journal’s press release, after a “rigorous series of 5 high-quality systematic reviews of the evidence,” a panel of experts had found “little to no health benefits for reducing red or processed meat consumption.” The panel’s guideline concluded that most people “can continue to consume red meat and processed meat at their average current consumption levels” and that any dietary guideline should support individual preferences. In other words, eat want you want.
The guideline, the methods used to produce it, and the expertise of the panel drew swift and pointed criticism from nutrition, public health, and epidemiology communities. A statement issued by the Harvard School of Public Health described the new guideline as “inconsistent with the principle of ‘first do no harm’” and “inconsistent with the precautionary principle in public health.” The Annals of Internal Medicine papers provide a good example of what Marion Nestle calls ‘nutritional nihilism.’ That is, “because observational studies are based on self-reported information and necessarily flawed, their conclusions are unscientific and should be discounted.”
As nutrition education practitioners, researchers, academics and advocates, SNEB members can play a critical role in countering this latest case of nutrition nihilism by defusing confusion stemming from the new guideline and by preparing for more to come. It is important for us to help students and the public understand that this guideline did not come from an official scientific body. NutriRECS is a self-appointed group of researchers from around the world. Publishing their conclusion as a “dietary guideline recommendation” was understandably confusing for consumers and possibly for practitioners as well.
Use of existing individual preferences as justification for the NutriRECS red and processed meat guideline is also problematic for nutrition educators. Individual level nutrition education focuses on motivating and facilitating behavior change in order to help people achieve health and other valued goals. This often means employing strategies to shift food preferences. If we did not believe that individual preferences can change by increasing nutrition knowledge, food skills and many other behavioral determinants, there would be little reason for nutrition education. I cannot imagine a nutrition educator choosing to disregard recommendations on fruits and vegetables because program participants prefer not to eat them.
In addition to these practice-related concerns, the NutriRECS guideline raises another concern of interest to SNEB. The NutriRECS authors do not consider environmental impacts in their recommendation because “environmental and animal welfare concerns are very different issues that are challenging to integrate with health concerns…”
The mission of SNEB is to “advance food and nutrition education research, practice and policy that promote equity and support public and planetary health.” Consistent with this mission, our Society has taken a strong position regarding the inclusion of environmental sustainability in dietary guidance.
At a time when evidence diet-related environmental impacts is expanding dramatically and the window of opportunity for avoiding the most catastrophic effects of climate change is closing fast, such an omission by NutriRECS, in my opinion, is reckless.
The challenges that nutrition educators face are many. In my view, the kind of whiplash the NutriRECS red and processed meat guideline presented should not be among them.
Jennifer L. Wilkins, PhD, RD, currently serves as SNEB president. This editorial first appeared in JNEB Vol. 52, Issue 1 (January 2020).
NOTE: On December 31, 2019, just before this editorial was published, a correction was issued by the Annals of Internal Medicine related to disclosure of funding received by the chief author of the work. A week later, the Washington Post reported on this correction and provided more detail related to the researcher’s undisclosed conflict of interest linking him to the meat industry.