Bradley Johnston, an epidemiologist at Dalhousie University in Canada, is the lead author of a new study that is challenging the near-universal recommendation to cut back on red meat for health reasons.
The research was published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine and contained a controversial accompanying recommendation from scientists, suggesting that adults continue eating red and processed meats. The evidence on red and processed meats’ link to disease and death is weak and the risk for individuals is small, Johnston and his co-authors concluded.
That recommendation goes against conventional advice from major health organizations like the World Health Organization, as well as the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, which recommends limiting red meat, including processed meat, to one serving a week.
Johnston thinks if an individual’s risk is low, they should be able to make their own decisions on what to eat.
I am not really sure what Johnston means by that last thought. People already do make their own decisions on what to eat, whether they are low-risk or high-risk. Sure, there are recommendations, but that’s all they are, recommendations.
As a vegan, reading about research like this study creates a state of cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. This discomfort is triggered by a situation in which a person’s belief clashes with new evidence perceived by the person. When confronted with facts that contradict beliefs, ideals, and values, people will try to find a way to resolve the contradiction to reduce their discomfort.
There are three basic ways to resolve such a cognitive dissonance:
- only read articles that are consistent with your belief
- ignore articles that contradict your belief
- change your belief and adopt a new one that is consistent with the new evidence
In this case, I used the first two approaches. The news stories featuring this new study mentions some fairly prominent researchers, from places like Harvard and Stanford, who disagree with the Johnston study. These researchers note many studies have found negative health consequences associated with meat consumption. Since that research is consistent with my beliefs, I place more weight on it. And since the new research goes against my beliefs, I ignore it. So at this point, I’m not ready to go back to eating red meat again.
But I do have to give kudos to Woody Allen, who perhaps was aware that new research, like Johnston’s, would come out that went against everything we believed. Here’s a clip from his classic movie Sleeper, released in 1973:
Maybe we’ll never know what diet is best for us; the best we can do is try to make an informed decision, certainly not an easy task when there is conflicting research.
*image from YouTube