The meat industry rails against new dietary guidelines for only mentioning 'beef' 5 times as the US promotes plant-based protein

The meat industry rails against new dietary guidelines for only mentioning 'beef' 5 times as the US promotes plant-based protein
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
  • The United States Department of Agriculture has updated its nutritional guidelines for all Americans, continuing to recommend limiting red meat and saturated fat.
  • The cattle industry has objected to the guidelines, on the grounds that they don't adequately address beef, but instead refer more broadly to "protein foods" including plant-based options.
  • Beef industry and low-carb diet advocates claim that the advice ignores the latest science on saturated fat and red meat.
  • The guidelines aren't controversial among mainstream nutritionists.

The cattle industry has beef with the U.S. government over the latest dietary guidelines for Americans. Proponents of the high-fat, low-carb ketogenic diet also joined the fray, contesting what counts as healthy eating.

The USDA announced its most recent updates to the national dietary guidelines December 29, with few major changes.

However, some advocacy groups reacted on Tuesday, saying that the new guidelines rely on what they consider to be outdated science, which unfairly implicates meat as a unhealthy food group.

They contend that there is emerging research showing healthy diets can include substantial amounts of red meat and/or saturated fat. argue mainstream advice to avoid these foods is based on weak evidence.

Following the announcement of the USDA recommendation, the US Cattlemen's Association, a marketing and advocacy organization for beef producers, tweeted that the 163-page guidelines only mention the word "beef" a total of five times.


That's in contrast with more general references to "protein foods," which include lean meats and poultry, seafood, eggs, nuts, seeds, soy, and other beans.

The guidelines also recommend lower consumption of red meat and processed meat overall. Two of the three examples of healthy eating patterns listed in the guidelines (healthy vegetarian and healthy Mediterranean style diets) emphasize plant-based foods or seafood as protein sources.

How the guidelines are put together

The guidelines are updated every five years by a committee of doctors, researchers, and scientists specializing in nutrition.

The committee bases its recommendations on extensive research, but also considers comments from the public and industry groups.

Years of research link red meat with health risks

Mainstream dietary advice consistently recommends cutting back on certain meat products, since extensive research has linked them to poorer health outcomes.


Processed meat is the main target of these recommendations, with study after study finding strong associations between processed meat products and risk of cancer, heart disease, and other chronic illness.

But red meat has also increasingly fallen out of favor in mainstream nutrition, also because of its links to cancer and heart disease risks (albeit somewhat less than its processed counterpart).

That's in part because of the high saturated fat and cholesterol content of red meat, compared to leaner proteins like poultry. The dietary guidelines also recommend a shift from saturated fats to unsaturated fat sources (such as fish, nuts, seeds, and avocados), based on evidence that too much saturated fat is linked to a higher risk of heart disease.

The cattle industry claims that advice to limit red meat is based on outdated science

Critics of the dietary guidelines contend that limitations on red meat and saturated fat are based on low-quality and outdated evidence.

"We've been concerned throughout this process that maybe we're not considering all the available science on nutrition because it's such a constantly evolving field," Lia Biondo, director of policy and outreach for the US Cattlemen's Association, told Insider.


"We're concerned the guidelines focus on too narrow of a scope, and are building on previous guidelines without considering if those were correct," Biondo added. "We need to be looking at emerging dietary patterns."

Keto and low-carb fans are also salty about the USDA's advice

Proponents of the keto diet have also pushed back on the USDA throughout the process of revising the guidelines for 2020 - pushing for some official support of the diet, to no avail.

Keto disciples take issue with the enduring USDA recommendation to limit red meat, and that Americans get 45% to 65% of their daily calories in the form of carbohydrates, such as refined grains.

The high-fat, low-carb ketogenic diet has gained momentum in recent years, spurred by recent studies showing potential for weight loss and blood sugar control. Many versions of keto incorporate large amounts of red meat, including steak and burgers, as well as dairy products like butter, cream, and cheese.

On red meat, advocates claim there are no robust nutritional studies that directly causes health risks. They say studies frequently group together red meat with processed meats, muddying the evidence on how red meat alone affects our health.


The consensus among nutrition experts is that there is evidence too much meat can worsen our health. Cardiologists continue to advise people to limit red meat and saturated fat to lower their risk of chronic illnesses such as heart disease.

On carbs, keto proponents have long argued that mainstream nutrition advice may not be helpful for people with obesity, insulin resistance, and similar diet-related issues.

"The policy is scoped for disease-prevention only-thereby ignoring the 60% of the population now diagnosed with one or more diet-related disease, including heart disease, obesity, diabetes, etc," Nina Teicholz, executive director of the Nutrition Coalition, said in a press release on Tuesday.

Read more:

A nutrition journalist dieted his whole life and still gained weight. Then he tried the keto diet, and 'it was like a switch being flipped.'


Author of 'dietary guidelines' encouraging people to keep eating red meat received industry funding

Swapping out red meat for eggs, dairy, or beans could reduce heart disease risk