Should We Be Eating Red Meat?
Should We Be Eating Red Meat?
In nutritional sciences red meat is any mammal meat including beef, lamb, pork, venison, horse, rabbit basically anything that isn’t a fish or a bird. Red meat is widely consumed and enjoyed however there has also been widespread debate around the pro’s versus the cons of enjoying our frequent feasts on meat. Let’s delve into the facts to see if we do indeed need to pull back on those summer BBQ’s!
Health Benefits of Red Meat
Red Meat is high in protein with around 25g of readily absorbable, complete protein per 100g serve of meat. Protein is necessary for the repair and maintenance of all the cells in the body. It’s pretty important! Protein can support muscle growth and maintenance as we exercise and age. It’s also great for appetite control.
Red Meat has the highest iron content of all food. Iron is important for helping the red blood cells to transport oxygen around the body. Iron deficiency tends to affect females of menstruating age and vegetarians more often with symptoms such as tiredness and weakness.
Red Meat is high in B vitamins, particularly B12. Around 65g of beef can supply you with your daily requirement of B12. B vitamins are necessary for lots of little reactions to run smoothly in the body such as those in the energy system, blood system and nervous system.
Special mention goes to organ meat, such as liver, kidney and heart. These are a great way of consuming often leaner and cheaper cuts of red meat with all the health benefits, plus some! Organ meat tends to be higher in almost all nutrients compared to normal muscle meat especially iron, B vitamins and vitamin D. Heart is a personal favourite of mine, it makes for a perfect rare steak!
Red meat, especially organ meat, is a very nutrient dense food. It is high in protein, iron and B vitamins to name a few.
Health Negatives of Red Meat
Red Meat and Heart Disease
Red meat consumption is not associated with an increased risk of heart disease when eating an overall MODERATE saturated fat diet (1). Eating a HIGH saturated fat diet may increase your risk of heart disease which unfortunately seems to be correlated with unhealthy red meat choices. Think takeaway burgers and sausages versus lean steak. These processed meats, such as burgers and sausages, are associated with an increased risk of heart disease (2).
Eating leaner cuts of red meat if you already get a substantial amount of saturated fat elsewhere in your diet can help to moderate your saturated fat intake overall. Remember other heart protective habits are important here like exercise, and intake of more beneficial unsaturated fats.
Grass fed meats tend to have a more favourable fatty acid content with more polyunsaturated fat than non-grass fed red meats (3) and therefore could be better for heart health and often have the added bonus of not being processed.
Red Meat and Cancer
High temperature or exposed flame cooking of red meat such as grilling, oven broiling, pan frying, barbecuing or deep-fat frying seems to increase carcinogenic (potentially cancer causing) compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). We then consume these carcinogenic compounds when we eat the cooked meat.
Having said that, it has been found that those eating less than 600g of red meat per week BUT also eating a healthy diet high in fruits and vegetables have similar death rates to vegetarians (4). It seems the context of the diet as a WHOLE is more important to consider. This may be why studies carried out in North America seem to show a stronger link between red meat and cancer, than studies done in other countries with generally healthier dietary and lifestyle habits (5). It is difficult to disentangle all the variables as people eating the most red meat tend to have unhealthier lifestyle choices in general e.g. Fast food on a regular basis, as well as lower fruit and vegetable intake and lower activity levels.
Research often finds a link between red meat consumption and specifically colorectal cancer however when the data is adjusted to take out PROCESSED red meat such as deli meats, bacon, hot dogs, cured, smoked and canned meats there isn’t a strong link (5). In fact eating around 700g of mostly NON-PROCESSED red meat a week doesn’t seem to increase your risk of colorectal cancer. On the other hand PROCESSED meats have been labelled a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
Too much saturated fat in the diet could increase risk of heart disease but eating red meat in the context of a healthy and moderate saturated fat diet doesn’t seem to increase risk. Processed meat is associated with heart disease and is a known carcinogen. Meat cooked at high temperatures or over flames also produce carcinogenic compounds. Avoid these where possible.
Red meat features in the weekly meal plan of many households....
Should we be eating it? Read on to find out more!
So...Should we be Eating Red Meat?
Types of Red Meat
Choose grass fed red meat over non-grass fed where possible as it typically contains higher polyunsaturated fat levels and could be better for heart health. Choose non-processed red meat where possible as salted, dried, smoked, canned or chemically preserved meats are associated with increased risk of cancer, heart disease and a shorter life span. Choose leaner cuts of red meat if you already have a moderate level of saturated (often animal based) fat in your diet and instead favour with a heart healthy dressing such as olive oil, guacamole or a homemade satay sauce.
Current recommendations for red meat consumption in New Zealand is to stay under 500g per week (6). This may translate to 2-3 large servings of red meat per week which also would contribute significantly to a person's vitamin and mineral requirements, particularly iron and B12. This recommendation varies between countries.
Using gentler cooking methods can reduce the build up of carcinogens in the cooking process. Try to stew, boil, steam or slow cook red meat over grilling, oven broiling, pan frying, barbecuing or deep-fat frying. If you do prefer to cook meat with high temperatures avoid charring the meat where possible and cut off any burnt pieces after cooking. We don’t know exactly how bad this is for our long term health but making good lifestyle choices such as eating an abundance of fruits and veggies seems to be enough to be protective provided we’re not over doing it.
Choose grass-fed, non-processed red meat where possible. 2-3 portions or under 500mg of red meat per week is recommended and will help towards vitamin and mineral requirements. Use gentler cooking methods such as stewing, boiling, steaming or slow cooking where possible and avoid eating burnt meat.
Let’s Sum It Up!
Red meat is any meat that comes from a mammal. It is a very nutrient dense meat, especially organ meat. However, it’s consumption has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease and cancer. This seems to only be true for processed meats though, therefore we should limit our processed meat intake. Cooking at high temperatures and with naked flames can increase carcinogens in the meat so where possible stew and slow cook red meats. Recommendations are to eat less than 500g of red meat per week and ideally this would be grass fed and non-processed. It’s important to look at your meat consumption in the context of your whole diet and lifestyle. I think I’ll be chancing just a few BBQ’s come Summer.
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