Eating red meat is a very controversial topic in the nutrition world. Some say that we should completely cut it out of our diets, while others have taken a more eat in moderation view. In this article, I will be investigating the health benefits and consequences of red meat and after picking at the evidence, decide if red meat has a place in a healthy diet.
Benefits of red meat
Protein is essential for growth, maintenance and repair of the body. Extra protein is required for growth in children, growth of the foetus and maternal tissue in pregnant women and producing milk while breast feeding. Red meat is a good source of high quality protein as it contains complete protein (a source of protein that contains an adequate proportion of all nine of the essential amino acids necessary for the dietary needs of humans). Cooked red meat contains 27-35g of protein per 100g¹.
B vitamins are a class of water-soluble vitamins that play important roles in cell metabolism. Red meat contains useful amounts of B-vitamins. It is especially a rich source of vitamin B3 (niacin), vitamin B6 and vitamin B12¹.
Red meat is an important dietary source of essential minerals.
Iron is needed for normal bodily functions and is essential in the formation of red blood cells. Red meat contains heme iron which is the more readily absorbed form of iron. One 4oz/113g serving of red meat contains 2.5mg of iron. To achieve iron balance, adult men need to absorb about 1 mg/day and adult menstruating women about 1.5 mg/day, although this is highly variable. Several studies have confirmed the positive effect that including red meat in the diet can have on dietary iron intakes¹. Red meat in the diet is particularly useful for those who are at risk of iron deficiency (for e.g. women of childbearing age) or have been found to have low iron levels.
Zinc helps with the healing of wounds and is also needed for the growth of body cells, fertility and to support the immune system. Red meat is an excellent source of zinc and the zinc in red meat is well absorbed. On average, red meat contains 4.9mg of zinc per 100g/3.5oz serving of red meat¹.
Magnesium, copper, cobalt, phosphorus, chromium, nickel and selenium are also found in red meat in useful amounts¹. All of which are needed for healthy bodily functions.
Some red meat producers increase the nutrition of their meat produce, by adding minerals (such as magnesium & calcium) and dietary fibre (such as bamboo, cotton seed, chicory) to the meat².
Consequences of red meat
Metabolic disease (Heart disease, obesity & type 2 diabetes)
Red meat contains both saturated and unsaturated fat and small amounts of omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA’s). The consumption of unsaturated and omega 3 PUFA’s have been proven to reduce the risk of the risk of metabolic disease; in contrast, saturated fat has been linked to an increased risk¹. Many argue that red meat is bad for heart health because saturated fat is associated with raising high blood cholesterol which can increase your risk of heart disease. Lean red meat contains moderate amounts of saturated fat as it contains less than 2.5g of saturated per 100g serving¹.
The calorie and fat content of red meat has led many to be concerned that eating red meat increases your risk of obesity. The strongest source of evidence of this link is from observational studies. A systematic review of observational studies found that those who had high quantities of red meat also had a higher BMI than the moderate and low red meat intake group³. Similarly, studies comparing non-meat eaters and meat eaters have highlighted lower rates of obesity among non-meat eaters. However, it is important to consider that such groups are more physically active than the general population, which would significantly reduce obesity risk¹. In addition, there is also the worry that the studies investigating the link between red meat and obesity do not consider the type of red meat consumed. The total fat content of red meat has been considerably reduced over the last 40 years through the application of improved animal breeding and butchery techniques. As consumers, there is now the choice to buy fully trimmed lean meat which typically contains between 4g – 10g of fat per 100g¹.
High red meat consumption has also been linked to increased risk of type 2 diabetes but the mechanisms are uncertain but there have been suggestions that the saturated fat in red meat is the culprit. In addition, high-temperature open-flame cooking methods for red meat, especially broiling and barbequing, have been found to be independently associated with a higher risk of T2D⁴.
In 2011 a report from the Continuous Update Project was published. It found strong evidence that eating red meat or processed meat increases the risk of bowel cancer. The analysis of eight cohort studies showed a 17 per cent increased risk per 100g red meat per day (RR: 1.17 (1.05-1.31)). However, evidence suggests eating 500g or less of red meat a week doesn’t significantly increase bowel cancer risk.
Farming and manufacturing processes
What you feed animals and how you treat them is critical to the quality of red meat produced. However, to meet consumer demands and to produce the cheapest red meat as possible, farming compromises have been made. These compromises not only negatively affect the animal’s health before slaughter, but also the nutritional quality of the meat and thus our health.
Due to the high demand to produce red meat, the use of intensive farming techniques has become very popular. One way to keep cost down is by feeding animals cheap feed grains. Although using these grains means lower red meat prices for consumers, there is evidence to show that meat from grass fed animals is lower in saturated fat than grain fed animals⁵. In addition, recent studies have found that overall, factory farmed products are less nutritious⁵. For example, recent studies have shown that meat from intensively farmed animals can have lower levels of beneficial omega-3⁵.
There is an international concern that antibiotics are being over-used in intensive farming. As most would agree, feeding antibiotics, to factory farmed animals can help to prevent sick animals from suffering. However, it has come to light that there is an extreme overuse of these drugs in intensive farming and antibiotics are being given as a prophylactic to offset the disease risks posed by overcrowding. The inappropriate usage of these drugs could be driving the development of drug-resistant bacteria which may harm humans that encounter meat produced from an animal with such bacteria⁵. If food poisoning bacteria (for e.g. E.coli) become resistant, there could be treatment delays because of antibiotics used in general practice becoming ineffective.
It is also important to note that often to reduce production costs, cheap fillers such as breadcrumbs, cereal flours are overused to add bulk to the product². If you are gluten intolerant, make sure you check the label.
So…can red meat be part of a healthy diet?
My answer is yes but there are considerations to be made which I will discuss.
Portion size is important as high consumption of red meat has the greatest link to disease risk.
- Eat no more than 500g of red meat per week. This amounts to one serving (3-4oz/100-113g) of red meat 3-4 days of the week (see fig 1 below).
- A 3-4 oz serving is approximately the size of a deck of cards (see below).
- Use less meat & bulk meat items with ingredients such as lentils, beans, pulses, vegetables, tofu and quinoa (see recipe section on blog for ideas).
|Breakfast||Beans on toast||Blueberry porridge|
|Lunch||Lentil soup||Homemade lamb & chickpea meatballs (1/2 serving) with spaghetti|
|Dinner||Grilled steak (1 serving) with mash potato & green beans||Beef (1/2 serving) & vegetable curry with sticky rice|
First and foremost, when buying red meat, choose lean cuts of meat. Lean cuts usually contain the words “round,” “loin” or “sirloin” on the package.
Going local by buying directly from the farm or farmers market is a great way of purchasing good quality meat at a good price because it cuts out the middle man. It also can provide more transparency as to how the meat is produced. There are businesses that have dedicated themselves to make this process of purchasing good quality meat easier. They do this through informing you of farmers markets and shops in your area and/or delivering locally sourced meat to you. These are:
- Local foods
- Well Hung Meat Company
- Green Pasture Farms
- Sheep Share
If the idea of purchasing locally sourced red meat is too much of a stretch, then supermarkets and other grocery shops can still provide you with good quality meat. The key to this is understanding the labelling. As well as looking at the nutrient table on the back of the pack, these are the logo’s you should look out for:
Organic– Organic standards are defined by law, and farmers and processors must be certified by an approved organisation for e.g. the Soil Association. Organic farms don’t use chemical fertilisers or pesticides and the routine use of antibiotics is not permitted. Organic systems also provide high levels of animal welfare where the animals can go outside for part, or all, of their lives.
Free range– In relation to red meat, this logo is found on raw pork produce. The logo assures the customer that the pork produced came from pigs that were more active and were outside for at least part of their lives.
Pasture/grass-fed: The new words for the traditional practice of grazing cattle and sheep on pasture as opposed to the more intensive practice of fattening them on grains indoors or in CAFOs (concentrated animal feed operations – largely found in the US). Pasture-reared beef has been found to contain less fat and has a higher proportion of healthy omega-3 fatty acids compared with intensively reared beef.
Outdoor bred/reared: Refers mainly to pigs born in systems with outdoor space, then brought indoors for fattening after weaning (outdoor bred) or spend around half their life outdoors (outdoor reared).
Freedom Foods: the RSPCA’s higher animal welfare standards and labelling scheme that includes beef, chicken, pork and turkey. Freedom Foods allows free-range, organic, indoor and outdoor farms to join its scheme if the RSPCA’s welfare standards can be met.
- Before cooking:
- Trim off as much fat as you can before cooking
- Avoid adding extra fat and oil
- Don’t overcook meat. Over cooking meat can produce cancer-causing compounds. However, make sure that meat is cooked to a safe internal temperature to kill bacteria that can cause food-borne illnesses. For steaks, cook to 145 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit; for burgers, cook to 160 degrees.
- Try to limit high-temperature open-flame cooking methods for red meat, especially broiling and barbequing.
- Instead, choose healthier cooking methods such as baking, stewing and grilling.
- If grilling:
- Choose lean red meat cuts when grilling to reduce the chance of flare-ups or heavy smoke, which can leave carcinogens on the meat.
- Cook over medium heat or indirect heat, rather than over high heat, which can cause flare-ups and overcook or char meat. Limit frying and broiling, which also subject meat to high temperatures.
- Marinades may reduce the formation of cancer causing compounds. Choose one without sugar, which can cause flare-ups and char the meat’s surface.
- Turn meat frequently. Use tongs or a spatula rather than a fork to avoid releasing juices that can drip and cause flare-ups. Do not press burgers with a spatula to release juices.
- Consider partially cooking the meat in the oven or microwave before finishing on the grill.
- After cooking:
- Pour off the melted fat after cooking.
- Remove any charred pieces before eating.
- The addition of vegetables, pulses or fruit will help bulk up dishes and reduce the total fat and saturated fat content of a dish.
- Eat less meat and consume a more-plant based diet
- Avoid processed meat. More information on processed meat can be found here.
- I have developed an acronym (PLATE) detailing considerations when incorporating red meat into a healthy diet. Click on the link below.