There has been lots of attention in the media recently about red meat, such as beef, lamb and pork - especially it's relation to colon cancer, saturated fat, cholesterol and heart disease - so I ask the question: should we eat it or should we not? Should we concentrate on eating more vegetables and grains, and should we all be vegetarian? As a dietitian, it's not an easy question to answer and some recent discussions on social media have caused quite a stir.
For the carnivores, red meat offers lots of beneficial nutrients - it's an important source of protein, a rich source of B vitamins and zinc and a great source of iron. This is particularly important in women of childbearing age and teenage girls who we know have low intakes of iron and zinc in the UK. But eaten in excess, it's not good for us - like most food. Red meat, in particular, contains high levels of saturated fats, which despite recent evidence, is still believed to increase heart disease risk. Processed meats, for example bacon and sausages, are high in calories, salt and fat and should only be eaten occasionally. We know evidence shows there may be a link between eating red and processed meats and colon cancer risk; and that people who have a high intake of these meats are at higher risk of bowel cancer than those who eat small amounts.
For me, the other big issue linked to meat consumption is its affect on the environment. When land is used for raising animals instead of growing crops, this can have a profound effect on the environment. If we continue to eat meat at the current rate, we are going to run out of both land and livestock. Beef farming in particular requires 28 times more land to produce then chicken or pork and results in five times more climate warming emissions due to methane production. According to a U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation report, livestock production is responsible for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions in carbon dioxide equivalent.
With this in mind, as a dietitian what advice do I offer my clients and readers? Red meat does have an important role in our diets especially for women, but for me it's all about quality and quantity. To keep your colon and heart as healthy as possible, limit your intake of red meat to once or twice a week and don't exceed the recommended portion size which is 70g a day. To put this in context, two thin slices of roast beef provides 60g, one pork sausage is 50g and a 5oz minute steak offers 80g. As a nation, we should definitely eat more plant-based proteins such as chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans and black-eyed beans. These are a great source of soluble fibre and have been shown to lower the 'bad' LDL-cholesterol. We know that people who have a plant-based diet have a 20% lower incidence of heart disease and a lower risk of developing diabetes.
So my take home messages are:
1) Limit your intake of meat to once or twice a week and only have processed meats occasionally
2) Include more pulses and beans in your daily diet
3) Half the amount of meat used in dishes and bulk with beans, lentils and vegetables instead
4) Try swapping meat for meat substitutes such as quorn and soya
5) Aim to have two portions of sustainable fish a week, one of which should be oily such as salmon, herring, mackerel and fresh tuna
6) In sandwiches swap processed meats such as salami, pastrami and ham with canned tuna, sardines or mackerel
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