There’s been a big move to cutting out red meat since the health scare last year. But is this the right thing to do? F&W investigates…
Did you swiftly put down your bacon sarnie when news broke last year that red and processed meat could pose a serious health threat, increasing your risk of bowel cancer? Celebs including Gwyneth Paltrow and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley have long sung the praises of their diets with little or no red meat.
But at the end of 2015, the experts at the World Health Organisation (WHO) stepped in to highlight the risks of bacon, ham and sausages – incorrect media reports claimed the WHO said these were as big a cancer threat as cigarettes. The WHO did however say that eating high volumes of red meat, including lamb, pork and beef, may increase your 22 FIT & WELL risk. So is the British institution of Sunday roast beef really at stake?
Before you go all Gwynnie on us, we speak to Professor Robert Pickard, a member of the Meat Advisory Panel and former
Director General of the British Nutrition Foundation, to find out the facts. Do we need to stop eating sirloin?
There’s no need for that, says Robert. ‘The recent controversy centred more around processed meat – think salami hanging up in the butcher’s,’ he explains. ‘These meats need preserving in the form of smoking, curing, salting, or preservative adding, which is where nitrates come in and, as a result, carcinogens.’
Even if your protein source is plantbased, it should form no more than 30% of your food. When broken down, amino acids (in all protein-filled foods) can release carcinogenic nitrogenous products.
VERY SLIGHT RISK
Carcinogens can aggravate pre-cancerous conditions, so it’s recommended to limit your daily intake to around one sausage
or 1½ slices of bacon. But as Robert explains, the risk of cancer from processed meat remains extremely slight. ‘You’ll take in far more nitrogenous carcinogens walking down a traffic-filled street than you’d ever get from preserved meat.’
GOOD FOR YOU
So what about your pork chops and roast beef? ‘Fresh, lean, red meat is one of the most nutritious foods you can eat,’ explains Robert. ‘It’s packed with vitamins and minerals, most notably iron, which helps produce healthy red blood cells, and vitamin B12, which is essential for a healthy nervous and digestive system, and also helps prevent heart disease. What’s more, it’s rich in muscle, bone, blood and skin-building protein and has the correct balance of saturated and unsaturated fat, key for the development of healthy cell membranes.’
SIZE IS EVERYTHING
So that’s the good news. But this isn’t a green light to eat as much red meat as you want. It turns out, you can have too much of a good thing. Government guidelines recommend eating no more than 70g of red meat per day (or around 500g per week). OK, but what does that actually mean?
‘This equates to a palm-sized portion that’s around 1cm high – about the size of an average beefburger,’ explains Robert.
‘If you consume a very large portion of red meat, you can’t absorb the nutrients quickly enough from the intestine. The surplus then passes into the colon, where bacteria feed on it. If fed to excess, these bacteria can damage the gut lining, causing problems later on.’
WHAT IF I’M VEGGIE?
If you’re a pescatarian, eating a combination of fish, dairy and eggs will ensure you’re not missing out any essential vitamins and minerals found in red meat. But if you are a full vegetarian and sea creatures are off the menu, you should check that you are getting an adequate intake of copper, iodine and iron. See right for alternative sources of vitamin B12 and protein. And with milk, cheese and eggs off the menu, vegans need to put even more thought and research into making sure they are getting everything they need.
VITAL VITAMINS FOR VEGGIES
There are 4.2 micrograms of vitamin B12 in a 70g steak. To get the same amount from other sources, you’d need to eat*:
6½ bowls of bran flakes
7 slices of toast with 4g serving of Marmite
525g of Cheddar cheese (that’s 2¾ regular-sized packs)
There are 20g of protein in a 70g steak. To get the same amount from other sources, you’d need to eat:
3½ bags of spinach (200g bags)
700 pumpkin seeds
THE NEW RED MEAT RULES
DO eat lean red meat. Swap a beefburger for a lean steak of the same size and you’ll cut out 30% fat. Trimming the fat off a pork chop could save you 15% fat too.
DON’T overdo it on the cooked breakfast. Two standard British sausages and two thin-cut rashers of bacon will take you to
almost double your daily RI of red meat.
DO get your B12 checked if you’re vegan or over 60. This vital vitamin is hard to get from non-animal products and becomes more difficult to absorb from your diet as you age.
DON’T burn your meat. Charring contains carcinogens, regardless of whether you’re cooking sausages, chicken or vegetables. If you want a barbecue, cook your meat in the oven first and finish off outside. This will prevent it burning before the meat inside is cooked.
Do eat a little bit of everything and not too much of any one thing to maximise variety.