Updated: Oct 20, 2022
There's been a lot of chatter lately about whether we should be eating meat. For some, this is an ethical decision, for others a health choice. While I'm not one to lecture on the ethics of the decision, I can offer some pointers on the health aspects of eating meat. So lets dive in to the good, the bad and the ugly.
First, let me clarify. We're going to be talking about:
Red meat: beef, pork, lamb, veal, venison, goat
Processed meat: Any meat that has gone through a process to improve the flavour or preserve it (make it last longer). This can include salting, curing, fermenting and smoking. Think about hot dogs, jerky, ham, corned beef, canned meats and the like. This adds preservatives and/or additives (1).
White meat, like poultry, doesn't have a lot of evidence behind it, and fish has beneficial effects on your health, so lets shelve them for now.
Meat is a really great source of iron, and animal sources of iron are much more easily absorbed than plant based sources. Plus, red meat is a complete protein source, unlike plant proteins. Meat also provides zinc and B12 (2), both very important to a healthy body. So far, so good!
Meats contain saturated fat, which is bad for our arteries. This type of fat raises our "bad" LDL cholesterol and lowers your "good" HDL cholesterol, meaning your risk of heart disease (heart attack/stroke) shoots up. How much greater is the risk? About 29% according to one study (3). The risk is higher if it's processed or plain red meat.
Another concern is diabetes. People who eat more red and processed meat are at higher risk for type 2 diabetes. Your risk appears to change by half a portion per day, meaning half a portion could be the difference between no risk/low risk and increasing risk. Obviously, the more meat you have, the higher your risk gets. Meanwhile, reducing your daily meat intake by half a portion helps to reduce your risk. One portion is around 65g cook meat (or 90-100g raw), which is about half the size of an average beef steak. so maybe its time to go half's on that steak?
Red meat is considered a "probable carcinogen" meaning it likely causes cancer, and is connected to bowel cancer in particular. While we still have a lot to figure out about the specifics, it looks like there is an increase in your risk if you eat more than 100g red meat per day. 100g is about the amount of ONE lamb chop. Yikes! I see people in the clinic who eat five times that every day.
An easy way to think about your portion is to keep your meat to smaller than (or at least no larger than) the size of your palm. And try to keep it about the thickness too, no great thick slabs of meat - that's cheating!
Over your whole week, try to stick to about 350g of cooked, lean meat. That's about 6 cooked lean lamb chops, if you're wondering.
Processed meats eaten excessively are also a risk for bowel cancer. For processed meat, the classification is "carcinogenic to humans", meaning they have taken out the "probable" aspect. We know, so now we just need to adjust.
"How much is excess?" I hear you ask? Well that's tricky to say, but a study showed that people who ate more than 50g of processed meat per day day (or the equivalent of about 2 slices of bacon) had an 18% greater risk of bowel cancer than the rest of the population. I'd rather not take my chances with those odds!
Best to avoid eating processed meats everyday, and keep it as a treat food, like when you go out to breakfast - smashed avo with bacon, anyone?
What about the cooking process?
Yep, this might also be a factor in your cancer risk. Avoid charring your food, because grilled or BBQ meats (and fish!) may increase your risk for stomach cancers. Aussies are big fans of a BBQ, so make sure you don't get distracted with the backyard cricket and end up burning your sausage sizzle!
The Takeaway: While meat does have some great health benefits, its easy to eat too much, which can increase your risk of a heart attack, stroke, type 2 diabetes or cancer. Reduce your meat intake and have some meat-free days, swapping meat for vegetarian proteins like lentils, chickpeas or beans, which reduces your risk of developing heart disease (3) and likely other conditions. Add in some fatty fish, like salmon, sardines, tuna or mackerel. This will do your heart and your gut a world of good.
(3) Givens, D. I. Review: Dairy foods, red meat and processed meat in the diet: implications for health at key life stages.