After cancer threat! Why red meat can be good for your health

One in ten adults, and one in five 16 to 24-year-olds, follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, according to research published last year by market research firm Mintel.

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Most people eat about 70g of red meat per day, which is the amount the NHS says is fine play

Most people eat about 70g of red meat per day, which is the amount the NHS says is fine

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Worried by the flurry of warnings about eating meat? Have you vowed to cut down on bacon sarnies and steak or even contemplated going veggie?

One in ten adults, and one in five 16 to 24-year-olds, follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, according to research published last year by market research firm Mintel.

Many more have turned 'flexitarian', limiting their meat intake, but not reducing it entirely, or giving up red meat, but still eating white.

Indeed, chicken accounts for around half of all meat intake in Britain, up from a third in the early Nineties.

The numbers are likely to rise further following last week's alarming report by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which classified processed meat such as bacon and sausages as 'carcinogenic to humans' and red meat as 'probably carcinogenic'.

And yesterday, researchers at Oxford University warned that just two portions of red meat a week increases the risk of bowel cancer by a fifth. But before you rush off to stock up on tofu and quinoa, it's worth noting that the average risk of developing bowel cancer is 6 per cent - so the increase in risk calculated by the WHO and by the Oxford researchers would mean an overall risk of around 7 per cent.

Furthermore, many health experts advise against giving up red meat altogether. That's because in its natural state it is a rich source of energy and essential nutrients.

'Eating red meat brings a lot of health advantages to a balanced diet,' says Priya Tew, an independent registered dietitian.

'The link between eating red meat and colo- rectal cancer is much less compelling [than it is for processed meat] and you would have to eat far more than people in Britain currently do.'

Most people eat about 70g of red meat per day, which is the amount the NHS says is fine - it's the equivalent of a small steak every two days.

play Many health experts advise against giving up red meat altogether


If you eat more than 90g a day - the equivalent of three thin-cut slices of roast beef, lamb or pork - the NHS suggests cutting back.

'Red meat' is the term used when the raw meat is red and doesn't turn pale on cooking. So though chicken is white meat, duck and goose are red.

Pork is classified as a red meat, even though it does turn white on cooking. This is because, like other red meats, it contains larger amounts of myoglobin, a protein found in the muscles of mammals, which is what creates the red colour.

From brain function to fighting off infection, here the experts reveal the many ways that meat, in moderation, is important for good health.

Most people eat about 70g of red meat per day, which is the amount the NHS says is fine play Most people eat about 70g of red meat per day, which is the amount the NHS says is fine



Many evolutionary biologists believe that a diet rich in red meat eaten by our ancestors was responsible for the dramatic increase in the size of our brains compared to other plant-eating primates. Gorillas, for example, which have a plant-based diet, can grow up to three times bigger than us, but their brains are far smaller than the human brain.

'This is because red meat is an excellent source of energy - though the brain is just 2 per cent of our body weight, it uses about 20 per cent of our energy intake,' says Robert Pickard, emeritus professor of neurobiology at the University of Cardiff, who sits on the Meat Advisory Panel, a board of health professionals backed by British meat producers.

Red meat also provides a type of omega-3 fatty acid called DHA, which is vital for brain development.

Low levels of DHA can adversely affect various aspects of cognitive function and mental health, especially in young people and children.

The best source is oily fish, but as many of us - in particular, children - don't eat fish and seafood, meat may be an important alternative source.

Studies suggest meat from grass-fed animals (such as organic meat) has higher levels of omega-3.

Red meat is also a rich source of vitamin B12, needed for brain cells to repair themselves and to replicate the genetic code of cells - our DNA.

A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition in 2013 concluded that people who avoided or restricted their intake of animal products such as meat, milk and eggs may be at risk of vitamin B12 deficiency.

Though you need only small amounts of B12, people over the age of 60 can suffer with low levels because they start to produce less of a special protein in the stomach, which encourages B12 absorption.

Red meat also provides carnosine, which is highly concentrated in muscle tissue and the brain, and may help protect the brain against ageing.

Studies have found carnosine levels may be significantly lower in patients with brain disorders such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

  play The link between saturated fat and heart disease has been called into question



Studies have shown eating too much red meat can raise the risk of heart disease due to its saturated fat content.

However, in recent years the link between saturated fat and heart disease has been called into question.

Last year, a review of the data in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine concluded: 'Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids [the type in fish, nuts and seeds] and low consumption of total saturated fats [the kind in red meat].' It may be that the saturated fat in red meat has been unfairly demonised.

Importantly, the type of saturated fat found in red meat, stearic acid, is quickly and easily converted in the body to a type of healthy unsaturated fat called oleic acid, the same as found in cold-pressed olive oil - widely considered to be good for the heart.

Other types of saturated fat, such as palmitic acid (derived from palm oil, which is added to many processed foods) are much more difficult for the body to convert safely into unsaturated fat.

'Choosing leaner cuts and using healthier cooking methods, such as grilling, means meat can be enjoyed as part of a healthy, balanced diet,' says Tracy Parker, a senior dietitian at the British Heart Foundation.


play 'Eating lean red meat on most days has no adverse effect on blood pressure'


Doctors often advise patients to exclude red meat to help reduce blood pressure, and yet various studies have shown that eating lean red meat on most days has no adverse effect on blood pressure. It may even help.

Lean means no visible fat, and lean cuts of meat include pork leg joint, fillet steak, topside of beef or lamb leg. Fattier cuts would be a rib-eye or T-bone steak or lamb shoulder. Choose mince that says it is lean or extra lean on the packaging. A team from the U.S. reporting their results in the journal Nutrition Research in 2009 concluded that a low sodium diet (often advised for those with high blood pressure) that included lean red meat on most days 'was effective in reducing blood pressure in older women'.

Potassium, which is found in red meat in higher quantities than white meat, helps maintain normal blood pressure.


Eating too much red meat has been blamed for fuelling obesity rates due to its saturated fat, though studies have not been able to prove a direct link. In most cases, people who are overweight and lead unhealthy lifestyles also tend to eat more red meat, but this doesn't prove that red meat caused the problem in the first place.

Priya Tew says that the link between saturated fat and the obesity epidemic is being reviewed.

'The fact is that you can get more saturated fat from a vegetarian ready-meal, such as a pasta bake, than a lean piece of grilled steak or lamb. Red meat is a rich protein source that takes longer to digest, so it keeps you feeling fuller for longer, meaning that you tend to eat fewer calories throughout the day.'


Red meat is one of the best sources of iron and zinc, which are needed for a healthy immune system. Additionally, it provides vitamin D and high levels of vitamin A, also important in helping the body to fight bugs.

play Red meat is one of the best sources of iron and zinc, which are needed for a healthy immune system



Selenium, an antioxidant found in red meat and nuts, plays a key role in conception because it is crucial to the development of healthy ovarian follicles.

'Selenium, zinc and L-Carnitine [an amino acid] are all essential factors for healthy sperm production,' says Dr Gill Lockwood, medical director of Midland Fertility, Tamworth.

'Many studies have demonstrated that men with selenium-deficient diets - which tend to be short on red meat, wholegrains and nuts - can see significant improvements in sperm motility, which is the swimming ability, if they take additional selenium.

'As with all nutritional supplements, eating a healthy diet is better than swallowing vitamin and mineral pills.'

A study published in the January 2015 Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology found that selenium deficiency 'may cause infertility in men by causing a deterioration in the quality of the semen and in sperm motility'.


One of the most important benefits of red meat is that it is the best source of dietary iron, which is needed to make haemoglobin. This helps red blood cells carry oxygen around the body.

'If levels of haemoglobin fall then you can quickly become lethargic - other symptoms including vomiting, headaches and joint problems,' says Priya Tew.

The National Diet and Nutrition Survey in the UK suggests that up to half of teenage girls have an inadequate intake of dietary iron, leading to problems such as fatigue, loss of concentration and poor growth.

play 'Red meat is the best source of dietary iron'


Some women avoid meat for perceived health or weight loss benefits.

'Iron is much more bioavailable (ie more easily absorbed) from meat than from vegetables or supplements,' says Dr Elizabeth Lund, an independent consultant in nutritional and gastrointestinal health and the former research leader at the Institute of Food Research.

'Menstruating women should consume 14.8mg iron per day from a range of foods. For other members of the population, just over 7g of iron per day is required, but even then meat can be an important source.'

A cooked steak contains 2.4mg iron per 100g of meat. Other good sources include tofu, with 3.5mg per 100g, and canned sardines, with 2.1mg per small can.

'You would need to eat a pile of spinach that is 3ft high to get as much bioavailable iron as is found in a 70g steak,' says Professor Pickard.


Along with supplying high-quality protein, which is needed to build and repair muscles, red meat is an excellent source of creatine, an important nutrient in muscle that helps supply energy.

play Red meat also contains high levels of calcium and potassium, both essential minerals for muscle


'As you get older, your muscle mass decreases, which can affect your mobility and lead to falls,' says Dr Carrie Ruxton, a registered dietitian who works with the Meat Advisory Panel.

'Elderly people find it hard to process protein so they need high-quality dietary protein to maximise their intake.

'The protein found in toasted cheese, for instance, is not as high quality as that found in red meat, which contains the full eight essential amino acids (which the body uses to make muscle) that your body needs.'

Red meat also contains high levels of calcium and potassium, both essential minerals for building healthy muscle tissue.

According to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey, both are low in the typical diet of someone living in the UK.


Both the latest WHO report and the Oxford University research reported yesterday linked the consumption of red meat to an increased risk of colon cancer, but another Oxford University study published last year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found red meat eaters had the same risk of colorectal cancer as vegetarians.

play A 150g fat-trimmed grilled sirloin provides just a quarter of the daily limit of saturated fat and around 3.1mg iron, 22 per cent of your daily intake


And John Abercrombie, a consultant colo-rectal surgeon from Nottingham University, says the increased risk is actually very small.

'The evidence of potential harm comes from research that describes an increased "relative" risk, and this is not the same as the "absolute" risk, which is what people would be affected by,' he says.

'Assuming the research findings are true, if we all started eating large amounts of meat, then the risk of developing bowel cancer might rise from 6 per cent to 7 or 7.5 per cent.

'I think the health risks of eating red meat remain unclear and I am not convinced by the WHO's "best guess" that it has carcinogenic properties'.


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