Can red meat be part of a healthy diet?
Red meat has had considerable attention in the media in recent years, and its effect on health and the environment can be controversial. There has been a growing interest in more plant-based diets for health and sustainability but there is also awareness of the nutritional value of meat in the UK diet. In this blog we take a look at a common question people ask – is red meat good for me or is it bad for me? And discuss that an ‘all or nothing’ approach to red meat isn’t required, but it is important to ensure we choose meat wisely and include it within a healthy, balanced diet. Read more below!
What are the nutritional benefits of eating red meat?
Red meat (beef, pork, lamb and mutton) is a good source of high quality protein, as well as vitamins and minerals, such as iron, zinc and vitamin B12. National dietary data shows that, on average, red meat contributes 7% of iron; 14% of zinc; 6% of selenium; and 15% of vitamin B12 intakes in diets of adults in the UK. Red meat is also a useful contributor to vitamin D intake.
Although a higher amount of iron in the diet comes from cereals and cereal products (38%), the iron provided by red meat (known as ‘haem iron’) is easier for the body to absorb than iron from plant-based foods. Currently, about half of teenage girls in the UK, and over a quarter of adult women, don’t get enough iron in their diet, which can increase their risk of anaemia. Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in foods of animal origin. Vegetarians who consume dairy products or eggs can get enough from their diet, but vegans need to consume foods fortified with B12 and/or take supplements or they may not get enough reliable sources of this vitamin.
Are there potential health risks of eating red meat?
Although red meat can be an important source of nutrients, some types of meat can also be high in saturated fat. We should be following dietary patterns that are lower in saturated fats as higher intakes are linked to raised blood cholesterol, which is associated with an increased risk of heart disease.
Evidence suggests that high consumption of red and/or processed meat is linked with an increase in bowel cancer. In the UK, the government recommends that if you eat 90g or more a day of red and processed meat, you should cut down to no more than 70g a day, alongside eating a healthy, balanced diet. Similar advice is also given by the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) that people eat no more than about three portions per week of red meat (no more than 500g cooked weight) and consume little (if any) processed meats. For more information see our blog on red meat and cancer.
An ‘all or nothing’ approach to red meat isn’t required
Overall, it is important to think about the balance of foods that make up a varied and healthy diet (plenty of wholegrains, fruit and vegetables, and limited amounts of foods high in saturated fat, salt and sugar), rather than focussing on one particular food alone. Red meat can form part of a healthier dietary pattern, and is included in the government’s healthy eating model –the Eatwell Guide. But if you do eat a lot of red and/or processed meat, then try and reduce your intake to within the recommended limits to help protect your health, and do take steps to choose lean meats or leaner cuts, and use healthier cooking methods.
It is also important for our health that we look at the wider picture. A healthy weight, keeping active, limiting intake of alcohol and not smoking are also important for reducing the risk of cancer (and other diseases).
The British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) has reviewed the accuracy of the scientific content of this page (please note this does not include linked pages) on 24 December 2020. BNF is not a lobbying organisation nor does it endorse any products or engage in food advertising campaigns. For more information about the Foundation, please visit www.nutrition.org.uk
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The British Nutrition Foundation (BNF), a registered charity, delivers impartial, authoritative and evidence-based information on food and nutrition. Its core purpose is translating evidence-based nutrition science in engaging and actionable ways, working with an extensive network of contacts across academia, health care, education, communication and the food chain.
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