Mon, Jan-01-24, 01:15
Don’t give up meat, it’s better for your health than you think
Don’t give up meat, it’s better for your health than you think
Sorting the good meat from the bad is far more important than giving it up altogether, say scientists
Is the scent of a delicious roast dinner currently wafting from your oven, making you salivate? Will you feel just a smidge guilty as you tuck in?
Never mind the people trying Veganuary this month, all of us have been told that eating meat is bad. Not only for the planet, but for our health. Every bite of that brisket will raise your risk of cancer, heart disease and more. A second helping will send you to an early grave.
But will it? A growing body of research suggests that meat is a complex beast. Acres of difference stand between a high welfare, grass-fed sirloin steak and the impact on your body of a highly processed hot dog. The NHS advises that people who eat 90 grams of processed or red meat a day – equivalent to a couple of rashers of bacon – should cut down to 70 grams.
What’s clear is that, cooked with care and eaten selectively, meat may even boost your health. A recent report by the University of Edinburgh suggests that without better awareness of alternative sources of nutrients, the targets to reduce meat and dairy consumption by 20 per cent by 2035 might actually raise health risks, inadvertently exacerbating deficiencies in important minerals including selenium, iron and zinc.
But ethics and environment aside, what do we really know about the impact that eating meat has on our health?
Why we shouldn’t give up on meat
Veganism and vegetarianism have become shorthand terms for healthier lifestyles, says Dr Wenpeng You, biomedicine researcher at the University of Adelaide in Australia. But after he and his team examined the overall health effects of meat consumption in 175 countries, taking into account factors including affluence, obesity and overall calorie consumption, their results, published in the International Journal of General Medicine last year, suggest that meat consumption does not send people to an early grave. In fact, it extends life expectancy.
Dr You is not hugely surprised. Humans, he suggests, are hardwired to eat animal protein. “Until about 12,000 years ago, there were not many sources of other nutrients that we could digest.”
In fact, meat may become an increasingly useful and convenient source of nutrition as we age, suggests Prof James Goodwin, director of science at the Brain Health Network and author of Supercharge Your Brain. “From middle age onwards, a process called sarcopenia, or muscle loss, progresses at 1-2 per cent a year.” If you want to counter this loss, 30 per cent of your food should be protein, he suggests.
You could, of course, get all this protein from plants. It is just a lot more complicated. Nutritional therapist Lucy Miller says animal proteins are “complete” – meaning they contain all the amino acids our bodies need.
The odd BLT is OK but avoid processed meat when you can
There is strong evidence that processed meat – including ham, bacon, corned beef and some sausages – increases the risk of bowel cancer, says Dr Julie Sharp, head of health information at Cancer Research UK. “Nitrates and nitrites, which are added to processed meat to keep it fresh for longer, can form chemicals called N-nitroso chemicals (or NOCs) during digestion that can damage the cells in the bowel,” she explains.
Processed meats are also high in blood-pressure-raising sodium, says consultant cardiologist Dr Neil Srinivasan. Eating two servings a week may raise your risk of heart and circulatory diseases by 7 per cent.
The other bad news is that processed meats have also been linked to Type 2 diabetes, while a 2021 observational study correlated the consumption of 25g of processed meat a day to a 44 per cent increase in risk of dementia.
The good news about red meat
“Red meat is one of the best available sources of iron, zinc and B vitamins, in particular vitamin B12,” says Dr Srinivasan. This means it has the potential to do your heart good, because low zinc levels have been linked to conditions including coronary artery disease and angina, while vitamins B6, B9, and B12 may lower the risk of heart disease and stroke.
It is also rich in haem iron, says Miller, a highly absorbable form of the mineral that is only found in animal-based foods, “meaning that if you have a purely plant-based diet, you may not be absorbing high enough levels of iron”.
That haem, however, is controversial. During digestion, it breaks down into cancer-causing chemicals, says Dr Sharp. Plus, “when processed and red meats are cooked at high temperatures, such as grilling or barbecuing, other cancer-causing chemicals are produced, called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).” Eating large quantities is therefore considered a likely cause of bowel cancer, although further research is needed to confirm that.
But what about heart disease? Red meat is higher in cholesterol than poultry or fish - a major reason it has, historically, been demonised. Yet “a number of studies now suggests it’s the mix of fats, sugar and refined carbohydrates in your diet that influences blood cholesterol, not the amount of cholesterol you eat from food,” says Miller. In fact, one study that came to this conclusion in 2010 criticised contemporary public health advice that promoted a move away from saturated fats found in animal products. The study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, said the advice “has spurred a compensatory increase in consumption of refined carbohydrates and added sugars – a dietary shift that may be contributing to the current twin epidemics of obesity and diabetes”.
And dementia? “There is definitely a relationship between the consumption of unprocessed red meat and dementia,” says Prof Goodwin. “It reduces the risk.” A 2021 study linked 50g of unprocessed red meat a day to a reduction in the risk of Alzheimer’s. Not surprising, says Prof Goodwin: “The five most critical nutrients for the brain are all predominantly from animal sources,” he says. “Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, Omega 3 fatty acid, zinc and magnesium.” Modern Western diets are often low in them all.
How to choose your chicken
“White meat, such as chicken, and fish, are not linked to an increased risk of cancer,” says Sharp. In fact, good quality chicken is the best source of protein, says Miller, containing around 32g of protein in every 100g, compared to the 10g in the same amount of beans and legumes.
That said, in 2021, Oxford University researchers published a study involving 475,000 people – from voracious meat eaters to vegetarians. Keren Papier, the lead author, explains that “higher consumption of poultry meat was associated with higher risks of gastro-oesophageal reflux disease, gastritis and duodenitis, diverticular disease, gallbladder disease, and diabetes.” There is, however, one crucial and familiar addendum. “Most of these positive associations were reduced if body mass index (BMI) was taken into account,” says Papier. “This suggests that regular meat eaters having a higher average body weight could be partly causing these associations.”
Control your weight, and a roast chicken may not be the death of you. But here’s the rub. Around 95 per cent of chicken consumed in the UK is factory-farmed, says Miller, making it liable to be less nutritionally dense, and also higher in fat. In other words, we’re being sold chicken that makes it harder to get the health benefits without the health risks.
Why the quality and cut matters
Choose meat from factory farms, where animals are confined and fed a grain-based diet, and the nutritional content of your meat will diminish, says Miller, citing a review spanning three decades which found that grass-fed beef not only had more healthy carotenoids, vitamin E and other antioxidants, but also contained less fat, of unhealthier sorts.
“Grass-fed beef has more Omega 3 fatty acids than grain-fed beef,” agrees Prof Goodwin. “On organic [beef], the jury is out. Few studies show, unequivocally, that its nutrient levels are better, just that there are no pesticides in it.”
The cut counts too. “Unprocessed, lean meats and cuts are healthier for your heart,” says Dr Srinivasan. “So ask your butcher for a lean cut and, if buying pre-packed meat, check the nutrition label to see how much fat it contains and compare products.”
The healthy way to eat meat – and how much
Back in 1996, a study was published that examined the health outcomes of 11,000 “health conscious” Brits, some vegetarian, others omnivore, recruited from places such as health food shops. After 17 years, both camps had half the death rate compared with the average population. The key influence appeared not to be whether or not they ate meat, but whether or not they ate lots of fresh fruit and raw salad.
“In the West, an estimated 75 per cent of all our calories comes from just five animals and 12 plants – a woefully narrow diet,” says Prof Goodwin. It is this narrowness that lies at the root of many health problems, he suggests. So, “ask yourself the following question: have I eaten 30 types of plant and more than five types of animal food this week?” The answer, he suggests, may not be to exclude meat altogether but “to eat a better quality, more balanced and diverse diet”.