Red meat is often in the news but not necessarily for positive reasons! Whether the story relates to horse meat in burgers, heart disease or cancer, the media coverage tends to raise concerns rather than giving us balanced information. So, should pregnant women eat red meat? And is it safe to give red meat to our babies and toddlers? From a dietitian’s viewpoint, I would say ‘yes’!
Red meat is one of the best sources of iron in the diet as it contains a special type, called haem iron which we can absorb efficiently. In contrast, while spinach and pulses are viewed as a good alternative to meat, these contain non-haem iron, only 10% of which is absorbed by our bodies. Surveys show that women, teenage girls and toddlers tend to have low iron intakes and, in many cases, have low iron stores. This means that they are more susceptible to iron deficiency and the associated symptoms of tiredness and loss of concentration. Eating red meat a few times a week is a good way to boost iron stores.
Red meat also contains significant amounts of zinc, selenium, B-vitamins, potassium and vitamin D. These nutrients are important for immune function, bone health, blood pressure and cognitive (mental) function. As meat is one of the few natural sources of vitamin D, along with oily fish, it is a useful food during the winter/spring months when there is little natural sunlight for us to make our own vitamin D.
While the meat our grannies ate could be fatty and high in calories, modern meat is a completely different story. Progressive changes in farming and butchery practices, such as removing visible fat, have reduced the fat content of red meat by around 80%. Levels of saturated fat, the type linked with heart disease, are also significantly lower. Pork, beef, lamb and veal now contribute less than 10% of average fat intakes in the UK, but 20-30% of key vitamins and minerals, making them a key part of a healthy, balanced diet. Choosing lean cuts of meat and baking, grilling or boiling instead of frying, can also help to minimise fat and calories.
While some surveys reported in the newspapers have linked red meat consumption with conditions such as heart disease and bowel cancer, it’s worth pointing out flaws in the research. For example, surveys don’t properly control for factors which increase the risk of disease, such as inactive lifestyles, high fat diets and obesity. This makes it impossible to pinpoint exactly which factor caused the disease. Another issue is that the studies often lump together lean red meats with fatty processed meats when these foods are a mile apart in terms of their healthiness.
The best option is to follow the advice of the Department of Health which advises that adults can enjoy up to 90g of cooked red meat daily as part of a balanced diet. As most women eat far less than this, there is plenty of scope for women and girls to increase their intakes of red meat and reap the nutritional benefits.
For more information on a wide variety of meat and health topics, please see www.MeatandHealth.com
Dr Carrie Ruxton is a member of the Meat Advisory Panel which is supported by an unrestricted grant from the British Pork Executive (BPEX) and the English Beef and Lamb Executive (EBLEX) divisions of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB). The views expressed in this paper are those of the author alone and AHDB had no role in writing the review.