The ‘Beef’ About Beef – The Truth About Red & Processed Meats

Friday, 20 Nov 15

By Jaime Rose Chambers

The red meat debate is a tricky one. On one hand we have food that we know the more we eat, the greater our risk of some cancers. On the other hand, the effects of having too little can cause the most prevalent nutrient deficiencies in the world and be so debilitating it can severely affect daily functioning. The other issue is that red meat and processed meats are not one and the same and their link with chronic disease is quite different. So before you decide to go vegan, what’s the ‘beef’ with red and processed meats and how do we find the perfect balance?

Firstly, I want to distinguish between red meat and processed meats. There are still blurry lines that define what is in fact red meat, but in general it includes unprocessed beef, veal, pork and lamb including minced meat that has had no other ingredients added. Processed meat on the other hand includes any meat that has been modified to lengthen its shelf live by smoking, curing, fermenting or adding salts or preservatives. They include bacon, sausages, beef jerky, salami, hot dog, corned beef, canned beef and even meat-bases sauces.

Processed meats have been shown to have the highest correlation with increasing the risk of cancer, in particular colorectal, pancreatic and prostate cancers. Red meat on the other hand is classified as ‘probably’ causing cancer according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), however this is still inconclusive. This risk appears to increase with the amount of processed meats consumed - the more processed meat, the greater the risk. The offenders in processed meats include the nitrates added in processing, the smoking of meat and the rich haem iron levels, which may create the cancer-causing compounds or promote the development of cancer.

As a general rule, I don’t recommend processed meat as part of a healthy diet. However there is a place for unprocessed red meat as well as some benefits to including a little in your diet and some strategies to help reduce their negative impact on our health.

Cons of red meat

  • Increases the risk of major chronic diseases (breast cancer, colon cancer, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes) 
  • Linked to premature death 
  • Enormous strain on the environment to produce
  • Inhumane animal cruelty practices

Pros of red meat

  • Nutritionally rich containing protein, B vitamins, zinc, selenium, haem iron and creatine 
  • Virtually the only source of highly bioavailable iron (for transporting oxygen through the body) and vitamin B 12 (essential for the development of red blood cells and the developing brain) 
  • Grass-fed sources contain additional vitamin A and omega-3 fats 
  • Prevents iron and vitamin B12 deficiencies and anaemia
  • Prevents fatigue, exhaustion, foggy head and weakness associated with iron and vitamin B12 deficiency 
  • Essential in the diet for a growing and developing foetus and for kids.

Recommendations for red meat consumption

  1. Red meat intake is dependent on your requirement of iron-rich foods. General recommendations are to consume no more than 100g of red meat on 3-4 days per week of lean red meat including beef, veal, lamb and pork. 
  2. Avoid over-cooking, blackening and cooking meat on a direct flame – this creates a heterocyclic amine, which is known to be carcinogenic to humans. Continuously turn the meat, remove charred bits, don’t over-cook it and avoid making gravy from the juices and drippings left over 
  3. Focus on your diet including mostly a variety of different coloured vegetables and fruit and wholegrains, which can help to reduce your risk of cancer 
  4. Replace several red meat meals each week with fish, seafood, skinless poultry and lentils and legumes such as chickpeas, red kidney beans, black beans and cannellini beans 
  5. Choose lean, grass-fed and preferably organic red meat where you can.

*Specialised recommendations from an Accredited Practising Dietitian may be required for kids, young women, pregnant and breastfeeding women, high intensity athletes, vegans, vegetarians and chronic dieters.

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