Meat has gotten a bad rap recently. The World Health Organisation announced that they now rank bacon, ham and sausages alongside cigarettes as a major cause of cancer. They also placed fresh red meat in the group 2A category, a categorisation that suggests that it is “probably carcinogenic” to humans.
The problem with these blanket pronouncements is that they have none of the necessary nuance about lifestyle and meat provence that people need to help them make the right choices about eating meat, should they choose to do so. Instead, it promotes an unneeded meat eating fear. Happily, cooler heads have prevailed and smart people like Chris Kresser are doing a great job of unpicking the studies behind these pronouncements and offering more rationale points of view.
So is eating meat, especially red meat, really all that bad? It’s certainly not on the same level as cigarette smoking. Many studies have shown that the correlation between red meat and cancer is not strong.
It’s also important to remember that red meat is incredibly nutritious (not to mention, ridiculously tasty) and full of essential vitamins and minerals, such as Vitamins A, D, B12, B3, B6, B9, iron, zinc, phosphorus and choline. That vegetarians and vegans often need to supplement with vitamin B12 and iron because the plant sources of these micronutrients aren’t as bio-available is quite telling, and something that gets overlooked in anti-meat rhetoric.
What do you do if you still want to eat meat and want to ensure you’re making good choices? Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
What quality meat are you eating? Do you know where it comes from?
There’s a clear distinction in quality, taste and treatment between organic, free-range, antibiotic free meat and conventionally produced, factory farmed meat. My advice? Always get the best quality meat you can afford – it’s always worth paying more for higher welfare meat and having it less frequently, than buying loads of cheap factory farmed meat. I really like Daylesford Organic and stock up most weeks when there are discounts through their shop on Ocado. Eversfield Organic is another great option. If you’re not a fan of online grocery shopping, when you shop in high-street supermarkets just before closing time, there are often many organic meat bargains to be had.
What type of meat are you eating?
First, it’s important to make a distinction between red meat (beef, lamb and game) and white meat (poultry and turkey). Not all meat is created equally and they all contain different types and levels of vitamins and minerals. Too many people rely on white meat as their main protein source. For example, turkey is quite high in tryptophan, a serotonin precursor, while beef is an easy source of vitamin B12, a vitamin that’s used in energy production.
What percentage of your plate does meat consist of?
The NHS Eat Well plate recommends that meat, fish, pulses or beans should represent roughly 1/8 of your three daily plates, or approximately 70g, which is the equivalent of a card sized piece of steak, two beef burgers or a lamb chop.
How much fruit and veg are you eating throughout the day?
Many nutritionists now recommend that vegetables should comprise at least 70% of each meal’s plate, which exceeds the NHS’s recommendation of 40 – 50%. If you’re eating this much veg, you’re sure to get the antioxidants you need to help support your body, reduce free radical and tissue damage and bring your system back into homeostasis. The reality is that most people eat less than 5 vegetables or pieces of fruit a day, as part of the Standard Western Diet and generally have gut dysbiosis, which can contribute to disease.
What’s the rest of your lifestyle like?
Red meat has been painted as a bit of a boogeyman in studies that don’t seem to control for smoking, excess alcohol consumption, lifestyle stress and excess sugar consumption. If you have a healthy lifestyle, that includes exercise, lots of sleep, lots of green vegetables, then eating grass-fed, organic meat shouldn’t be an issue as part of a balanced diet and a healthy gut microbiome.
In a nutshell, if you want to eat meat, eat high quality meat, in reasonable portion sizes, with lots of vegetables, as part of a lifestyle that includes lots of sleep, exercise and a good probiotic.