Whether you throw a few pork chops on the BBQ, have a ham sandwich for lunch or enjoy your eggs with a crispy side of bacon, recent headlines are advising that meat lovers curb their intake. But why is this and what’s a safe amount to eat?
Red meat ranks top for its iron content – the kind that is ‘bioavailable’ – meaning it is easily absorbed by the body, compared to the iron found in plant sources such as nuts, green leafy’s, legumes or pulses.
Iron is an essential component of haemoglobin, a substance found in red blood cells that carries oxygen around the body. An iron deficiency – the most common nutritional deficiency in Australia – means less oxygen is delivered to the cells, which can lead to susceptibility to infections, fatigue and reduced workout efforts.
Red meat also contains a number of key nutrients including protein (crucial for muscle growth and repair), B vitamins (essential to unlock energy), zinc (required for many maintenance jobs including strengthening the immune system), and omega-3 fats (the heart healthy type).
NOT CREATED EQUAL
By red meat, we’re talking about the fresh, unprocessed kind such as beef, veal, lamb, pork and even game meat. However, processed meat is a different story. This refers to any meat that is preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding preservatives (e.g. nitrite). These foods are often high in both saturated fat and salt and provide very little in the way of vitamins and minerals. Think bacon, sausages, ham and salami.
WHAT DOES THE RESEARCH SAY?
The latest research from the World Health Organisation (WHO) states that both processed meats (and most likely leaner cuts) rank alongside tobacco as cancer causing, plus also raising the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and type-2 diabetes. Yet, the real dangers are not quite as worrying as the subsequent headlines would have you believe. The WHO makes it clear that the risk is in relation to how much and how often!
HOW MUCH IS SAFE?
Current national dietary guidelines recommend individuals who eat red meat limit processed varieties and consume no more than 65–100 g of cooked lean sources of red meat, 3–4 times a week. This is enough red meat to help us reach our requirements for iron and zinc, while keeping us below the threshold for increase in cancer risk. 100g of raw meat is equivalent to ½ cup mince, 1 medium steak, 1 cup diced meat or 1 lamb loin chop.
If you’re eating more than this, cutting down (without making radical changes) isn’t as hard as you may think. Poaching some chicken to use for sandwiches instead of ham, or throw a sizzling steak on the BBQ rather than sausages, or use a little bacon to flavour a dish, rather than a hefty side fare. Better still, introduce more fish such as salmon, tuna or barramundi into your weekly repertoire.
Bottom line? Go lean.
Whilst there’s still room for the occasional slice of bacon for brekkie or a few snags on the BBQ, the latest advice should only help make Aussies more aware of the risks associated with excessive intakes – which includes both red meat and processed meat. Nonetheless, portions always matter. A good guide is to stick to the size of the palm of your hand and ensure that half of your plate is veggies.