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The dangers of red meat

The dangers of red meat

It’s no secret that too much red meat plays havoc with your digestive system. Did you know that it can play havoc with a lot more than just your gut though? We take a balanced look at the dangers – and benefits – of red meat.

As Benjamin Franklin said, nothing is certain but death and taxes. What he apparently didn’t know is that death is more certain if you eat processed red meat – 20% more certain, apparently. We aren’t too sure what to make of this statistic, since we always agreed with Franklin on the certainty of dying one day, but let’s not dwell on our incomprehension of scientific conclusions. Let’s get to the nitty gritty of what we all want to know. Do we really have to forgo burgers and steak for ever or can we carry on chomping them down with abandon?

Make no mistake about it; a very clear link has been found between cancer and heart disease and red meat, particularly processed red meat. Harvard Medical School recently carried out a study of 120,000 people and their meat eating habits. Data was collected from 37, 698 men and 83,644 women over the course of 28 years, which suggests that even if you’ve got the guts to argue with Harvard researchers, the evidence is hard to argue with.  

The conclusion to this mammoth study was that if you were to add an extra portion of unprocessed red meat to your daily diet, you would increase your risk of death from cardiovascular disease by 18% and of death from cancer – particularly bowel cancer - by 10%. You are also 13% more likely to die overall (presumably as opposed to those who abstain from red meat altogether, who we can only assume are 13% less likely to die overall. Don’t ask us, we didn’t do the study, we’re just the messenger).

Unsurprisingly, processed red meat fared even worse, increasing your risk of death from cardiovascular disease to 21% and of death from cancer to 16%. No matter how much you love hot dogs, you cannot deny that’s no small added risk.

It seems that the saturated fat content of red meat might be to blame for the increased risk of heart disease and the high salt content in processed meats further adds to this risk. Pork, beef and lamb all count as red meat according to the study. Processed meat is meat that has been preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding preservatives. So, that rules out sausages, ham, bacon, lasagne, pork pies, cottage pies, salami, pate and steak, to name but a few. Ham, bacon, sausages, pork pies, salami and pate are all particularly bad as they fall under the processed meat category.

New guidelines have been issued by the Scientific Advisory Commission on Nutrition, and they aren’t generous. The guidelines say that adults should eat no more than 500g of red meat a week, or 70g (2.5oz) a day. To put that into context, that’s one lamb chop a day. Or three slices of ham. Or two – just two – slices of roast beef for your Sunday lunch. And if you have a cooked breakfast on a Saturday morning, better stick to just one or two rashers of bacon, without the sausages. One packet of minced beef or lamb is 500g, so if you cook that up one night between two of you, you are having more than three times your recommended daily amount of meat in one fell swoop.

So is there any good news? Well, yes, there is some, so fear not.

Firstly, the recommended 70g a day of red meat is an amount that can be averaged out over a week, so for example if you don’t eat red meat at all one day, you can eat double your allowance the next day. Secondly, the Harvard study showed that if you vary your diet with white meat (chicken), pulses (beans) and vegetables, you significantly cut your risk of dying from heart disease and cancer.

Red meat is also an excellent source of iron and vitamin B12, which are essential in any diet.  The British Heart Foundation’s advice is that you can still eat red meat, but stick to healthy cooking methods like grilling, go for lean cuts and vary your diet by eating plenty of alternative sources of protein, like fish, nuts, chicken and beans instead.

To summarise the advice that the health professionals are shouting from the rooftops:

1.       Eat unprocessed red meat no more than twice a week;

2.       Steer clear of processed red meat altogether or just eat as an occasional treat;

3.       Eat vegetarian twice a week; and

4.       Eat oily fish twice a week.

The recommendations that emanate from all of this seem to echo what we all already knew deep down inside, if we’re being honest. It’s true, then, and we all knew it anyway. Things that taste amazing are bad for you. Yes, maybe you should give a nut roast a whirl. You never know, you might even like it.