Why is red meat good for you?

Red meat, i.e. beef, lamb and pork, has a role to play in a healthy, balanced diet as it is a natural source of protein, iron, zinc and B vitamins.

The government recommends eating around 70g (cooked weight) of red meat a day and the majority of people in the UK are well within this target. 

Meat is nutrient-rich

Red meat is naturally nutrient-rich, which means it provides a substantial amount of certain vitamins and minerals.

The following table shows which meats are a recognised source of vitamins and minerals according to EU labelling criteria:

Beef Lamb Pork
   

A rich source of thiamine (B1)

A source of riboflavin (B2)

 

A source of riboflavin (B2)

A rich source of  niacin (B3

A rich source of niacin (B3)

A rich source of niacin (B3)

A rich source of vitamin B6

   

A rich source of vitamin B12

A rich source of vitamin B12

A rich source of vitamin B12

A source of phosphorus

A source of phosphorus

A source of phosphorus

A rich source of zinc

A rich source of zinc

A rich source of zinc

The B vitamins, thiamine and riboflavin, support skin health and stimulate the release of energy from dietary carbohydrates. Niacin is also important in energy release and supports digestive health.

Vitamin B6 is vital for normal immune function and helps to regulate blood sugar levels. Vitamin B12 is a building block for red blood cells and the DNA inside our cells. Vitamin B12 is naturally only found in foods of animal origin and red meat is a rich source. 

Phosphorus, in conjunction with calcium and vitamin D, maintains bone strength, while zinc is important for normal wound healing and muscle recovery.

Protein

Protein is essential for growth, maintenance and repair and also provides us with some energy.

Protein from food consists of extensive chains of amino acids; some can be produced in the body, others cannot. These are described as essential amino acids. Red meat provides all of the essential amino acids that we need, so this kind of animal protein is described as having a higher biological value. Plant sources of protein do not provide all of the essential amino acids so they are described as having a lower biological value.

For long-term weight loss, improvements in satiety levels – a measure of the state of fullness between meals – have been demonstrated in people who opt for protein-rich foods like lean red meat as part of a reduced calorie, moderate fat diet.

Protein helps to build muscle, bone, cartilage and blood. Eating sufficient quantities of protein will even improve the strength and appearance of our skin and nails.  By serving as a basic structural molecule of all tissues, protein plays a fundamental role in cellular maintenance and growth, as well as in the functioning of the human body.

So lean red meat supplies the essential amino acids required for growth and maintenance and we can include it as part of a healthy diet.

Iron

At all stages in life we require iron, and beef provides one of the richest sources.

Iron is essential for cell respiration and metabolism.  Put simply, without it our cells would die.

Iron is vital for many processes:

  • Energy metabolism
  • Cognitive development in children
  • The formation of red blood cells
  • Transportation of oxygen in the blood
  • Normal function of the immune system.

There are two forms of dietary iron: haeme and non-haeme. Iron from red meat is found in haeme form and is absorbed easily by the body. Iron in plants such as lentils and beans is called non-haeme iron and is absorbed less effectively.

Nowadays, iron deficiency anaemia is more common – especially among women, young girls and the elderly. Forty-six per cent of girls aged 11 to 18 years and 23% of women aged 19 to 64 years have low iron intakes. 

If iron stores become low or, in extreme cases, exhausted through lack of dietary iron or blood loss, the supply of iron to the tissues can become compromised and symptoms may develop.  Common symptoms of anaemia include headaches, lethargy, difficulty concentrating and irritability.

To aid the absorption of iron, vitamin C is helpful, so that is one important reason for having a balanced meal that includes vegetables or fruit.

A healthy diet including red meat should contain enough iron for most adults.

Facts about fat

All of us need some fat in our diet to provide us with energy and essential fatty acids – which are not made by the body, and to help the body absorb certain vitamins. However, it’s important not to have too much fat in your diet, so try to choose lower-fat foods.

The fat content of lean red meat has reduced substantially over the past few decades. A change in farming methods and butchery techniques now means that lean beef contains as little as 5% fat, lean pork 4% fat and lean lamb 8% fat.

Fat is made up of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. Saturated fatty acids are usually solid at room temperature and generally come from animal sources. High levels of saturated fat in the diet can increase the amount of cholesterol in the blood, which increases the risk of heart disease.

Different food groups contribute different amounts of total and saturated fat in the diet, so it’s important to choose a balanced diet which is not too high in saturated fat.

Unsaturated fatty acids can be good for your health. They can be divided into two groups: monounsaturated fatty acids or MUFAs, and polyunsaturated fatty acids or PUFAs.

There are two families of PUFAs: the omega 3 family and the omega 6 family. Certain types of omega 3 PUFAs have been shown to be good for heart health. These omega 3 PUFAs can be found in meat produced from animals grazed on grass.

One of the best sources of omega 3 is oily fish, but health professionals tell us that most people’s diet is still lacking in omega 3. Eating meat from grass-fed beef or lamb can contribute to a healthy level of omega 3 in your diet.

To keep the fat content of your diet low, here are some top tips:

Chose lean cuts of meat and lower fat products.Remove any visible fat before cooking.Avoid frying where possible – try grilling, dry frying, roasting or stir frying instead.Try not to add too much additional fat from oils, mayonnaise or dressings.Use low-fat alternatives of other ingredients.Remember to fill up with plenty of starchy foods, vegetables and fruit.