Barbeques and steaks on a sunny afternoon – it doesn’t get more ‘Aussie’ than that! However, in recent years, we have received mixed messages as to whether red meat is good, or bad, for long term health.
Food experts believe red meat belongs comfortably within a healthy diet, and here are five convincing reasons why.
Red meat is undeniably the king of iron – a mineral involved in healthy red blood cell development and oxygen transportation throughout the body. Inadequate dietary intake of iron can result in anaemia, with symptoms including lethargy, weakness, poor exercise tolerance, loss of appetite, headaches and dizziness, and pallor (i.e. appearing pale and ‘drained’).
There are two different types of dietary iron – haem and non-haem. Red meat, as well as poultry and fish, contain haem iron – a form of iron that is absorbed and used well by the body. Plant foods, such as soy, nuts and seeds, legumes and spinach contain non-haem iron - which is not absorbed well by the body.
Dietary iron intake is particularly important for ‘at risk’ groups, including infants and toddlers, menstruating and pregnant women, and the elderly. According to the Medical Journal of Australia and The Australian Bureau of Statistics, approximately 6% of toddlers, 10% of menstruating women, 11% of pregnant women, and 2-3% of persons aged 65 years and over, have iron deficiency anaemia.
With red meat providing 50% more haem iron than equivalent portions of poultry and fish, there is good reason to include it in your weekly diet – particularly if you belong to one of the above population groups. In fact, a 200g portion of red meat can meet over 80% of an adult male’s daily iron requirement, and 40% of an adult female’s requirements.
If you have a sluggish immune system, zinc deficiency may be the cause. Zinc is an important mineral with many roles to play, including immune function, wound healing and collagen synthesis, carbohydrate and protein metabolism, reproductive health and thyroid function. Experts in Human Nutrition, such as Assoc Professor Samman from the University of Sydney, predict that zinc intakes are ‘too low’ amongst Australians. Some reports even suggest 65% of men and 85% of women are at risk of zinc deficiency.
Lean red meat is one of the best ‘everyday’ dietary sources of zinc – if we assume oysters and offal are saved for special occasions! In fact, red meat has double to triple the zinc content of poultry and eggs. A single serve of fillet steak (150g) will satisfy the daily zinc requirement for women, and 85% of the daily requirement for men. Vegetarians and vegans are at risk of zinc deficiency, and will need to consume 50% more zinc from plant sources, such as wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds.
The popular CSIRO total wellbeing diet, which recommends including 200g portions of lean red meat four days per week as part of a balanced diet, has been clinically proven to assist with weight loss, compared to a standard low-fat diet. This dietary pattern also assisted with lowering cholesterol, whilst preserving kidney and bone health. The high protein content of red meat assists with satiety and reducing total daily caloric intake.
According to research by Deakin University, eating 3-4 servings of lean red meat may help to prevent and/or manage age-related decline in muscle mass, mobility, and independence. In a recent study, Deakin recruited 100 women aged 60—90 years to assess the physiological effects of progressive resistance training, with or without a diet rich in lean red meat. When compared to women in the exercise-only group, those including lean red meat had an 18 per cent greater increase in muscle strength, and gained an additional 0.5 kg of muscle mass. Women who ate red meat also experienced a 16 per cent reduction in pro-inflammatory markers linked to muscle loss and other chronic diseases.
Health professionals have warned us about the dangers of consuming processed and fatty red meats for decades. Both are high in saturated fat, and most processed meats contain high levels of salt and nitrate preservatives. Processed and fatty red meats are strongly linked with cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some types of cancer – including colorectal, pancreatic and prostate. In recent years, we have also discovered that charring, frying or using very high temperatures (i.e. BBQ) when cooking red meat can produce harmful ‘carcinogenic’ chemicals called HCA and PAH.
However, with regards to lean, uncharred, lightly cooked red meat, the evidence linking consumption to disease is thin, or lacking. This is why many dietitians and doctors continue to suggest moderate intakes of lean red meat, cooked sensibly, as part of a balanced diet rich in plant foods and antioxidants.