A few weeks ago I googled ‘do we need to eat meat?’ and in 0.27 seconds there were over 16 million results. Clearly there are many opinions. Paleos, ‘High Proteiners’, and their love affair with meat have flourished with the popularity of caveman style diets. It started with high protein Atkins and The Zone followed shortly after. So do we need meat? And is it okay to have more than one serving at dinner?
As a Registered Nutritionist this article is based on current, applicable scientific research.
It is fair to say, not all meat has been created equally. A lean chicken breast or sirloin steak clearly offers a different nutrient profile to high fat sausages covered in more lard. Let’s break it down:
As a family, meat consists of white meat (poultry such as turkey and chicken and pork which is also a white meat) and red meat (usually from game birds and meat that is red when raw such as from a cow or lamb). Processed meats and sausages contain ingredients from other foods and additives.
White and red meats both provide a plethora of nutrients. Protein is the big one, alongside vitamins and minerals such as B-vitamins, magnesium, zinc and iron. The B-group vitamins are involved in almost every bodily pathway such as digestion, nutrient transport and absorption and energy production. Magnesium is fundamental to bone development and strength, and also aids nerve signalling and heart health.
Zinc and iron are readily available and absorbable from meat sources. Zinc is needed for over 200 metabolic pathways such as contributing to DNA synthesis, immune health, hormone production and healthy reproductive organs. Iron is required for cognition and concentration, energy metabolism and fatigue prevention.
Organ meats such as liver are high in Vitamin A. This is essential for vision. It is also crucial in creating a mucous membrane around the eyeball and eyelid. Clearly there is an advantage to organ meats, as liver is also a good source of Vitamin K. This vitamin is key to the blood clotting process. A simple paper cut will not heal without Vitamin K.
The Bad News
Whilst I may have given the impression that lean meat is required for optimal health, there is a flip side. There is increasing evidence to suggest that high meat consumption is associated with increased risk of Type 2 Diabetes, prostate cancer, colorectal cancer and cardiovascular disease.
In an evaluation of recently published articles and reviews on Pubmed, it is evident that gold standard journals are in harmony. The British Medical Journal, Cancer Prevention Research, Carcinogenisis, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, European Journal of Clinical Nutrition and the British Nutrition Journal all concur that a high level of meat consumption is associated with increased risk of mortality and certain lifestyle diseases.
There are several reasons for the increase in disease risk. Particles are produced through the meat cooking process that harm DNA structure. The meat itself also has components (e.g. nitrites) that induce DNA damage. Adverse DNA changes within the body exacerbate inflammation and cell damage; the key contributors to disease.
If you are a meat eater, consider reducing the total amount you consume. Sure there are benefits but the long term damage of excess consumption cannot be ignored. How about reducing your meat consumption to no more than once per day AND include at least two to three meat free days per week.
Select protein, iron and zinc rich vegetable sources more often. These include nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, tofu, wholegrain cereals and green leafy vegetables. Consume them with Vitamin C from berries, citrus and kiwi fruit or capsicum, chilli and tomatoes. Combining Vitamin C with plant iron enhances absorption and soaking legumes before cooking enhances zinc absorption.
In short, if high protein, highly meat focussed diets are recommended your way, I advise you to question who funded the research and what their motives were. It is also important to note that high meat consumption is not environmentally sustainable. However as a nutritionist, I will leave that discussion to the environmentalists.
On a final note incase you’re wondering, no I do not eat meat. I base this decision on a number of reasons but as a nutrition professional I will not project my individual philosophies on others, rather I let the science speak for itself.