Red meat: a little, a lot, none at all?

You often hear that you shouldn’t eat too much meat. But how much is too much? Are all red meats made equal? Organic, regular, sausages, burgers on the barbecue? Should even the most die-hard carnivores shift their sights toward tofu? Let’s look into that a bit...

Healthy Eating

Sonia Chartier

22 April 2017

But before we discuss the best foods to choose, let’s see why we keep hearing that we should avoid red meat.

Why we should avoid red meat

Beef, pork, lamb, mutton and horse are all considered to be red meat. (Processed meats like bacon, cold cuts and sausages make up a separate category because of their high sodium content and preservatives, including nitrites.) Red meat is rich in saturated fat and cholesterol—that’s not good—but it’s also rich in iron, which is good. But when cooked at high temperatures, some of red meat’s compounds become carcinogenic. And when you barbecue meat, the fat melts, drips onto the hot stones or coals and wafts into the meat in the form of highly carcinogenic smoke.

We know that diets rich in red meat are linked to an increased incidence of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers, including colon cancer. In 2012, one study showed not only that there’s a higher risk of dying from one of these diseases if you eat a lot of red meat, but also that replacing red meat with another protein source considerably reduces that risk.

To sum up:
- One portion = 85 g or 3 oz. (around the size of a playing card)
- For every additional portion (as of the second daily portion) of red meat you eat, the risk of premature death increases by 13%.
- For processed meats, the risk rises by 20%.
- For every portion of red meat replaced with another protein source, the risk drops by:

  • 7% if replaced by fish
  • 10% if replaced by legumes (pulses) or fat-free dairy products
  • 14% if replaced by poultry or whole grains
  • 19% if replaced by nuts

Eat meat in moderation

When meat is eaten in moderation (up to 85 g a day), no increased health risk has been shown for unprocessed red meats compared with people who rarely eat meat.

So now that we know that it’s okay to have a portion of red meat now and then, let’s talk organic: is it worth the trouble?

Organic meats

Organic meats contain more omega-3 and antioxidants than meat from conventionally raised animals, though the difference is negligible when compared with the recommended daily allowance. However, meat from animals raised sustainably, whether labelled as being antibiotic-free, organic or grass-fed, are less likely to harbour antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

Some say that cooking kills off these bacteria, but that argument doesn’t hold water given that most bacterial contamination occurs during preparation—bacteria is transferred to the meat from knives, cutting boards and so on. The use of preventive antibiotics on farm animals is criticized by the World Health Organization (WHO), as doing so promotes the development of antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains. WHO considers that this antibiotic resistance constitutes a major threat to public health worldwide.  Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can be deadly, taking us back to a time when doctors didn’t have access to antibiotics. Sustainably produced meat is a more ecological choice—factory farms are an environmental catastrophe—not to mention socially responsible.

The best choices turn out to be grass-fed or organic grass-fed livestock. The price tag associated with these meats is higher because the animals reach maturity more slowly and are typically smaller. As a result, livestock producers have higher operating costs while producing less meat per animal. But that higher price is easily balanced out by the fact that the meat is of higher quality, loses less of its weight during cooking and is generally leaner.

Mediterranean-style diet

Instead of red meat (even organic, grass-fed) as the focal point of your meal, it’s better to adopt a Mediterranean-style diet, which is actually a collection of eating habits.  Here’s the gist of it:

- Start by making sure you get a lot of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds every day.
- Up to 40% of your daily calories can come from fats, ideally from olive oil.
- Have small daily portions of cheese and yogurt, as well as one portion of fish, poultry or eggs.
- Eat red meat occasionally.
- People in Mediterranean countries tend to drink a little red wine with their meals.

Because it’s more difficult to absorb iron derived from plant sources, it’s best to have them with vitamin C (lemons, oranges, peppers, kiwis) to make it easier. In fact, many Mediterranean dishes are sprinkled with lemon juice. Don’t finish your meals with coffee or tea, because they hinder iron absorption.

And to all of you die-hard carnivores, don’t worry: tofu isn’t an absolute must-have. Instead, you can opt for fish and chickpeas...

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