Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The facts about red meat and health

It appears that red meat is fair game for everyone these days. Not content with livestock production being blamed disproportionately for climate change, as we mentioned in this blog last week, it seems that increasingly the media, pressure groups and some charities are habitually recommending a diet low in red meat to protect against certain cancers.

Lean red meat, correctly cooked, is a valuable source of protein containing a range of nutrients, particularly iron, and if eaten as part of a healthy, balanced diet it plays an important part in an individual’s nutrition.

It is unfortunate that this message is more often than not overshadowed by disappointing headlines. Cancer Research UK statistics published last week revealed a man’s risk of bowel cancer has doubled since the 1970s. The organisation’s advice to help reduce the chances of developing cancer includes a diet low in red and processed meat.

It is interesting to look at consumption figures for red meat for the corresponding period. Figures from AHDB Market Intelligence show a 10.5% fall in red meat consumption per capita between 1975 and 2008. That rises to 20% per capita if you look at the period between 1970 and 2010. This seems to contradict the advice that reducing red meat consumption helps reduce risk of bowel cancer. This, unfortunately, is a fact that headlines fail to reflect.

Hot on the heels of this report came another suggesting women’s cancers in Britain are higher than in other parts of Europe. Again, among other measures like reducing alcohol intake, it suggested limiting consumption of red meat to reduce risk. Again, those same statistics show that red meat consumption per capita has been falling for 40 years.  How, then, will the single step of limiting red meat consumption for those who already eat a healthy balanced diet make an impact?

The reality is that cancers are complex and multiple factors can contribute to a rise in likelihood of developing certain types. Individuals may also be at a higher risk because of a combination of lifestyle choices, including a lack of exercise, smoking and drinking, rather than consumption of a single protein. There are also negative consequences for older people who may end up not eating enough red meat because they are often lacking in iron, vitamin B12, zinc and vitamin D, of which red meat is a rich source of.

It seems then that a more balanced approach to the way published health studies are reported could paint a more complete picture to inform the public about decisions on their diet.

You can find out more about the beneficial aspects of red meat by visiting the meat and health website.