Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Why red meat plays a crucial role in the diet

The virtues of sticking to a Mediterranean diet, while demonising red meat consumption, are often touted by those with an axe to grind against the beef and lamb sector. But is red meat really the villain of the piece? This week’s guest blogger Dr Emma Derbyshire, from the Meat Advisory Panel, takes a closer look at the debate and what a Mediterranean diet actually is.

The Mediterranean diet, super-foods, or a just a play on words? Recently, there appear to have been a lot of articles reporting that the key to good health appears to be to follow a Mediterranean diet. It’s also reported that the Mediterranean diet means eating less red meat. But is this a correct understanding of the diet? There are 18 countries on the Mediterranean coastline with differing diets, so I think a Mediterranean diet has become a phrase more than a diet. Here’s why:

Europe versus UK. Who eats more red meat? I don’t deny that the scientific literature on the diet has come to define the Mediterranean diet from Spain, Italy and Greece as high in olive oil, legumes, fruits and vegetables, fish and with a moderate consumption of meat and dairy products[1]. However, statistics also show that Mediterranean countries consume more red meat than the UK[2]. Greece, Spain and Italy are all famous for the meats they produce and eat as a staple. This meat intake is quite different to what is currently communicated as the Mediterranean diet.

Mediterranean diet – the real definition. I think there are problems with the current definition of the Mediterranean diet. Firstly, whilst studies into the Mediterranean diet have considered the dietary pattern generally, there are no substantial studies or meta-analysis research that has looked to define the quantities and regularity of food actually consumed. This is particularly the case with red meat intakes.

Secondly, confusion comes from the scientific definition. Scientists define the Mediterranean diet as a diet with low fatty acid levels.  Grains and vegetable oils, amongst others, provide oleic acid and alpha linoleic acid whilst fish provides a higher amount of omega-3’ acids to omega-6 acids. These acid intakes mean that there is more unsaturated than saturated fat in the diet and this is seen as the highest health benefit to the diet. However, whilst the fatty acid content of a diet is being profiled, again scientists are not actually looking at how much red meat is being eaten.

The fairest way to see a Mediterranean diet is to view it as a nutrient rich diet. This actually means a red meat rich diet as well. To suggest reducing the amount of red meat eaten is an incorrect definition of a Mediterranean diet.

[1] "Get your Meds: the Mediterranean Diet and Health", Ellen Gooch, Epikouria Magazine, Fall 2005
[2] Food and Agriculture Organisation of United Nations, FAOSTAT, Food Balance sheet 2009.

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