Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Red meat in moderation is fine

It seems as though the dinner table can be a dangerous place these days. In recent years there have been numerous headlines screaming at us that everything from chips to grapefruit can cause cancer. 

In fact, if you’re reading this over a nice hot cup of tea, you might want to look away now, as even the humble cuppa has been accused of causing oesophageal cancer.

This week, it was the turn of red meat to come under scrutiny in a BBC Horizon programme called Should I Eat Meat? The Big Health Dilemma. The show followed Dr Michael Mosley as he went on a high-meat diet, doubling his usual red-meat intake to 130g per day for a month, to examine the effects.

To put that into context, 130g of red meat is equivalent to either a large doner kebab, a 6oz beef steak or a large ‘full English’ cooked breakfast. Every day. Now, I don’t know if you know anyone who eats a large doner kebab every day, but it is fair to say that a constant diet like that prompts certain physical changes in the human body.

But what do the industry experts say? The Meat Advisory Panel (MAP), made up of healthcare professionals, scientists and researchers, says that meat has been at the centre of the human diet since the dawn of mankind, and that studies on hunter-gatherer societies suggest that animal foods provided two thirds of daily energy intakes. MAP also suggests that our meat-needs vary at differing stages of life. For example teenagers, particularly girls, are low in vitamin A, vitamin D, iron, magnesium, zinc, selenium and potassium – all of which beef and lamb offer a rich supply of.

Dr Carrie Ruxton, an independent dietician and member of the panel, said of the scare stories linking meat with chronic diseases, that, “in many cases studies do not account for differences in fibre intakes or physical activity levels. Indeed, some studies have found no associations between red meat and cancer.”

Following the Horizon programme, Dr Ruxton added, “Dr Michael Mosley’s high-meat diet included lots of high fat and high calorie foods and we saw him enjoying accompaniments such as deep-fried onion rings, fries, cheese and white bread – which would have influenced the post-diet tests. And of course, if we double our intake of any food without making adjustments elsewhere, we will be inclined to put on weight.

Dr Mosley is, by his own admission, a fan of red meat, and was not setting out with an agenda to look for bad news. He explored both sides of the argument before coming to the conclusion that, essentially, everything is fine in moderation. Processed meats, such as bacon, ham and salami were shown to have a negative impact on health if more than 40g per day was eaten, but researchers found that eating moderate amounts of unprocessed red meat had no effect on mortality.

The show, which aired on Monday, was the first of a two-part series. The second part is set to go out at 9pm tonight (Wednesday, 20th August), and will look at the environmental impact of producing the animals we need to feed the global population.

No doubt the sensationalist stories suggesting that various food types cause various illnesses and cancers will continue. Perhaps the headlines should be taken in moderation too.