Nutrition: Meat, is it wrong in a healthy diet?

Friday 04 May 2018

As a nutritional Therapist I receive many newsletters from other nutrition experts and as a result am privy to reading many research papers attached to these new letters. This week an interesting newsletter appeared titled, ‘What’s wrong with Meat any way’ and true to form I wanted to know the research behind it.

I thought I would share this with you because many authors who write diets for people with cancer recommend no or very little meat in favour of fish or vegetarian options like peas beans and lentils. It is interesting to read their thinking behind this.

The research papers connected to this newsletter were very anti meat but I have tried to add a balanced argument and then let you make your own minds up.

The benefits of meat

After all eat is a very good source of protein which we need for repair of tissues, for supporting the immune system, helping to maintain muscle mass and for the production of hormones and enzymes. It is also supplies a very good source of easily absorbed iron. This helps to combat anaemia which as we know from experience is important for people who have cancer because some treatments can quite often make people anaemic with feelings of tiredness and sometimes depression. To add to this it is rich in vitamin B12 which is vital to prevent pernicious anaemia, symptoms of which are similar to iron deficiency anaemia. Some treatments particularly of the digestive tract can destroy our ability to make and absorb vitamin B12. and finally meat is a rich source of Zinc which is absolutely essential for a well functioning immune system as well as being important for emotional and physical development.

Yet advice to restrict meat from the World Health cancer Fund…..

So considering all of these positive reasons why has the world Health Cancer Fund, who have painstakingly examined all of the evidence (263 research papers), made recommendations to restrict meat to two small portions a week and to avoid all processed meats like burgers, sausages, ham, meat pies and bacon. By small they recommend a size that you could fit on the palm of your hand which is not much at all really especially if you are a meat lover. Well there are several reasons for this recommendation that have come about as a result of their research.

Why are we advised to restrict eating meat?

One of the biggest studies looked at 120,000 people over a period of 28 years, which found that by eating 1 serving of meat a day (7 in a week) it increased their mortality rate by 10% and if the meat was processed it increased by 16% (figure related to cancer).That seems quite sobering.

Extracts from this study were reported in the Guardian newspaper on the 12th March this year with the headline, ‘Eating Red Meat Raises Substantially the risk of Cancer or Heart disease.’

This report has been strongly challenged by Dr.Cattie Ruxton of the meat marketing board saying the study was flawed because it was observational and not controlled and so cannot be used to determine the effect. I am not in a position to dispute this but I have to question also other aspects of the people's diets i.e. how much they drank or did they smoke etc. which would have all have had a bearing on the overall outcome of the results.

Processed meat is shown to have the worst results because during the processing compounds like sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite, used as preservatives, are added and these have been shown to be carcinogenic. Add to this the high temperature which they are sometimes cooked at may also produce additional carcinogens. Dr. Ute Nothlings of the cancer research centre at the University of Hawaii suggests the link may be due to the chemical reactions that occur during the preparation of processed meats. He suggested that it may not be the meat per sae that causes the problem but what is added to it and what we do with it.

Generally studies have shown that Americans have the strongest association between meat consumption and cancer. One reason for this is that animals in the EU are not given the growth hormones which were widely used in animals in the USA. However this is not likely to be the only factor. It is worth remembering that all meat does contain naturally occurring hormones and growth factors. Some of these hormones are also present in milk and milk products.

So what is all of this telling us?

  • Basically it is recommending that we eat red meat in strict moderation, most studies recommending no more than twice a week,
  • to replace red meat with chicken, turkey or fish or the vegetarian options.
  • When we do eat meat, choose lean varieties and avoid grilling, frying or BBQing. Instead cook in casseroles, stews, steaming or wrapped on foil parcels which are all moist methods of cooking.  
  • Avoid high temperatures and direct heat. If meat is fried or grilled which uses very high temperatures, it generates oxidants and carcinogens. (Oxidants can damage the function of the cell).
  • Also to avoid all processed meats because of the reasons mentioned earlier.

Would this be quite difficult?
Well that of course depends on the individual but to try seems to make some sort of sense. I have to agree that fish is always a very good option because like meat it is a very good source of protein but has far less saturated fat (which carries cholesterol and hormones) and is easier to digest which should suit people as it uses up far less metabolic energy to digest.

I do know from talking to people that when they reduce or give up meat they seem to have more energy, which could be an important factor especially if someone is suffering from fatigue which is a very common side effect of cancer treatment.  

I do feel that if a diet is very high in fresh fruits and vegetables with their amazing health giving properties this will help negate the negative effects of meat but they will not of course remove any hormones or carcinogens present in the meat.

Concerned about missing out on the nutrients in meat?

If you do decide to limit your red meat intake but are concerned about missing out on the nutrients that it provides .they can quite easily be met by eating other foods.

The iron in meat can easily be found in eggs, chicken, dark green leafy vegetables, dried apricots, molasses, red lentils, quinoa, parsley, fortified breakfast cereals and seeds.  

It is worth remembering that if you do rely on vegetables sources of iron it is usually better absorbed in the presence of Vitamin C so by simply adding a tomato or some pepper slices or an orange to a meal will add the essential vitamin C.

Zinc can be found in oysters (not that we eat a lot of these),all types of beans, dark chocolate, nuts and nut butters, fortified breakfast cereals, chickpeas and oatmeal.

Vitamin B 12 is slightly more difficult especially for those who eat no meat at all but can be found in eggs, turkey, chicken, fish and shellfish, baked beans, fortified cereals, oatmeal and wheat grass,

The bottom line

Obviously you have to develop your own opinion but I am sure that the occasional bacon butty or ham sandwich balanced against a diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables would not pose a huge problem. We do have to live in the real world but while forming your opinion look at the evidence and then feel comfortable with your choice.

Blog originally written by Caroline November 2012

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