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Does eating meat pose a risk to health?

Does eating meat pose a risk to health?

Meat is rarely out of the news headlines. Research has shown consumption of meat is linked to a range of disease. Public health bodies around the world urge people to limit their intake of red and processed meat. With a growing emphasis on eating a plant-based diet does meat still have a place at our dining tables?

What are the nutritional benefits of eating meat?

Eating some meat has known health benefits. It is a good source of protein, B vitamins and minerals including selenium, zinc and iron. Meat is one of the main sources of B12 in the diet. The iron contained in meat is absorbed better than iron in plant-based foods such as spinach. This is important because almost half of girls under the age of 16 have low iron levels and a third of adult women do too.

What are the different types of meat?

Meat is classified into three groups according to how it affects health:

  1. Red meat includes beef, veal, pork, lamb.
  2. Processed meat which has been salted, cured, smoked, or fermented e.g., hot dogs, ham, sausages, salami, corned beef, canned meat and biltong or beef jerky.
  3. White meat such as chicken or turkey.

What are the risks to health of eating meat?

According to the World Cancer Research Fund eating red and processed meat increases the risk of developing colorectal (bowel) cancer. Colorectal cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK[1].

What is it in red and processed meat that causes cancer?

Scientists have found the high levels of ‘haem iron’ can cause cancer. Haem iron is part of the red pigment in blood. Also, cooking red meat at high temperatures[2] has been shown to produce chemicals that are cancer forming. 

Are there any other risks associated with eating meat?

A recent study from Oxford University[3] found that eating any combination of meat i.e., red meat, processed meat and white meat, at least three times a week is linked to a higher risk of getting nine different illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, diverticular disease and gall bladder disease.

Meat and saturated fat and salt

Some meats are high in fat, especially saturated fat. Eating a lot of saturated fat can raise cholesterol levels in the blood. High blood cholesterol levels raise your risk of coronary heart disease. Processed meat also contains a lot of salt.

What are the safest methods of cooking meat?

It is better to cook meat at lower temperatures for example as part as a stew or casserole. Cooking meat at high temperatures or in direct contact with a flame or hot surface (barbecuing and pan-frying) produces more cancer promoting chemicals so do not eat meat cooked in this way too frequently.

How much meat is it safe to eat?

Lean red meat can form part of a healthy diet. But eating a lot of red and processed meat increases your risk of colorectal cancer[4].

If you currently eat more than 90g (cooked weight) of red or processed meat a day, the Department of Health and Social Care advises that you cut down to 70g.

90g is equivalent to around 3 thinly cut slices of beef, lamb or pork, where each slice is about the size of half a piece of sliced bread. A cooked breakfast containing 2 typical British sausages and 2 rashers of bacon is equivalent to 130g.

The World Cancer Research fund agrees with this advice and says it is best to limit your intake to three portions a week or between 350 - 500g of cooked red meat per week and to consume very little, if any, processed meat.

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[1] Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, is the fourth most common cancer in the UK. In 2017, 43,438 cases of bowel cancer were diagnosed. Cancer statistics based on combined data from EnglandScotlandNorthern Ireland and Wales. World Cancer Research Fund, 2020.

[2] Cooking meat at high temperatures includes searing, grilling, pan frying and barbecuing

[3] Papier, K., Fensom, G.K., Knuppel, A. et al. Meat consumption and risk of 25 common conditions: outcome-wide analyses in 475,000 men and women in the UK Biobank study. BMC Med 19, 53 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-021-01922-9