It’s no surprise why many of us are wary of red meat. Often linked with premature death and heart disease, there’s no end to the amount of alarmist articles warning us of red meat’s high levels of saturated fat, sodium and cancer-causing chemicals. However, not all meat is created equal and it’s important that we not only differentiate between processed and unprocessed red meat, but recognise the very real nutritional benefits that come from eating this 100% natural, healthy and wholesome food source.
Red meat is a high quality source of protein, containing (on average) 20-24g of protein per 100g when raw, and 27-35g of protein per 100g when cooked. It is also a ‘complete protein’, meaning red meat contains all nine of the essential amino acids needed to form the important structural components of muscles, hair, skin, blood, organs and glands. Beef and liver are recognised to be two of the most concentrated sources of nutrition available, with animal proteins in general deemed of ‘higher biological value’ than plant proteins.
As well as being one of the richest sources of iron, red meat provides this essential mineral in its most readily absorbed form: haeme. Up to 30% of haeme iron can be absorbed by the human body, compared to just 3% in the non-haeme iron found in plants such as lentils and beans. Integral to cell respiration and metabolism, our bodies rely on iron to transport oxygen from our lungs to the rest of our body. The frequency of iron deficiency anaemia in women, young girls and the elderly is therefore alarming and red meat should subsequently be encouraged as part of a healthy, balanced diet to help us meet sufficient levels of iron we all need.
3. Other Vitamins & Minerals
Boasting a near complete vitamin and mineral profile, red meat is loaded with vitamin B12, B6, iron and zinc – levels which simply cannot be found in white meat or other natural food sources. Beef, lamb and pork are all recognised as rich sources of vitamin B12, niacin (B3), phosphorus and zinc, which all contribute toward good digestive health, immune strength, bone growth, recovery and the release of energy. Vitamin B12 is particularly important as, although it cannot be produced by the body, it is involved in the function of every human cell. Found only in animal foods such as red meat, fish and eggs, a deficiency in vitamin B12 is known to be associated with Alzheimer’s disease, impaired brain function and even smaller brain size.
Alpha Lipoic acid is one of the most powerful antioxidants and free radical scavengers, recycling used up vitamins, protecting our genetic material and helping to regulate blood sugar in diabetics. Also found to protect against cancer, heart disease and liver malfunction, the fact that red meat is the greatest source of Alpha Lipoic acid goes to contradict many of the myths surrounding red meat, and proves its effectiveness as an antioxidant powerhouse to rival any superfood.
With nearly a 1:1 equal ratio of saturated to monounsaturated fat, red meat’s consistently balanced fatty acid profile makes it a valuable source of the healthy omega-3 fats our bodies cannot make on their own. In fact, the monounsaturated fat in red meat is of the same oleic variety as that found in olive oil – olive oil one of the key components of the Mediterranean diet so often recommended by doctors for reducing the risk of heart disease. Grass-fed meat in particular contains the highest levels of omega-3, so always opt for grass-fed over grain-fed where possible, choosing lean cuts and low-fat cooking techniques such as grilling, roasting or dry stir-frying.
A Take Home Message
Ultimately, for every argument against red meat, there’s a pretty convincing argument in its favour. Many of the original observational studies which warned against eating red meat have since been criticised for their conflation of unprocessed red meat with processed meat, the admissions of inconsistencies and inconclusive data proving the impossibility of a definitive study into the effect of food on long-term health.
The secret, as with all dietary choices, is therefore in moderation. Eating lean cuts of unprocessed red meat as part of a healthy, balanced diet provides a valuable source of highly-absorbable essential nutrients, and can help us with other dietary concerns such as weight-loss and digestive health. Advances in farming and butchery techniques now also mean that red meat can contain as little as 4% fat, with organic pastured meat a better choice in terms of fat, flavour and ecological farming. So, before you ditch red meat altogether, have a think about all the protein, vitamins, minerals and nutrients you’ll be missing out on, and then decide if giving up that thick juicy steak really is such a good decision after all.