If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know I’m a big fan of all of us eating more plants, with benefits ranging from gut health, to better skin and even hormonal health.
But does that mean we need to cut out meat completely, and go veggie — or vegan?
It’s a question to make anyone who’s been indulging a love of sausages, burgers and steaks on the barbecue recently perhaps a little nervous.
The simple and happy answer is: no (and I do eat meat, but more on that below).
While there is convincing evidence that to live longer and feel and look our best, most of us should be eating a lot less of it, some animal meats are actually linked with pretty impressive health benefits — and most of us aren’t getting enough.
If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know I’m a big fan of all of us eating more plants, with benefits ranging from gut health, to better skin and even hormonal health
I am talking about animal meats such as oily fish, like salmon and sardines.
Many of their health benefits stem from their high omega-3 content, which not only reduces the production of inflammatory chemicals but helps reduce blood fats (triglycerides specifically), keeps your arteries clear by preventing plaque build-up and is a key component of your brain.
A study involving more than 400,000 people found that replacing 100 calories per day of red and processed meat with oily fish was associated with around a 20 per cent lower risk of heart disease.
Next on the meat ‘health hierarchy’ is white meat, such as chicken. When it’s cooked plainly — i.e. not deep-fried or processed — it has a neutral impact on your health. I tend to have chicken once a week from a local farm, because I enjoy the flavour and it’s a good source of protein.
Did you know?
The iron in plants (non-haem iron) is better absorbed when consumed with vitamin C. So next time you’re enjoying lentils, grains and nuts (all good sources of non-haem iron), add some rich sources of vitamin C, such as tomatoes or peppers.
Price-wise, it is more expensive, but I’d rather cut down on the portion size and bulk my meal out with cheap plant sources of protein, such as tinned beans (always opting for the ones in water).
Then comes your red meat (based on its colour when raw): beef, pork or lamb.
Red meat has something of an amber warning sign in terms of risk of cardiovascular disease and colon cancer, although source (grass-fed v. conventional), cut (lean v. high fat) and cooking methods (low heat v. charred) seem to make a difference.
And on the plus side, meat provides essential nutrients that are not as available from other sources, such as iron, zinc and vitamin B12 (needed for our nervous system).
Finally, at the bottom of the meat health hierarchy is processed meat.
Study after study has convincingly linked the frequent consumption of processed meats such as bacon, sausages, hot dogs, corned beef and salami to cancer, in particular colon cancer.
While we still don’t know definitively what this link is, there’s strong evidence that at least part of the issue is the chemicals (nitrates and nitrites) used to process or preserve these meats. These additives stop bacteria growing in the meat, keeping it safe to eat and looking pink for much longer than normal.
But the combination of additives, protein, iron and high cooking temperatures facilitate the conversion of nitrites to cancer- causing nitrosamines (also one of the many toxic chemicals found in cigarette smoke).
Cooking red meat at high temperatures (resulting in charring) can also lead to the development of other cancer-causing compounds known as heterocyclic amines.
One theory is that the risk is down to the haem iron in red meat.
Haem iron is much better absorbed by our body and, therefore, is a better source of iron than plants (when it’s known as non-haem iron). But if too much remains unabsorbed in the gut, it changes the balance of bacteria there, leading potentially to more ‘bad’ bacteria that promote the formation of carcinogens.
The good news, though, is that the key phrase here is ‘too much’. A little red meat, and an even smaller amount of processed meat, is not associated with significant health risks, and red meat can be helpful for those with iron deficiency.
Taking the risks and benefits into account, the World Cancer Research Fund recommends limiting red meat to three servings a week at no more than 500g in total. Personally, I’d cut that down further, aiming for less than 200g and spread it across more servings per week. This is because of the way we digest protein.
In an ideal world, all the protein we eat would be fully absorbed in the small intestine, which is where food goes after it’s been partly digested in the stomach.
It’s best digested there as it goes to feeding our muscles (instead of gut bacteria, which happens further down). However, when we consume more than perhaps 70g of meat in one sitting (equivalent to a thin slice of steak, the size of a palm of a small hand), it’s more likely to be malabsorbed, meaning some of it travels through to the large intestine where the gut bacteria ferment it and a more ‘aggressive’ inflammatory gut microbiota (our colony of gut microbes) develops.
In turn, the reactions that go on in this environment lead to the formation of substances such as trimethylamine N-oxide, chemicals that are implicated in metabolic disease and heart disease.
But we can get around this by eating little portions of meat more often, rather than a lot of meat at once. I tend to buy venison (a lean meat now available in some supermarkets) and freeze it in 50g portions to have once a week or so in a bean stew.
Another health hack when eating meat is choosing what you eat it with.
My own research (published in the journal Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Disease) found that essentially the more plants you eat with your meat, the lower the risk of your gut microbiome releasing those chemicals associated with negative health outcomes. If we give the gut bacteria plenty of fibre to ‘eat’, they’ll digest that fibre and leave the protein, avoiding those potentially toxic by-products produced by the bacteria digesting the meat.
So instead of the traditional meat and two veg, think about making it meat and four plants.
If you love meat, there’s no need to go cold turkey, but cut down to leave space for more plants.
It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the environmental burden arguments about consuming meat.
The EAT-Lancet report, drafted by independent experts from 16 countries, including the UK, Sweden, India and the U.S., has reinforced that in order to balance planetary and human health to feed the near ten billion people by 2050, our intake of animal meat will need to reduce drastically, with daily goal estimates being 14g of red meat, 29g white meat and 28g fish.
Try this: Satay tofu skewers
These are high in plant protein, calcium (check the label that it’s ‘calcium-set’, i.e. extra calcium has been added), and anti-inflammatory compounds called isoflavones — and you can griddle them in the kitchen (avoiding barbecues in these tinder-dry conditions).
1 tbsp Sriracha or chilli sauce
2 tbsp tamari
1 tbsp sesame oil
Half a Medjool date, softened
5g peanut butter
½ tsp garlic powder
280g firm tofu, in 4cm cubes
Stir the ingredients (except for the tofu) in a large bowl.
Add the tofu and leave it to marinate while you go for a 30-minute power-walk. Skewer the tofu and set aside any leftover marinade.
Place on a griddle pan on a moderate heat. Lightly brown (don’t char) on each side, then lower the heat and cook through, for about three minutes on each side. Drizzle with the saved marinade and serve.
Easy meat switches
Replace half the mince in Bolognese with tinned lentils.
Replace half the meat in a stir-fry with tinned jackfruit (marinate in olive oil, soy sauce and garlic).
Switch bacon pieces for mushrooms (marinate in miso, Worcestershire sauce and honey).
Replace half the steak on the barbecue with satay tofu skewers (see recipe above).