Not much divides opinion like the diet we choose to follow, especially so whether or not we choose to eat meat. Some staunch carnivores argue that we need to eat meat to survive whilst committed vegans argue that we don’t need to eat any animal products at all. Then there’s those in the middle of the meat vs plants debate who either aren’t sure what’s best or simply try to strike a balance between the two.
But preferences and beliefs aside, what about the health implications of eating meat, in particular, red meat?
The Argument Against Red and Processed Meats
First, let’s clarify what we mean by ‘red’ meat. Red meat is any meat that is red in colour when it’s raw, and includes beef and lamb but also includes pork. So, steaks, roast joints chops and cutlets are all classed as red meat. Chicken and turkey are not red meats, and are classified as poultry or white meats.
Processed meats are meats that have had some kind of treatment before hitting the supermarket shelves. This might be a process of preserving, salting, curing or smoking. Burgers, sausages, ham, salami and bacon are all processed meats.
In 2015, a report by the respected body, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) led the World Health Organisation (WHO) to classify eating red meat as a ‘probable’ cause of bowel cancer and processed meats as definite carcinogens, in the same category as cigarettes.
In turn, this led to new guidelines on how much meat is safe to eat. It’s now recommended that we keep our consumption of red and processed meats to a total of 70g per day, no more than three times a week. One cooked breakfast of two sausages and two rashers of bacon weighs around 130g so it’s clear to see how quickly 70g can add up.
The research shows overwhelmingly that “bowel cancer is more common in those who eat the most red and processed meats”, based on more than 800 studies. Researchers conclude that a type of iron called haem iron in red meat, certain chemicals called nitrates and nitrites that are added to processed meats and other chemicals called amines that are produced when meat is cooked at a high temperature are all linked to the increased risk of bowel cancer.
A diet high in red and processed meats has also been linked to other health conditions including obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
The Argument for Red and Processed Meats
More recently, another report has been published that casts doubt on this original study. Researchers in the 2019 study concluded that they “couldn’t say with any certainty that eating red or processed meat causes cancer, diabetes or heart disease”. It’s backed up by many studies and supported by many scientists.
However, many scientists and bodies have found fault in this newer study, declaring it full of flaws. The World Cancer Research Fund have dismissed its interpretation of the evidence and the WHO guidelines on limiting red and processed meats still stands.
The take home message here is, like with so many things, is if you want to eat red and processed meats, to do so in moderation and aim to have a few meat free days each week. Beans, chickpeas, lentils and other legumes make great low fat meat replacements and all the fun is in the experimenting. Which meat free family favourite will you discover?