HealthAgenda

Nutrition

Is red meat bad for you?

For thousands of years, provincial villages peppering the Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Asian regions survived primarily on plant foods, like fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and wholegrains. This ‘peasant food’ was considered a poor man’s diet, and meat – eaten only occasionally – was a badge of wealth.

With urbanisation and increased access to meat, this status symbol was wholeheartedly embraced. In Australia, the ‘lucky country’, settlers took full advantage of vast land for grazing cattle and sheep and now steaks, bacon and snags on the barbecue is firmly entrenched in our culture.

As a result, after the United States, we’re the second-biggest meat consumers in the world, according to the World Economic Forum. Aussies eat 95kg per person each year on average.

We know that diet plays a big role in chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer, and scientists have been looking into the benefits of traditional diets in their quest for answers, with the Mediterranean diet attracting a lot of research attention.

What is the Mediterranean diet and what are its health benefits?

The Mediterranean diet includes plant foods, a moderate intake of fish, dairy and red wine, and a low intake of meat and processed foods.

Consuming this combination of foods has been linked to a lower risk of heart disease, cancers and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, and living a longer life, according to a review of studies published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Now, there is also sufficient evidence that processed meats like ham, bacon, salami and sausages may increase your risk of colorectal cancer, reports the World Health Organization. Eating 50g of processed meat (about two small rashers of bacon) every day increases bowel cancer risk by 18%.

What is the paleo diet and are there health benefits?

Alongside this alarming evidence, paleolithic (or paleo) diets have gained popularity, creating a revival of meat lovers. These ‘paleo’ diets are often high in meat, compelling anthropologists and health professionals to inspect the evidence of our paleolithic descendants.

They have concluded that the findings are complex: there was no single, specific paleolithic diet. But, on balance, the evidence suggests that our ancestors may have eaten more plant food than meat, and any health benefits derived from the paleo diet stem from its focus on fresh, rather than processed, foods.

Regardless of our ancestors’ diets, a number of nutrition scientists and health professionals now agree that eating less meat, as part of a balanced diet, is better for our health.

How a plant-based diet can improve your health

Recently, 37 experts from 16 countries collaborated for two years to produce The Lancet’s special report, Food in the Anthropocene, to address a ‘civilisation in crisis’.

The commission came up with a ‘planetary health diet’, which it said would optimise people’s health and reduce premature deaths globally by 19–24%.

The dietary overhaul includes a ‘reduction in global consumption of less healthy foods such as added sugars and red meat’ by at least 50%. Total daily meat consumption, it recommends, shouldn’t exceed 28g per day. The average Australian consumes about 250g a day.

The report also recommends a 100% increase in legumes, nuts, fruits and vegetables globally. These foods contain lots of vitamins, minerals and micronutrients called polyphenols that support a healthy body and brain. They are low in kilojoules and rich in fibre, which fills you up and feeds beneficial bacteria. Fibre also slows the release of glucose into the bloodstream, which, along with polyphenols, helps to maintain healthy blood sugar control and reduce the risk of diabetes.

According to researchers at the University of Florence, vegetarians who eat a balanced diet have long enjoyed significant health benefits when compared to meat eaters.

Doctor Malcolm Forbes, medical doctor at The Royal Melbourne Hospital and clinical senior fellow at The University of Melbourne, regularly encourages his patients to increase their intake of plant foods.

There is solid evidence “that has consistently shown a balanced vegetarian diet reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular [heart] disease,” he says, adding: “Most Australians would benefit from reducing their red meat consumption and increasing their intake of plant-based foods.”

What foods should you eat on a plant-based diet?

The Heart Foundation says eating a diverse range of healthy proteins gives your body other important nutrients at the same time, such as iron, zinc and B-group vitamins. If you don’t want to cut out meat, just shifting the focus on the plate could be enough.

Claims that vegetarian diets lack iron, protein or zinc are unfounded, adds nutritionist Dr Rosemary Stanton. “The idea that only meat can supply certain nutrients is false,” she says. “It is true that only animal products supply vitamin B12, but [for those who don’t eat meat] milk, cheese, yoghurt, eggs and seafood can fulfil this role.”

Adding protein and iron to a plant-based diet

High-protein alternatives to red meat are:

  • Legumes including chickpeas, lentils and beans
  • Nuts and seeds, try to eat a handful of nuts every day
  • Eggs, get creative and try them different ways
  • Dairy like low-fat milk, cheese and yoghurt
  • Fish or seafood, eaten 2–3 times per week.

To get the most from the iron in these foods, eat them with a food or drink containing vitamin C, which boosts its absorption:

  • Green vegies like spinach, broccoli and silverbeet
  • Legumes (also known as pulses) like lentils and beans
  • Brown rice and whole wheat
  • Dried fruit.

Only 7% of Australians eat enough vegetables. Check out the Australian Government’s Eat for Health guidelines for the recommended serves of vegetables per day.

Words by Natalie Parletta
First published in the July 2019 issue of HCF’s Health Agenda magazine.

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