I recently enjoyed a juicy and tender, wonderfully flavoursome fillet steak at Miller & Carter. They have a great selection of different types of steaks and they certainly do know how to cook them! This got me thinking about the benefits of a beautiful piece of meat alongside the warnings about red meat being associated with a detrimental effect on our health.
There is much talk about the benefits of a vegetarian diet and, indeed, veganism is seeing a surge in popularity. There is certainly a lot to be said for the nutritional benefits of a greater intake of vegetables and plant sources of proteins as well as the increase in fibre to enhance gut health. However, although a good piece of steak may not provide fibre it is an excellent source of protein, vitamin B12, B6, niacin, riboflavin, zinc, selenium, iron and phosphorus.
Quality of life versus cost
We have become used to supermarkets advertising ever cheaper food prices and this may lead to a tendency to think we are needlessly spending too much if we buy something that costs markedly more, however, it’s important to consider what goes into breeding and raising cattle. Is it realistic to expect that meat which costs less is exactly the same as meat that costs more, and that it’s just about one supermarket charging more than another? It is possible that the cheaper meat has come through a production chain that has cut costs with regard to animal feed, living space, milking quotas, transportation etc. What is the price on the quality of life of the animal? Are you prepared to pay more if the quality of life is better and, ultimately, better quality meat?
The diet of the animals is highly relevant to the composition of their meat. For example, those animals which are grass-fed eat a diet which is more in keeping with their natural habitat and consequently their meat contains more of the omega-3 fatty acids which have an anti-inflammatory effect. This is different to grain fed animals whose meat contains more of the pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats. Grain products are more commonly the typical feed given to industrial livestock but this is not the kind of food that would historically have been fed to cattle, when they would have lived most of their lives outdoors grazing in pastures. I was pleased to see a recent episode of Countryfile which showed several farmers who are now grazing their cattle outdoors as much as possible and turning away from grain feed (www.bbc.co.uk/countryfile the episode was originally shown on 23 April 2017). It was interesting to learn about the different kinds of pasture, since the grass and other plants in the pastures vary depending on location and this was demonstrated to affect the flavour of the meat.
Don’t burn it!
Many research studies have linked consumption of red meat and processed meat with heart disease and cancer, and there are sufficient numbers of these studies to be satisfied that their findings are correct. However, they don’t tend to differentiate between the quality of the meat or the type of cooking involved which may also have an impact on the results. For example, cooking methods which involve direct exposure to flame and prolonged heat exposure such as grilling, frying and barbequing have been reported to produce cancer causing molecules called heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, more memorably referred to as HCAs and PAHs! Processed meats often contain nitrites which are also linked to cancer. Processed meats include bacon, ham, cured meats and various sausages, such as chorizo. Potassium nitrite (E249), sodium nitrite (E250), sodium nitrate (E251) and potassium nitrate (E252) are all food additives approved in many countries. Therefore, as an example, fresh minced beef, home-cooked into a bolognaise sauce which is generally heated at a simmer and not subject to direct flame would not appear to involve the dangers outlined here.
Does more meat mean less veg?
Research trials have found a link between red meat and certain diseases such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (e.g. Diverticulitis) and colorectal cancer as well as high blood pressure. However, these trials don’t tend to state how much fibre – from grains, beans, nuts or from vegetables – the participants eat, which helps to support a healthy gut and may thereby lessen the likelihood of developing disease.
There is a tendency for those who like to eat a lot of meat to feel full quicker and sustained for longer since meat is protein dense, and they subsequently tend to eat lower quantities of fruit and veg. At least this is what I’ve found through my experience of reading lots of diet diaries from my clients. This view was also supported in a research paper published in a journal called Archives of Internal Medicine in 2012, where they found that “a higher red meat intake was associated with a higher intake of total energy, but lower intakes of whole grain, fruit and vegetables”. Let’s think about a sumptuous, perfectly cooked steak which is served with a portion of beautifully crispy chips – this tastes great! When served in a restaurant the most you are likely to get by way of vegetables is a grilled tomato and perhaps some frozen peas. You feel happily satisfied after eating the winning combination of steak and chips and don’t feel you’ve missed out if it isn’t accompanied by a big pile of kale. Vegetarians on the other hand are less likely to eat protein dense food and therefore, together with an alternative form of protein, will often eat a much greater amount of veg to fill them up – since they contain fibre that fills you up too.
It’s all about balance
I don’t think it is necessary to stop eating red meat altogether because of the research which states that it can lead to disease, although of course I can fully understand the concern. Diet and health is all about balance and we can see from the following table that it contains plenty of nutrients.
A 100 g serving of beef provides approximately the following:
|Monounsaturated fatty acids||15.15mg|
|Polyunsaturated fatty acids||1.28mg|
Ring the changes – reduce cancer risk
It is, in my view, good to include red meat occasionally – that is less often but of better quality. Eating red meat (fresh or processed) on a daily basis, or even several times a day, means you feel satisfied very fast and often this is in the form of quick snacks and often accompanied by baguettes, breads, pizza, pastries etc. and then it is easy to forget about the veg and other types of fibre. A study of diet in relation to various types of cancer in Australia concluded that increasing consumption of fruit, non-starchy vegetables and fibre may help to decrease up to 4% of all cancers.
This was also found to be the case in a study of more than 120,000 people between 1980 and 2008 which looked for associations between red meat consumption and cardiovascular disease and cancer. The study reported that replacing just one serving per day of red meat with one serving each day of fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy products, or whole grains was associated with a lower risk. So, it really doesn’t take much of a change – ring the changes, eat a wider variety of protein foods and still enjoy a nice piece of steak once in a while.
And there’s the ecological impact
This also has wider implications with regard to the ecological impact of modern day meat production around the globe. Due to the huge amount of grain that is grown to feed farm animals, it has been estimated that if each American ate just one less dish of meat per week, it may save 7.5 million tons of grain in a year, which is roughly enough to feed 25 million people. If these savings were to also include many other nations it would be absolutely mind-blowing to think how it could positively affect so many lives. A small change can have a big impact!
Fibre, fibre, fibre
One interesting trial involved research with a group of African Americans whose risk of colon cancer is reported as 65 per 100,000 people, as well as a group of rural South Africans whose risk is less than 5 per 100,000 people. So, what is the difference in diet between these two groups? The rural Africans include an average of 66 g per day of fibre and fat makes up about 16% of their total calories per day. On the other hand, the African Americans eat approximately 14 g per day of fibre and fat makes up about 35% of their total calorie intake. Already strikingly different! The research trial involved many tests while in the first two weeks each group ate their usual food, then for the following two weeks they adopted each other’s diets, i.e. switching amounts of fats and fibre. From the numerous tests carried out, they found that after only two weeks on their alternative diets the Americans showed a significant reduction in the markers of cancer risk and the Africans showed an increase in such markers. I think the striking news here is not that the higher fibre diet showed improvements, but just how fast the changes became evident – after only two weeks!
So, start today! – still enjoy a beautiful juicy steak, but enhance your diet (and your plate!) by including lots of fibre: whole grains, beans, vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds.
BBC’s Countryfile. www.bbc.co.uk/countryfile – 23 April 2017
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O’Keefe SJ et al., (2015) Fat, fibre and cancer risk in African Americans and rural Africans. Nature Communications, 6: 6342. Doi: 10.1038/ncomms7342
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