Nutritionist Reading - Nutritional Benefits with Laura de la Harpe

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How safe is Eating Meat?

Nutrition is a hot-topic, this year alone there has been widespread coverage about fat, sugar, fat vs. sugar, obesity, cholesterol and statins, diabetes and childhood obesity, plus I’m sure many more. To help you navigate what it all means, I have begun a regular blog post to discuss topical nutrition items in the press or on television.

My aim is to demystify headline grabbing stories and provide you with a no-nonsense, scientific view based on good nutrition principles, along with recommendations on how to apply what you’ve heard to what you eat.

This first post discusses the Horizon programme ‘Should I Eat Meat – The Big Health Dilemma’, presented by Michael Mosley and first broadcast on BBC2 in August. For those of you who missed the programme, here is a summary, and my thoughts on what we should be eating in the light of it.

In summary, his conclusions were:

  • There is an increased mortality risk of 20% from eating processed meat. This means your risk of dying over the next year is 20% higher if you eat these foods than if you don’t.
  • If the studies are right, you would expect someone who eats a bacon sandwich every day to live, on average, two years less than someone who does not.
  • Pro rata, this is the equivalent of losing an hour of your life for every bacon sandwich you eat. To put this in context, smoking 20 cigarettes will take about five hours off your life.
  • Those who consumed higher amounts of red meat had a higher risk of total mortality, cardiovascular mortality and cancer mortality.
  • However, researchers from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (Epic), followed half a million people in 10 countries for more than 12 years; they found eating moderate amounts of red meat had no effect on mortality. The lowest overall mortality rates were in those eating up to 80 grams of red meat a day.
  • The researchers concluded that “a low – but not a zero – consumption of meat might be beneficial for health. This is understandable as meat is an important source of nutrients, such as protein, iron, zinc, several B-vitamins as well as vitamin A and essential fatty acids.”

So what can we do with this information, and is it the full picture?

  • I believe – and the programme hinted – that the problem with processed meats (bacon, sausages, ham) which increase your risk of colon cancer, are the preservatives. Nitrites and nitrates are used to preserve these foods, and the bag with the chemicals in even came with a health warning on the programme!
  • However, there are bacons and hams that are nitrite and nitrate free; you have to read the labels to find them, and don’t assume that organic is safe. Some Spanish and Italian hams for example just have pork and salt on the ingredients list – how refreshing!
  • One of the other conclusions was that saturated fat does not cause heart disease. In the nutrition world we have known this for a while, and I recommend coconut oil for cooking which is a saturated fat.
  • What the programme did not explore is the role of trans-fats produced when meat is cooked at high temperatures, and which may have health implications. How we cook red meat is very important. Cooking at very high temperatures in the oven or on a BBQ is not good for you as the meat becomes burnt; this produces carcinogens and the fats become trans-fats, creating free-radical damage. Instead, cook at a low temperature or steam until almost cooked and then lightly brown under a grill.  Use coconut oil for all frying as it does not turn into a trans-fat.
  • The programme also did not explore the difference between grass-fed and grain-fed meat.  The composition of meat from cows that have been in the field eating grass is very different from those who are grain fed.  Meat from grass-fed animals contains a fat called CLA which helps promote lean muscle and fat loss. The other fats are from Omega 3 which means they are anti-inflammatory and therefore good for you! Cows fed on corn and other grains produce a very different meat which contains Omega 6 fats; these are pro-inflammatory and more likely to have a negative impact on health.

In conclusion, I would make the following recommendations to help you make steps to improve your health:

  1. Eat red meat only once or twice a week, and where budget allows choose grass-fed. Ocado sells boxes or you can go direct to or ask your butcher.
  2. Cook red meats at low temperatures to reduce trans-fats, using methods such as a slow cooker or steaming.
  3. Eat processed meats no more than once a week (if at all), and look for ones without nitrites or nitrates such as Serrano ham.
  4. And lastly, don’t think of fat as bad! Cook with coconut oil, drizzle with extra virgin oil and spread with grass-fed butter (Loseley or Kerrygold).


Featured image courtesy of Theo Oosthuizen

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Specific results are not guaranteed. Results of each nutrition programme may vary.