The pros and cons of reducing meat intake?

It is a commonly asked question.

I believe in a balanced diet so I do not recommend you remove any of the major food groups unless there is good reason.

I believe variety, fresh, moderation and quality are principles synonymous with healthy eating.  Add staying active to this and you have a great foundation for good health.

However it is a question asked a lot, so here is a quick run of some key considerations in this conversation.

Why include meat?

Think lean red meat, chicken, fish, turkey and game meats:

  •  Protein quality references the amount of protein per gram of food and whether the food contains all the essential amino acids humans require.  Meat and fish contain more protein per gram (weight) than plant food.
  • Lean red, chicken and fish are complete proteins meaning they contain all of the essential amino acids we need in our diet.  Essential amino acids can only be sourced from foods we eat (hence the name).
  • Meat (chicken and lean red meat) and fish contain B12 generally not present in plant foods. Low B12 can result in red blood cell issues.
  • Meat and fish are also good sources of other nutrients include zinc, B vitamins, iron and the antioxidant selenium.  Fish also provides reasonable sources of magnesium, phosphorus and potassium.
  • Lean red meat, chicken and fish are a rich source of iron.
  • Iron comes in haem and non-haem iron, oxygen binds to haem enabling oxygen to be transported and delivered to our cells for energy.
  • Meat and fish contain haem iron which is more bio-available than non-haem iron in plant food.  Approx. 25% of iron from haem iron is absorbed versus approx. 15% from non-haem iron.
  • 2-3 serves of cold water oily fish each week are recommended as they contain protein as well as healthy omega-3 essential fatty acids that are anti-inflammatory.
  • Some women are not eating sufficient protein. It is estimated that women in Australia get approximately 70% of the iron they need in their diet.  Including varied sources of protein animal and plant foods will assist with helping them to consume sufficient protein

Why moderate or reduce your intake of meat?

Think beans, lentils, diary, grains, chick peas, nuts and seeds:

  • Many of us eat too much meat in particular lean red meat. The NHRMC recommends a maximum of 455g of lean red meat per week.  Bowel Cancer Australia recommends you limit meat intake to 500g per week.
  • High intake of animal foods can be associated with high intake of saturated fat and cholesterol, high intakes of these are associated with increased risk of heart disease and can contribute to being overweight.
  • Meats and fish contain cholesterol.  Cholesterol is important the body generally makes all the cholesterol we need.  Those sensitive to cholesterol are recommended to moderate or limit cholesterol rich foods.
  • There are a wide range of alternate plant foods sources offering good sources of zinc, B vitamins, iron and selenium.
  • Plant foods contain additional nutrients and health promoting substances that are essential for good health including fibre, magnesium, healthy fats and Vitamin C.
  • A wide variety of plant foods contain good sources of protein including high protein seed grains, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes.
  • There are alternate sources of B12 e.g. dairy, eggs and fortified grains.
  • Vitamin C  in a meal helps promote the absorption of non-haem iron.
  • By including a variety of plant foods during the day you can get all essential amino acids in your diet.  You do this by eating complementary proteins.  For example in general legumes lack the amino acids methionine and tryptophan and grains lack isoleucine and lysine but if you include them in your diet on the same day you get all the amino acids.
  • Just as with any micronutrients eaten in excess protein foods (once de-animated) can have their carbohydrates remnants stored as fat and contribute to overweight or obesity.
  • High protein diets (e.g. 200g+ per day) may place a strain on the kidneys.  Ammonia is a by-product of protein metabolism.  It is excreted in your urine.  Excessive amounts of protein can place a heavy workload on the kidneys and high levels of ammonia are dangerous to the body.

So what is the conclusion?

The ingredients for good health are many and varied.  I believe variety is a key principle of healthy eating, I would encourage everyone to aim to create meals containing at least 3-4 different coloured foods.  Including a wide variety of food equates to a wide variety of nutrients.

However I do recommend you avoid excessive consumption of meat.  Include moderate amounts of meat in your diet and ensure you are including plant foods that not only contain protein but lots of other great nutrients and health promoting substances (plant foods include beans, lentils, chickpeas, grains, diary, nuts, seeds).  And aim to also include 5-6 serves of fresh veg and 2 serves of fresh fruit.

What are some easy ways to reduce or moderate meat intake?  Reduce your portion sizes and aim to include a day a week where you do not eat meat.

Ciao Jan