Red Meat and Health
Lean red meats, including beef, pork and lamb, can play an important part in a healthy balanced diet as they have a high nutrient density. This means that they contain a wide variety of nutrients in a relatively small amount of food.Meat is a major source of protein. It also contributes minerals and trace elements to the diet, particularly zinc and iron. It is an important source of B vitamins, including B12, which is not found naturally in foods of plant origin.
Meat is a major source of protein which helps to improve satiety and fills you up for longer. This makes protein-rich foods excellent for helping to control our weight so that we don't become overweight or obese.
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Iron is a vital mineral for red blood cell formation. A deficiency of iron in the diet is the most common dietary cause of anaemia. Certain groups of the population are at particular risk because of poor iron intakes. Currently a quarter of females aged 19-64 in the UK have iron intakes below the minimum amount to stay healthy.
The type of iron found in red meat (haem iron) is more easily absorbed and used by the body than the iron in plant foods such as pulses, nuts, seeds and leafy green vegetables (non-haem iron).
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Zinc is important for the healthy functioning of the immune system, growth, wound healing and fertility. Red meat is a source of readily absorbable zinc. We get about 30% of our dietary intake of zinc from red meat and meat products.
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Red meat also provides other minerals such as potassium and for pork, selenium. Selenium is an important antioxidant, which has been linked to reducing the risk of heart disease and certain cancers.
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Red meat is a source of a number of B vitamins: B3, niacin, B6 and B12 - a vitamin which is not found naturally in foods of plant origin and is important for healthy red blood cells, growth and the production of energy. It has also recently been found to make an important contribution to vitamin D intakes. Vitamin D works with calcium and phosphorous to build strong bones and teeth.
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The fat content of red meat has been considerably reduced over the last few decades and the amount of fat in red meat is actually much lower than most people think.
These reductions have been achieved by breeding techniques on the farm and new butchery techniques, which trim off most of the fat.
Fully trimmed lean raw beef typically contains only 4.3% fat, fully trimmed lean raw pork only 4% fat and fully trimmed lean raw lamb only 8% fat. This compares well with a food such as cheddar cheese which contains an average of 34% fat.
About half of the fat found in red meat is in the unsaturated form that is believed to be healthier. Surveys show that meat is a major contributor of mono-unsaturated fat in the diet. Choosing lean cuts of meat and trimming off any visible fat helps to reduce the saturated fat content further.
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Red meat contains very small amounts of omega-3 fats, which help to keep the heart healthy. With the exception of oil-rich fish, few foods contain good amounts of omega-3s. This makes the small amounts in red meat an important source, especially for people who eat little or no oily fish.
Fresh red meat is naturally low in salt. Processed meat products, such as burgers, do have higher levels but are consumed on average just once a week*.
*TNS Family Food Panel Annual Lifestyle Survey