Red meat and fat

Last updated: October 2015

Red meat and fatAn excessive consumption of fat and saturated fat, in particular, is considered a health risk.  It is associated with an increased risk of heart disease and some cancers.  It is also more likely to result in excessive energy (calorie) consumption because high-fat foods are energy dense and usually very palatable.  This can result in excess weight gain.  

It is particularly important to consider intake of the various types of fats or fatty acids as they are known.  There are three different types of fatty acids; saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.  Each has different effects on blood cholesterol levels.  High blood levels of cholesterol are linked with an increased risk of coronary heart disease (CHD).  In general, saturates are thought to have an adverse effect on blood cholesterol, whereas unsaturates (monounsaturates and polyunsaturates) are beneficial and thought of as ‘cardio protective’.

Fat Consumption in the UK
In the UK, the actual consumption of fat has fallen considerably over the last 30 years, and on average we meet Government dietary targets.  However, the average intake of saturated fat for both men and women is still higher than recommended.  The government would like us to reduce our saturated fat intake by approximately 5g per person per day.

The main sources of saturated fat in the UK diet are fat spreads, fat used in pastry and baked goods, fatty meat and meat products, and dairy products made from whole milk.  To reduce intake of saturated fat, select lean cuts of meat, reduced fat spreads and dairy products, and reduce intake of pastry and baked goods.   

The Fat Content of Red Meat
Contrary to popular belief, lean red meat does not contain high levels of fat or saturated fat.  The total fat content of red meat has been considerably reduced over the last 40 years and the amount of fat in red meat is actually much lower than most people think.  

The application of improved animal breeding and butchery techniques means that fully trimmed lean red meat typically contain between 4g - 10g of fat per 100g. Despite common reference to animal fats as being ‘saturated’, red meat contains both saturated and unsaturated fats. Indeed, lean beef and pork contain more unsaturated fat than saturated fat.   Red meat also contains small amounts of omega-3 polyunsaturates, which help keep the heart healthy, especially in people who’ve already had a heart attack.

Saturated Fat
Originally, all saturated fats were thought to be associated with increased blood cholesterol, but it has become apparent that individual saturated fatty acids differ in their effect.  One of the main saturated fatty acids present in red meat is called stearic acid and there is evidence that this fatty acid has no adverse effects on cholesterol levels in the blood

A food is defined as ‘high’ in saturated fat if it contains 5g (or more) saturated fat per 100g.  A food is defined as ‘low’ in saturated fat if it contains 1.5g (or less) saturated fat or less per 100g.  Most lean red meats are, therefore, not high in saturated fat and contain only moderate amounts (see table below). 


Saturated fat content, per 100g, lean cooked red meat

Red meat cut
Saturated fat
Lean beef rump steak, grilled 2.5g
Lean beef topside 2.1g
Lean stewing beef 2.3g
Lean lamb loin chops, grilled 4.9g
Lean leg of lamb, roasted 3.8g
Lean stewing lamb 6.5g
Lean diced cubed pork 1.6g
Lean loin chops, grilled 2.2g
Lean pork leg, roasted 1.9g

Source:  McCance & Widdowson 1995

In addition, we can further reduce our intake of total fat and saturated fat from meat by choosing healthier preparation and cooking methods.

Key Tips

  • Where possible, select lean red meat
  • Trim off any excess fat before cooking
  • Grill rather than fry
  • Avoid adding extra fat and oil
  • Dry-fry mince and stewing meats and discard any melted fat
  • Consider portion size: larger portion sizes will have a higher fat and saturated fat content.
  • The addition of vegetables, pulses or fruit will help bulk up dishes and reduce the total fat and saturated fat content of a dish per 100g.
  • Check the labels on processed meat products and select the lower fat option

Nutrition Labelling
Much of the saturated fat we consume comes from processed food: for example, ready meals, pies, bacon, burgers and sausages.  Some are composite foods containing other ingredients such as pastry that will add to the saturated fat content.  When choosing processed meat products compare the nutrition labels of similar products and select the lower saturated fat option.  

The Guideline Daily Amount (GDA, sometimes featured on food labels) for saturated fat is 20g /day for women and 30g/day for men (for the purposes of nutritional labelling, an adult GDA of 20g is used).   Moderate portions of lean red meat provide relatively small amounts of saturated fat as a proportion of the GDA.  For example, a 100g serving of lean roast beef topside would contribute 2.1g of saturated fat or just over 10% of the GDA

In Conclusion
Today, red meat is much lower in fat and saturated fat than many people think.  Most lean red meats are not high in saturated fat and contain only moderate amounts.  In addition, evidence suggests that stearic acid, one of the saturated fats found in red meat, has no adverse effect on blood cholesterol levels.

Carefully checking the nutrition labels on meat products, choosing lean cuts of red meat, trimming off any visible fat and cooking in a healthier way will help to reduce the fat and saturated fat content further ensuring that red and processed meats can be enjoyed as part of a healthy balanced diet without undue concern about the contribution they are making to our fat and saturated fat intake.

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