Red meat and weight management

Last updated: October 2015

Red meat and weight managementCarrying excess weight is a well established risk to health and as the numbers affected continue to increase it has attracted considerable interest and concern. 

The causes of excess weight gain are not clearly understood.  However, if you eat or drink foods which provide more energy (calories) than you use up in your daily activities, some of the fat, protein, carbohydrate or alcohol will be converted into body fat and stored.  

Weight may be lost by deceasing energy intake or increasing physical activity or both.  Conversely, weight may be gained by increasing energy intake, or decreasing physical activity or both.  So a combination of food intake and activity levels or exercise, are key to weight management. 

Appetite Control
Appetite is one of a complex number of factors that influences our food intake.  Our understanding about appetite control and the role that protein plays is growing. Numerous studies now indicate that diets higher in protein, including diets containing lean red meat, are associated with better weight loss and weight maintenance.

Protein has been found to contribute to our feeling of fullness (satiety) more than fat and carbohydrate. 1 Improving satiety helps restrict our subsequent food intake, reducing the temptation to snack.  Incorporating additional lean protein into a calorie-reduced moderate fat diet, as well as improving the palatability of the diet also improves your ability to stick to the diet.    

Energy Density
As well as boosting protein intake to support weight management, the concept of energy density may be a useful alternative to counting calories.  Calorie counting has been shown to be difficult to sustain owing to feelings of deprivation.  

By understanding the energy density of foods, you can reduce your calorie intake while still eating enough food to satisfy your appetite.  The energy density of a food is the number of calories per gram of food.  Lower energy density foods include fruit, vegetables and starchy carbohydrates.  These have been shown to make people feel fuller for longer and should make up two thirds of the diet.  

Those with a high energy density, containing relatively high levels of fat, should be consumed in smaller quantities.  The energy density of the diet overall is determined by the balance of the foods consumed. 

People on a lower energy density diet have been found to lose more weight than on a standard low fat diet, without feeling hungrier, or restricting the total amount of food they eat. 

Reducing the Energy Density of the Diet 
There are a variety of ways to reduce the energy density of the diet.  For example, eating only small portions of fatty foods, increasing the water content of dishes, eating more fruits and vegetables, choosing higher-fibre foods and choosing lean sources of protein such as red meat will all contribute to reducing energy density.  Cooking using the minimum amount of oil and including vegetables or pulses in meat recipes will help to reduce the energy density of the final dish. 

A low energy density diet can include some foods with a high energy density, provided plenty of foods with lower energy density are eaten too. Portion sizes of high energy density foods should be kept small, or they should be eaten less frequently.  Also, combining very low and medium energy density foods in a meal makes the food lower in energy density overall.

Energy density classification
Very low - 0-0.6kcal/gram. Eat big portions of these; most fruit and vegetables soups,  salads

Low - 0.6-1.5kcal/gram. Make up most of what we eat  and can be eaten in satisfying portions.  Plain cereal-based foods, low fat dairy products, lean meat and pulses.

Medium - 1.5-4kcal/gram. Portion sizes should be controlled and eaten alongside lots of low energy density foods.  Oily fish and fattier meats, lasagne, pizza, fried chips, jam.

High - 4.0 -9.0kcal/gram. These should be eaten in small portions or eaten less frequently.  Oils, butter and full-fat spreads, chocolate, fried snacks, roast nuts, regular hard cheeses, crackers, biscuits) 

Key Tips  

o    Fill up on fruit and vegetables 
o    Choose lean sources of protein such as lean red meat 
o    Include vegetables or pulses to bulk out meat recipes
o    Cook using the minimum amount of oil
o    Select mainly low density foods and eat in satisfying portions  
o    Choose high fibre wholegrain foods
o    Replace some white bread and pasta with lean meat
o    Include some medium density foods in the diet, but control portion sizes
o    Eat less fat and fatty foods
o    Replace high fat meats and dairy products with lower fat versions
o    Choose tomato-based sauces instead of creamy ones
o    Replace sugars from soft drinks with protein from low fat milk
o    Eat less sugar and sugary foods
o    Go easy on alcohol
o    Increase physical activity

In Conclusion 

Lean red meat is a major source of protein and higher protein diets can help with weight management as they help with hunger management and appetite control. Together with considering the energy density of the foods and selecting a greater proportion of lower energy density foods it is possible to feel full on fewer calories.

Some cuts of lean red meat and red meat dishes have a low energy density. This means that they can usefully contribute to a palatable healthy balanced diet to aid successful weight loss and management.

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1 Stubbs RJ et al Eur J Clin Nutr, 1999:53 (1): 13-21