Red meat: for and against

Judith Wills / 05 November 2015

Judith sees red over recent research into the effect of red meat on health.

I’ve never thought of myself particularly as a reactionary, but there I was, the other night, lovingly tending the slowly roasting, herb-encrusted, garlic-filled shoulder of lamb in the oven, the kitchen filled with wonderful aromas.  And I didn’t feel guilty for one second.  

Not on health grounds, for sure.  Lamb is red meat.  And the latest food scare story is that we should be wary of red meat – not just the processed kind, full as it is of additives, nasty chemicals, colourants, salt and may have been, goodness forbid, smoked or charred as well – but fresh red meat, too.  

Now I’m not the type of person who eats a great hunk of meat every day – small amounts a few times a week do me fine – and as I get older I find my capacity to down a steak, for example, is diminishing.  But that’s personal taste – not for a moment do I believe that my meat-eating habit is making me ill, giving me disease or shortening my life.

This conviction is partly because, having been around a long, time time in the world of healthy eating and nutrition and having also been a journalist, author and researcher for many years, I have both an old-fashioned filing cabinet full of conflicting reports on the benefits or otherwise of meat, and I have a huge computer folder now too.  

Research into how processed and red meat consumption affects health

Indeed, in the very week that the World Health Organisation and researchers from Oxford University have come down against processed and red meat consumption on the grounds the first is linked with cancer and the second may, possibly, be too, what do I find but a study published at the end of August which found that eating a steak every day is as good for you as cutting out smoking, reduces blood pressure and improves arterial health?

And, a month earlier, another study from the USA said ongoing research shows that red meat may be particularly useful for older people to increase stamina and energy because of the carnitine it contains, and a study published in 2013 found red meat can also boost brain performance because it is rich in carnosine. 

Oxford University researchers have found that non-meat eaters and vegans were likely to be deficient in the important vitamin B12 which helps protect us from memory loss and brain damage.  And several recent studies find that the fats in red meat may not be so bad for our hearts after all.  Indeed, a huge study by the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition has found more or less the opposite to the WHO conclusions – those with the lowest mortality rates were people who regularly ate red meat.

Learn more about the health benefits of vitamin B12

And so on.  The point being that whichever side you’re on – for or against meat eating – you can find convincing evidence that it’s good or bad for you.

So what is one to do?  I decided some years ago, after researching my book The Green Food Bible, that I would always choose red meat – and indeed chicken – that had led as natural a life as possible and had been farmed locally.  

Thus my shoulder of lamb was from an animal which spent much of its life roaming freely on the Welsh hills near me and sold by my local butcher, who also supplies occasional gorgeous salt marsh lamb from the coast of the Gower peninsula.  His meat has never seen a permanent pen, a concrete floor, regular antibiotics or a diet of dubious food such an animal would not normally eat.

We also eat red meat no more than twice a week, plus poultry and game twice a week, fish twice a week and one vegetarian or vegan night a week too.  We enjoy eating this way and the variety ensures we get all the nutrients we need and not too much of any, either.  

Lunch is vegetable/pulse soup in winter, salad in summer, and breakfast almost always organic yogurt with fresh fruit, oats, nuts and seeds.  

Read more about healthy breakfasts

I realise not everyone can source meat like I do but everyone can get that kind of variety into their diets.  Our red meat meals (the occasional roast aside) often contain masses of veggies and beans too (e.g. a hearty Italian type casserole or the meatballs below) so we cut down on the amount of meat that way too, and save money – important as local/organic/grass fed meat will be more expensive than most of the cheap imports or factory farmed meats you’ll find in the supermarkets.

And how do I feel about all the conflicting stories?  The truth at the moment is that yes, there is a lot of research to back up the statement that processed meat is carcinogenic if eaten too regularly but no, the jury really is still out on red meat – and so if you enjoy it, eat it moderately and try to buy the best meat you can.   It tastes better, too – which is, in my book, extremely important!

Ate last night:  some of the leftover lamb roast bulked out with chickpeas and other tasty things.  Very easy, healthy and and tasty.

Judith's lamb meatballs with tzatziki

Lamb and chickpea meatballs with pitta and tzatziki

Serves 2

  • 175g leftover lamb shoulder, minced or finely chopped
  • 100g cooked chickpeas, mashed
  • 20g fine wholemeal breadcrumbs
  • 1 small very finely chopped or minced onion
  • 1 clove garlic, very well crushed
  • ½ tsp each ground cumin, coriander and sumac (or a pinch of cinnamon if you can’t find the sumac)
  • 1 tbsp each finely chopped fresh parsley and mint
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • A dash of milk 

Combine all the ingredients in a mixing bowl, adding just enough milk to soften.  Form the mixture into 8 balls, place on baking tray and bake for 15 minutes at 180C or until golden.  Serve with wholemeal pittas, slices of ready-roasted red peppers, salad leaves, and natural yogurt mixed with diced cucumber, mint and seasoning.

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