Should you eat red meat?

To meat, or not to meat? DL mag dietitian and diabetes educator Dr Kate Marsh explores the research on red meat and diabetes to help you decide where meat fits into your eating plan.
Four pieces of red meat, such as a cut of a steak, cooked and skewered on a fork.

Plant-based diets have been increasing in popularity over the past few years. At the same time, many people are adopting a keto diet and some, the more extreme carnivore diet. So which approach is the right one for your health?

The pros and cons of eating red meat

Red meat is a good source of protein and other key nutrients, including iron, zinc and vitamin B12. The iron found in red meat is also readily absorbed, which can help with increasing iron stores and reducing the risk of iron-deficiency anaemia. But when it comes to our health, eating red meat also has some downsides.

At least 25 studies looking at the relationship between meat intake and the risk of type 2 diabetes have been published, and the majority have shown a positive association, meaning that the more meat you eat, the higher your risk of diabetes. The highest risk is with processed meats, likely because of the chemicals used in processing, but unprocessed red meat also appears to be a problem. 

A 2021 meta-analysis combined the results of 15 studies and compared participants with the lowest intakes of red and processed meats with those with the highest intakes. They found that the risk of type 2 diabetes was 27% higher for processed red meat and 15% for unprocessed red meat.

The association between red meat and diabetes may be one of the main reasons that vegetarian diets are associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes and have been shown to help with diabetes management.

High intakes of red and processed meats are also associated with a higher risk of other chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer, particularly bowel cancer.

Why is red meat a problem?

There are several components of red meat which might explain the link with diabetes risk and other health issues. The most well studied is the iron in red meat, known as haem iron. This type of iron is well absorbed by the body, which is why red meat is usually promoted as the best source of iron. The downside is that too much iron is a problem and unlike plant sources of iron (called non-haem iron) whose absorption depends somewhat on our body’s iron stores, haem iron absorption isn’t controlled and can build up and contribute to disease risk. Both haem iron intake from our diet and high iron stores in the body have been linked with type 2 diabetes risk and the risk of gestational diabetes.

High intakes of total protein and animal protein, but not plant protein, have also been found to be associated with an increased risk of T2D. However, switching red and processed meats for other sources of animal protein, including poultry, seafood, eggs or dairy foods, appears to reduce the risk. This suggests that if you are cutting down on animal protein, the greatest benefit for your health will come from reducing red and processed meats.

More research is needed, but there is also some evidence that dietary advanced glycation end products (AGEs) and trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO) may play a role. TMAO is formed when the bacteria in our gut metabolise choline and carnitine, nutrients found in large amounts in red meat. AGEs are discussed further below.

Ways to include red meat into a healthy eating plan

If you enjoy meat, you don’t need to cut it out altogether, but cutting down may benefit your health. Current research suggests the greatest risks appear to come with processed meats, so these are best avoided, or kept for special occasions. Instead, choose small amounts of good quality, lean unprocessed meats. And balance out your plate with plenty of vegetables.

You can reduce your intake of meat while still enjoying the taste by replacing some of the meat in your favourite meals and adding plant protein in its place. For example, you could add lentils or beans into mince, strips of tempeh or edamame beans in a beef stir-fry, chickpeas in a lamb curry, and beans or lentils in your favourite meat-based casseroles and stews.

The way you cook your meat is also important. When meat is cooked at high temperatures and the meat is browned or charred such as grilling, barbecuing and roasting, compounds called dietary advanced glycation end products (AGEs) are produced. While more research is needed, some studies have shown an association between dietary AGEs and cardiometabolic risk, including risk of type 2 diabetes, due to an increasing inflammation and oxidative stress. AGEs may also contribute to diabetes-related complications. You can reduce the formation of AGEs by cooking with moist heat, using shorter cooking times, cooking at lower temperatures, and by use of acidic ingredients such as lemon juice or vinegar. Examples including slow cooking, poaching, stewing or stir-frying meat rather than grilling or roasting. And if you enjoy meat on the barbecue, marinate the meat first and include some lemon juice or vinegar in the marinade.

Tips for switching red meat for plant protein

Unsure how to get started? Here are a few easy ways to replace the red meat in your meals with plant protein:

◆ Switch beef mince for brown lentils in dishes like spaghetti bolognaise, meatloaf, and shepherd’s pie.

◆ Try bean or chickpea patties rather than meat patties in your next burger.

◆ Replace beef mince in Mexican dishes like tacos and nachos with black beans or red kidney beans. Or you can buy canned chilli beans.

◆ Substitute beef strips with marinated tofu or tempeh in a stir-fry. Tempeh has a chewy, meat-like texture but also a stronger flavour than tofu.

◆ Lentils and chickpeas work well as a meat alternative in Indian-style curries.

◆ Use legume-based pastas (made from lentils and chickpeas) and add some tomato passata or pesto and your favourite vegetables for a quick, easy plant-based meal.

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