Can one imagine what it would be like to have a serving of the much adored dish of Biryani without a generous smattering of mutton pieces? Can chicken, however well done, ever replace a lard dripping, lip smacking piece of steak, served rare or otherwise?
Probably not, although if medical researches would have us believe, the risks we take while enjoying our portions of red meat, would be considered suicidal at each bite. Medical practitioners and researchers are unanimous about their views about red meat. Numerous studies carried out by various institutes such as University of Leeds, University of California, The John Hopkins University, The American Cancer Association, all have found evidence of the fact that intake of red meat increases the risk of cancer of the colon, lungs, breast and even stomach. Yet red meat remains the favourite option for many tables around the globe. The reasons for it to be so do not just run into fulfilling gustatory sensations or abundance and easy availability of the product; in fact red meat does fulfill a lot of our dietary requirements that other foods do not do as much.However there is a lot more to the story than what we know about red meat...in fact there are deep recesses of ill health accompanying every piece of red meat that we savour.
Red Meat – A Definition
Red meat according to gastronomical definitions is any meat that is red in colour, especially in a raw state. It generally includes the meat of all adult mammals and includes the meat of beef, mutton and horse. The meat of duck and goose is also included in this category.
The nutritional definition includes the meat of mammals in its ambit. This however is slightly misleading as not all mammal meat may be red in colour. It may also be white as certain non mammal meat that may be red in colour.
This brings us to the conclusion that it is all about colour and perhaps texture and fat content that makes a meat red or white. The colour after cooking could change, but by and large, beef, mutton, pork and horse are considered red meat.
The ambit of red meat also leaves out all kinds of seafood and fish and categorizes them under a different group.
So what makes red meat ‘red’ in colour? Does it change with cooking? Does it remain unchanged after keeping it for a while?
The reason for red meat to be so is due to the presence of a substance called myoglobin. In all kinds of red meat myoglobin is more in proportion than the hemoglobin component and this is what gives red meat its distinct colour. In fact it is the presence of myoglobin in certain parts of the chicken and other ‘white meat’ that contributes to a darker colour in those areas.
In fact myoglobin and hemoglobin both contain atoms of ferrous iron which has a high oxygen absorbing capacity. In fact it is this that allows tissues to absorb oxygen from the blood stream. Therefore every time an animal such as goat, cow or horse is slaughtered, the oxygen in the air is absorbed by the myoglobin, (essentially the iron atom that is present) and this lends the meat a typical red colour.
The presence of myoglobin should not be confused with the presence of cholesterol. Not all red meats are known to be high in cholesterol although the colour of the meat is distinctly red. For example, ostrich meat, considered red is also very low in cholesterol. Hence the presence of myoglobin just gives the meat its colour and does not have any thing to do with its components, taste or texture.
Red Meat and Your Health
Red meat and the dreaded 'C' word go hand in hand and the C in this case refers to cholesterol, clogged arteries, cardiovascular impairments and of course cancer. Red meat is a nightmare for most persons, especially those over the age of 35 years who are considered a ‘High Risk Group’. During this time the body’s fat muscle ration changes and this sets innumerous weight related problems. Red meat adds to the bad cholesterol risk.
Medical practitioners are also quick to decry the use of red meat in diets on grounds that it exposes the person to fatal diseases as colon, lung, breast and stomach cancer. Even homeopaths and those in the alternate healing profession recommend the disuse of red meat as it is supposed to carry with it the ‘negative effects’ of the animal and its surroundings and the manner of its death.
So is it time to totally exclude red meat altogether from the diet? Do red meats house certain benefits? If not red meat then what are the other alternatives in food that are available?
Red Meat- The Benefits
Contrary to most prescriptions, red meat is not so seriously lacking in nutrients. Inn fact red meat stands out for being one of the very few carriers of vitamin B12.
In addition, red meat is full of zinc, which is an essential component for the growth of a healthy immune system. In fact red meat broth, soups and other preparations which combine the goodness of red meat with herbs, condiments, spices and vegetables are known immune boosters, especially decongestants and so hugely recommended for children in the growing ages or those who suffer from influenza, and other respiratory conditions.
Red meat also contains more of iron than other foods and is highly recommended for people who are anemic since the iron contents in the meat are more easily absorbed.
It is also an important source of various vitamins and minerals along with phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, selenium and by far the most important component for a developing body – protein.
Protein is immensely useful for building the muscles and tissues and overall development of the body. The amino acids are the building blocks of the protein components and red meat is a rich contributor in this regard. In fact a single portion of red meat is enough to fulfill half of a day’s protein requirement.
So red meat is often touted as a super food especially in terms of its protein, iron and zinc contents.
Which brings us to the question: Is one at a risk of protein iron and zinc deficiency if one does not eat red meat? In other words, can we replace it with other products, especially plant derivatives?
Red Meat – Not So Good For Your Health
Medical practitioners do not take a very charitable view of red meat and can cite plenty of reasons to avoid red meat. Some of the often cited reasons to avoid red meat is cancer, especially of the colon and breast; high incidence of uric acid and subsequent arthritis, osteoporosis, higher incidence of cholesterol and fat leading to cardiovascular diseases and even the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Red Meat and Cancer
Colon and Bowel Cancer
Red meat does contribute to the incidence of colon cancer. It also can be a contributory in bowel cancer. In fact people who are red meat eaters are at three times the risk of getting bowel cancer as compared to those who did not consume red meat. In fact the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, used data from a long-running study of the diets of more than half a million people across Europe to reach to this conclusion.
The results matched those of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) which found that the risk of developing bowel cancer for people who regularly ate more than two portions of red and processed meat a day was a third (35%) higher than for those who ate less than one portion a week. Poultry was not found to have any risk in this regard. Fish on the other hand was seen useful in lowering the risks of bowel cancer. “The risk of bowel cancer dropped by nearly a third (30%) for people who ate one portion or more of fish every other day - compared to those who ate fish less than once a week”.
The research and published answers gave an overall picture of a variety of populations in Europe, a predominantly meat eating continent and their health status. The results have been consistent with hypothesized notions that meat eating ups the risks of bowel cancer. Other risk factors also included in the study were smoking, obesity, lack of exercise and higher intake of alcohol. The study proved that the current diet of the people in European countries that included meat with a variety of beer or wines was potentially harmful.
Professor Tim Key, Deputy Director of Cancer Research UK's epidemiology unit, said the study strengthened evidence that bowel cancer risk could be cut by increasing fibre in the diet and reducing consumption of red and processed meat. “Around 35,000 cases of bowel cancer are diagnosed each year in the UK. We estimate that more than two-thirds of colorectal cancer cases - 25,000 cases in the UK - could be avoided by changes in lifestyle in Western countries" he added.
Endometriosis, which generally happens to women and results in irregular discharge of menstrual blood resulting in tissue growth in the inner lining of the uterus, is also found to rise with a higher intake of red meat. Endometriosis can lead to infertility which makes it a much feared proposition. It is caused due to a high intake of red meat and a simultaneous low intake of vegetables and fruits.
Red Meat and Stomach Cancer
The Karolinska Institute of Sweden has studied 15 studies which followed patients with stomach and pancreatic cancer over a period of 40 years. Since the time span was so huge and the number of studies included was also high, the results were considered authentic and hard to dismiss. The study showed the link between stomach cancer and consumption of processed meat which in most cases are preserved with the help of a deadly poison called carbon monoxide. This again sets off health hazards of its own which are usually compounded by a diet of red meat.
Red Meat and Breast Cancer
Researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) have found that eating more red meat may be associated with a higher risk for hormone receptor–positive breast cancers in premenopausal women. This research is published in the Nov. 13 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine. The study studied the consumption patterns of the subjects between 1991-2002, in the age groups of 25-45 years and found that the red meat formed a major part of their diet. The rising estrogen levels and progesterone levels have some part to play in developing breast tumours which became carcinogenic. The real linkages are still unclear; however this has spawned a whole body of work in this area.
Red Meat – Promoting Fat and Cancer
The World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research, have also contributed to this growing body of research which shows just how badly one can be affected by red meat. The research conclusions drawn after studying the consumption patterns of people over 5 years indicates that excess body fat and red meat are significantly linked to an increased risk of several types of cancer. The reason for the above linkages between body fat, especially around the waist and cancer is owing to the fact that fat cells produce more of estrogen and growth hormones which are known to increase the incidence of cancer. Red meat increases the cholesterol and fat levels leaving the body open to cancer. Additionally, the iron and fats and the very high proportion of protein may also contribute to the disease.
Red Meat and Cholesterol
Red meat is thought to be intrinsically fatty and so contributes to building up of bad cholesterol. In comparison to white meat, red meat has about three times the fat content. A 3 ounce of beef steak has about 24 grams of fat and this for a same quantity of chicken has about 3 grams of fat.
However this can be rectified if ‘lean’ portions are served. Lean means cutting out the external fat before cooking. This leaves the meat with a low fat content. Several clinical studies do show that lean meat, cooked in ways such as grilling or roasting with minimal oil can actually heal in reducing bad cholesterol and promoting weight loss. One such study was conducted by the Chicago Center for Clinical Research, The Johns Hopkins University Lipid Clinic, and the University of Minnesota. In this study, 191 men and women were asked to eat 6 ounces of meat per day for an entire week. Half the group was put on a lean meat diet while the other half was put on a white meat diet. The results at the end of three months produced no significant differences in the red and white meat groups. In fact both had reduced their levels of bad cholesterol and increase their good cholesterol. Alternatives to Red Meat
Does this all mean that one should give up on red meat and eat plant derivatives only for the rest of one’ life?
Red Meat and its Consumption - A matter of Choice
For those raised on meat based dishes find the choice very difficult to make. Also switching sides is a matter of personal choice and gustatory dictates are very hard to outdo and outgrow. Compounding the choices at hand is made even more difficult by conflicting views on the matter. Some nutritionists are of the opinion that red meat may be actually good for individuals health and those who do not eat red meat are actually risking their health.
Professor Robert Pickard, Director General of the British Nutrition Foundation, said that a vegetarian diet was not natural for mankind. His views are based on the fact that man is an omnivore who has been blessed with the capacity to eat both meat and vegetables since the body contained enough bacteria to help digest both. Leaving some of the bacteria idle could lead to disuse and open up a wide range of immunity based diseases. In fact the body mechanisms as the jaws, teeth and the gut are evolved to also digest meat suggesting that mans body also required meat. Proffessor Pickards argument contained that since man ate meat, he loaded himself with a higher energy quotient making him come on the top of his environment and the dangers present in it in due course of time.
Professor Pickards theorization is myopic in its observation and explanation about mans capacity to deal with his environment adeptly as it completely disregards the use of his mental faculties to this end. This makes the theory only partial in its explanation. It also does not regard the alternate sources of protein, iron and fibre that is available that can take care of dietary requirements of the body.
In fact Ian Tokelove, a spokesman for the Food Commission in UK, set up to provide information on healthy diets to the consumer, refused to back Professor Pickard on grounds that although meat does play a significant role in ones diet, it is not the most essential element of the diet and there are equally good alternatives. Hence the answer is to cut back on red meat and not cut it out totally if one cannot stand the thought of a meal without some kind of meat.
Also it is advisable to switch to other kinds of meat that are not as potentially risky in terms of fat content. Leaner portions and alternate meat of fish and other sea food can be just as useful. In fact introduction of seafood in the diet can be actually beneficial in terms of lowering the risk of bowel cancer.
Red meat thus is not the only way to get the shot of protein, zinc and iron in one’s diet. Plants and eggs along with sea food can also do the trick if one is open enough to trying out these alternatives.
Protein: A well balanced vegetarian diet is what is recommended to get the adequate dietary allowances of protein, vitamins, zinc and iron. So far as protein is concerned, a single serving of meat provides about 25 grams of protein which is roughly one half of the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA). This means that the red meat eater gets more than the recommended share of protein. Excess protein leads to diseases like arthritis, osteoporosis and other such ailments due to the excess of uric acid in the blood stream.
Vegetarians on the other hand can get their dose of protein from various pulses, legumes and milk products. In case one has no problems with eggs, they can go ahead and consume it as egg is considered one of the finest sources of protein. For those who are not into eggs and suffer from lactose intolerance, grains and vegetables are adequate to meet the protein needs. In fact a cup of beans provides about 15 grams of protein. Also half cup of grains or vegetables provides about 3 grams of proteins. Hence the body does get proteins that are useful for growth, repair and development of tissues and muscles, yet it is within acceptable limits and does not pose a risk to the health of the person.
Consuming plant derivatives to fulfill protein requirements comes with a reminder. If one is on a diet and there is a significant calorie reduction, then the protein needs swing up and too much of protein can pose health risks as shown earlier. Hence it is in the benefit of overall health and well being that the calorie count is also kept in check.
Iron: Iron is an important component for the body and especially for persons with a low hemoglobin count. Anemia is considered more rampant in women and poor and ill balanced nutritional patterns are blamed for the same. Red meat is considered very rich in iron, especially the liver and recipes as liver curry is prescribed for anemic women and pregnant and lactating mothers. However too much of iron can increase the risk to cancer and heart disease. Hence red meat as a source of iron should be consumed in moderation.
Plant based food also significantly contributes to the iron intake of the individual as they are rich in non heme-iron (Red meat contains heme iron) and are known to contain more iron that the meat based diets. However they cannot be absorbed very easily by the body and so should be used in combination with vitamin C to aid absorption. Hence while cooking green vegetables as spinach or cabbage or beans, one ought to put some bit of tomatoes or lemon juice into the pan to up the ability of the body to use the iron in the vegetable.
Another thing is to avoid the use of calcium since it mitigates iron absorption present in the greens. Whole grains are an extremely good way to get the required amount of iron among other things and are a kind of super food for children since little ones need a good amount of iron in their bodies for healthy growth and energy. Other additions to the food place that can also contribute to iron will be legumes, dried fruits as figs, apricots, almonds, raisins, dates, tomatoes and potatoes, both with their skins. So there is little need to wholly depend on red meat for the iron content.
Zinc: Where red meat does score over vegetarian food is in the evidence of zinc and the body’s ability to absorb this for its use. Zinc is present in plant sourced food, but the body cannot absorb it as much. However there are several sources of zinc that one can enjoy if one does want to avoid red meat, like, bran flakes and cereals, chick peas, nuts, seeds, especially peanuts and brazilian nuts, tahini, milk, and milk derivatives as curd, cheese and cottage cheese.
It is more than evident that red meat does not have any nutritional attributes that justifies its singular dominance on the food plate of an individual.
A Final Comment
In today’s world there is a huge amount of emphasis on healthy life and lifestyles to the extent that enormous amounts of money are spent on research. There are a host of people’s action groups also working towards this cause making people aware of what is healthy and what is not. So how much should one take and how much should one leave out? What are the choices an individual truly has amidst all these pronounced evils? It seems that there are no straight answers to the above question and not even vegetarianism or veganism or a non-vegetarian fish based diet has been able to provide with an ‘all-correct’ menu.
Also a lot of health practitioners out there are also of the view that the studies did not account for corn fed beef and grass fed beef. According to some practitioners grass fed beef is actually as good as fish in its omega content. What to take and not take is made even more difficult with such conflicting views.
Therefore the answer lies in making intelligent choices, essentially have a bit of everything, go easy on the oil, consume leaner cuts and eat smaller morsels and above all do not forget to exercise. It’s a one life most of us have and it makes every sense to take some chances with some foods and certainly thoe that we really love or are used to eating.
The mantra therefore remains to cut back, not cut out and for pronounced evils such as red meat for this is the only way to enjoy it without inviting the evils attached to it.