A major new Harvard University study, conducted on over 120,000 people, has revealed that simply by eating one extra portion of red meat a day can increase our risk of contracting a fatal cancer by 13%, and raised the likelihood of developing heart disease by 16%. The Harvard study took anecdotal evidence of Americans and used the data of what they ate on a daily basis, then correlated how their eating habits compared with illnesses in later life. It was discovered that amongst red meat, some of the worst culprits were processed meats such as bacon, sausages and burgers. And apparently, simply by adding two rashers of bacon or one sausage to a breakfast increased a person’s chance of premature death by 20%. So should we be worrying ourselves out of eating red and processed meats? The problem with the Harvard study is that it only looked at meat-eating and nothing else. Americans are notoriously overweight, eat much larger portion sizes than UK citizens and eat more meat as part of their everyday diet. In the UK, the Department of Health recommends we all have no more than 2½oz (70g) of red meat a day. To quantify this, it would mean you could eat a roast dinner on Sunday, bangers and mash on Monday, a burger on Tuesday, a steak on Wednesday and the rest of the week would be fish or poultry. Some people in the UK do not even manage to consume this amount of meat whereas in the US it is much more.
And meat should not get such a bad rap. It is full of iron and a great source of protein and B vitamins. In fact, many evolutionary anthropologists believe that it was our switching from eating grains to meat that caused our brains to become larger and evolve into the more intelligent humans we are today. It is true that meat does contains harmful elements such as saturated fats, but eaten in moderation, it also provides essential nutrients that can actually protect us against ailments like cardiovascular disease. Meat contains nutrients like iron, zinc, omega 3 fatty acids, unsaturated fats, vitamins D and B3 and selenium. In some parts of the UK’s population there are already too little of these nutrients in peoples diets. Lack of iron causes anaemia and proper levels of zinc are essential for growth in childhood and fighting off infections. Another reason to doubt the Harvard findings is that the meat eaten by US and UK consumers is different. Cattle in the US are fed on grains whilst here the in UK we fed our cattle on grass. This makes a huge difference in the quality of meat produced. Richard Young, of the Soil Association, states that in studies, it has been shown that grass-fed cattle have had higher levels of beneficial omega 3 fatty acids compared to grain-fed livestock. And UK data suggests that most Britains do follow the UK guidelines of eating the proper amount of red meat, being 70g for men and 52g for women.
As with all things, moderation is the key perhaps. To cut down on a couple of bacon butties if your diet is particularly unhealthy anyway, is not going to make much difference. There are many other factors healthwise that you can choose to do that will increase your chances of longevity. Giving up smoking is probably the most important lifestyle choice you can make. As is getting proper exercise and eating a balanced, healthy diet. As for me, I’m off to get a nice 8oz steak for my tea!