Healthy meat: your questions answered

A healthy meal of meat and vegetables

If you like to eat meat, it’s important to choose healthy meats, explains Senior Dietitian Victoria Taylor.

Is meat bad for you?

There are benefits of eating meat. Meat is a nutritious source of protein, providing us with essential amino acids and a range of micronutrients, including iron, vitamin B12 and zinc.

However, meat is a major source of saturated fat. Too much saturated fat is linked to increased non-HDL (‘bad’) cholesterol – a risk factor for heart and circulatory disease.

Processed meats also come with added salt and other preservatives. 

Eating meat can have an impact both on our health and the environment, which is why it’s important to make the right choices – and why more people are choosing to cut down.

What is red meat?

Beef, lamb, pork and goat are red meats. 

Chicken and turkey are white meats.

Nutritionally speaking, there isn't enough evidence to class game such as venison, rabbit, pheasant, quail, partridge, guinea fowl as either red or white meats. But we do know that they tend to be lean meats - in general they are lower in fat and saturated fat than red meats.

Is red meat bad for you?

Government recommendations for meat consumption are based on evidence that red and processed meat can increase our risk of bowel cancer, but we also know that eating a lot of these meats is associated with a greater risk of heart and circulatory diseases.

It is recommended that people who eat more than 90g of red and processed meat per day should reduce this to 70g or less.

It is recommended that people who eat more than 90g of red and processed meat per day should reduce this to 70g or less. There is no official guideline on the amount of white meat we should be eating, provided your diet is healthy and balanced overall.

Are sausages bad for you?

Sausages, bacon and ham are all processed meats. This is any meat that has been preserved by methods other than freezing, such as salting, smoking, air drying, marinating or heating. It also includes salami, corned beef and tinned meat, as well as packs of cooked chicken or turkey slices where salt or other preservatives have been added. It does not include plain minced meat, where nothing has been added. These meats come with salt and other preservatives. Too much salt is linked to raised blood pressure – another risk factor for heart disease and stroke. The other preservatives used in processed meat (such as potassium nitrate) are linked to an increased risk of bowel cancer.

Is chicken good for you?

Chicken and a salad

White meat such as chicken and turkey is lower in fat, especially the breast. But it’s still important to remove any skin – preferably before you cook it – as this is where most of the fat is. This fat is saturated fat and we should try to reduce the amount of saturated fat that we eat. Turkey mince is a healthier alternative to beef mince or lamb mince in dishes such as bolognese, chilli or meatballs.

Is liver good for you?

Liver is a nutritious food – it’s rich in protein, iron and a range of vitamins. Liver is sometimes avoided by people with heart and circulatory diseases because, like eggs, it’s a source of dietary cholesterol. However, just as with eggs, when it comes to your cholesterol it's more important to swap the saturated fat you eat for unsaturated fats. Be careful about the way liver is cooked – in butter or with a creamy sauce or turned into pate will add saturated fat, and watch out for the bacon that it's often served with.

Pregnant women are advised to avoid liver because of its high vitamin A content, but for the rest of us it’s fine to include liver as part of a healthy, balanced diet if you like it. 

Choosing lean meat

If you’re having red meat, choose the leanest cuts and remove any visible fat. When it comes to beef mince or lamb mince, opt for ‘lean’ or, ideally, ‘extra lean’. Check the total fat content per 100g on the nutrition panel to get the lowest-fat option.

If you’re having red meat, choose the leanest cuts and remove any visible fat.

It might be more expensive but you’ll be getting more meat for your money, rather than fat. 

When you cook your meat, use unsaturated oils (such as olive, rapeseed or sunflower oil) so you’re not adding back the saturated fat you’ve avoided. Fat does add moisture to our food, so avoid drying out your meat through over-cooking and serve it with a tomato-based sauce.

How to cut down on meat

Chicken and vegetable stew 620x400 ss noexp 

Eating lots of meat means that there is less room in your diet for other foods that have health benefits – fruit and vegetables, beans, pulses and fish. Swap some meat in your diet for vegetarian alternatives to lower your saturated fat intake. You’ll also benefit from extra fibre, while beans and lentils are a good source of iron, which you might be getting less of if you eat less meat.

Having meat-free days also creates opportunities to try new recipes and make sure you are eating fish. Try to have one white and one oily fish portion each week.

If you want to cut down on the amount of meat you are eating – but don’t want to miss out on texture and flavour – try using less meat in a stew or curry and bulk it out with added lentils or beans. This also works for mince dishes, such as chilli, bolognese, shepherd’s pie or lasagne.

Rather than focusing on what you’re cutting out, try to concentrate on the positives – the additional fibre, vitamins and minerals that these non-meat alternatives offer.

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