Thursday, November 21, 2013

Red meat – friend or foe?

by Dr Carrie Ruxton
The Meat Advisory Panel recently conducted some research with healthcare professionals to find out their views about red meat in the diet, and to determine what advice should be given to patients about including red meat in their diets. Here's a snapshot of the survey findings.
Four out of five healthcare professionals expressed a favourable view about the contribution red meat makes to a balanced diet and, when asked about meat intake levels, 46% didn’t think people were eating too much and most thought the right approach was to persuade people to switch from processed meats to leaner, fresh cuts of red meat.

Given the number of ‘scaremongering’ media reports when it comes to red meat, it was encouraging to see that 94% of respondents would not change their diet or patient advice on the basis of media coverage of red meat. Of these, two in five said that they would pay no attention while over half said they would check out the evidence before taking a decision.

A large majority (70%) also told us that they were sceptical about claims that red meat causes conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. This opinion corresponds with the Meat Advisory Panel’s view, given that most of the studies reporting associations between red meat intake and disease risk or mortality, arise from the US where meat consumption is far higher than in the UK.

The studies also do not correct adequately for other factors that can influence disease risk, such as high intakes of fat and alcohol, low physical activity levels, or low intakes of fruit, vegetables and fibre. Overall, there is no credible evidence that red meat causes heart disease and, indeed, lean red meat is a source of selenium and vitamin D which have been associated with reduced risk of chronic conditions such as heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes.

Navigating through confusion
One area of concern was the general agreement from healthcare professionals that patients are confused about the differences between lean red meat and processed meat. This is a key point with regard to media articles about meat as many studies actually involve high intakes of processed meat, which tend to be higher in salt and fat, rather than healthier lean red meats. Often this is not made clear in the resulting press stories which adds to patients’ confusion about whether lean red meat is a healthy choice (it is!).

When looking at the role lean red meat has to play in the diet, healthcare professionals recognised that the ‘reduce meat’ message wasn’t appropriate for everyone. When asked who should be advised to eat more red meat, they suggested vulnerable groups at risk from low nutrient intakes, such as those at risk of iron deficient (66%), children and teenagers (28%), pregnant women (22%) and elderly people (22%).  Less than 35% would not advise an increase for any groups and over 23% would not advise any groups to eat less meat.

Public Health advice
Healthcare professionals have an important role in helping patients navigate conflicting information about red meat in the diet and, given the results from our research, it appears that healthcare professionals consider lean red meat to be very much a friend in a balanced diet.

Let us know what you think about the role lean red meat has to play in the nation’s health. Do you think it is an important part of a patient’s diet?

If you are a healthcare professional, what do you think of the findings? Do you provide diet advice to patients? Do you advise them about their red meat intake? Email with your thoughts.