Nutritional value of red meat

Today someone asked me ‘what is the nutritional value of red meat’ (in a person’s diet).  Good question!  Unprocessed red meat includes a number of elements vital for human health. Nutrition and human health is an incredibly complicated field; research results often throw up conflicting views, some of which are later discredited. Above all – there is still so much we don’t know. However here’s a few of the immutable facts:

  • Iron – essential for healthy blood, so oxygen can be moved around the body efficiently by the red blood cells.
  • Zinc – vital for maintenance of strong bones and helps keep the immune system strong.

Red meat is one of the best sources of iron and zinc in the average Australian’s diet. Many Australian women are iron deficient, which leads to tiredness and anaemia (amongst other things). The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) currently recommends girls and women increase the amount of  red meat included in their diet on a weekly basis as the average female Australian’s diet is deficient.

  • Omega-3s fatty acids (grassfed livestock, particularly) – brain function; anti-inflammatory etc
  • Protein – for body structure (muscles, etc)
  • B group vitamins (niacin, riboflavin, vitamin B6) and phosphorus – essential for metabolism (converting food into energy)
  • Vitamin B12 – essential for good brain and nervous system health.  Last month I met a former vegan who explained why they now eat meat. They developed severe memory issues, sought medical advice, and discovered a rare, extreme Vitamin B12 deficiency which was having a devastating impact on their brain. Fortunately medical treatment brought about recovery. She explained that most people have no idea just how vital Vitamin B12 is for human brain health.  I didn’t know either until I was told what a severe deficiency causes, by someone who has experienced it; and I didn’t know red meat was such an important dietary source.

No single food item has a monopoly on any particular nutrient. So yes, all of the above-mentioned nutrients can be obtained from non-meat sources. However, it does take a lot more care and attention to ensure adequate intake of sufficient amounts of the above nutrients, if meat is not eaten. In addition, some nutrients contained in red meat are in a specific form that is better absorbed by the human body, than the form in which they are present in other food sources.  For example iron in red meat, which is much more readily absorbed by the body than iron in plants.

The easiest way to ensure the healthiest diet, long-term, is to eat moderate amounts from as wide a range of unprocessed foods as possible. Including lean meat on the daily menu can help keep excess weight off too. This is because meat takes longer to digest than other foods, so it staves off hunger pangs, making it easier to resist the urge to snack on rubbish tucker between meals.

Another side benefit: by eating from as wide a range of food sources as possible, you will be spreading the effect your existence has on the planet. People who do not eat meat are putting more pressure on monoculture crop growing systems, which are devoid of native plants and animals (as distinct from grassfed livestock production systems, where native animals co-exist in harmony with domestic livestock).

If you are concerned about native plant and animal preservation, soil and water quality, sustainable food production and/or animal welfare – the best thing to do is ensure you’re buying produce grown in the most sustainable and humane way possible. One of the best ways to do this is to ensure you’re buying Australian-grown produce, because environmental, health and animal welfare laws are much stricter here than most other countries.  If you’re in a larger town or city, the luxury of farmer’s markets are a good option, because you can talk to food producers directly.  Not everyone has this option however – so the bottom line is – read labels carefully.

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