• Red meat has been linked to cancer and obesity, white to health, but it's complicated
The health benefits of red and white meat have for long been surrounded with debate and suspicion.
More so red meat, with many leaning on white meat as the preferred healthy option. However, dietary specialists would argue otherwise.
What is the difference in nutritional value between white and red meat?
The nutritional component in meat is proteins and the content on proteins in white meat is basically the same as that of red meat.
It is also important to note that most types of meat are considered white meat when they are indeed red meat. Meat like pork been mistaken to be white meat, while it's actually red meat.
What determines if meat is red or white is the myoglobin concentration. Myoglobin is the equivalent of haemoglobin in edible animals. Red meat is meat that has a high concentration of myoglobin, which gives it the red colour.
The iron available in red meat is higher and more readily available to the body for you than the kind of iron found in white meat. If your intention is to boost your haemoglobin levels, it is important to include red meat in your diet, especially the organ meats (liver, kidney and heart).
Another difference is that fat content in red meat is high in saturated fats, while white meat, especially fish, is high in poly-unsaturated fats.
Is meat essential for an adequate diet?
Meat is very essential. It doesn’t mean one cannot live without meat, but when it comes to accessing necessary nutrients, it becomes better to make meat part of your diet.
Proteins from animal products, including meat, are also easily digested, and the amount of amino acids that will end up in your blood stream is more compared to the same volume in plant proteins. Plant-based proteins do not contain all amino acids, and most vegetarians will supplement with other animal-based proteins like milk and eggs.
Does meat cause weight gain/obesity?
Meat is a source of proteins in the diet. If you exceed your requirement by eating larger portions of meat, the extra is converted to fat for storage, which is what leads to weight gain. It is important to monitor the portions of meat you consume to match your protein requirements.
Meat is also rich in fats. Meat has been associated with excess intake of calories that can lead to weight gain and obesity. We normally recommend lean red meat (meat with little fat). For chicken, it is recommended that you remove the skin, which contains a lot of fats, before you prepare the meat to minimise fat intake.
Meat consumption has also been associated with other unhealthy lifestyle habits, especially alcohol intake. This is also a catalyst for weight gain.
For those working on losing weight, skipping meals is not an advisable weight loss strategy as it leads to rising levels of cholesterol or having a higher body fat percentage in your body.
Dieticians will help in planning individualised diets that would help in portion control and weight management.
Do vegans miss any nutrients, given that they don’t consume meat?
The most prominent nutrient in meat that vegans will lack is vitamin B12. In some instances, especially for strict vegetarians, they will also lack calcium, which can be compensated with supplements. It is also advisable for vegans to include cereals in their diet because the plant sources of proteins that is legumes or pulses have incomplete proteins that need to be complemented with proteins from cereals to make them complete.
Is meat carcinogenic – able to cause cancer?
This depends on whether it is fresh or processed red meat. The World Health Organisation categorised processed meats as carcinogenic, but excess consumption of red meat was said to be a possible cause of cancer. Processed meats include sausages, hams, hotdogs, deli meats, and so on.
There are several causes of cancer, and it does not mean that all those who eat processed meat will have cancer. Just the same way not all who smoke will get cancer.
For instance, taking rice and beans might appear healthier than taking rice and beef, while in reality, they take more carbohydrates in excess than they actually need. The excess carbohydrates will then be converted into fats then mostly attach to the walls of the arteries, leading to blocked arteries and eventually heart disease.
How bad is the cholesterol contained in meat?
All animal-based foods have cholesterol. Current research has found trans fatty acids, which are also contained in animal-based foods, more so the red meats, to be a health hazard more than cholesterol.
The cholesterol in food that is associated with cardiovascular diseases is currently low to be synthesised by the body, especially when the diet is high in refined carbohydrates, like sugar, cookies, cakes, and so on.
Boiled, deep-fried, fried or roasted meat: Which is healthier?
Whether you boil, roast or fry meat, what determines how healthy your meat is, is the leanness. Boiled meat with a lot of fat would be unhealthier compared to roasted lean meat. It’s also known that roast meat is associated with cancer, but generally, boiling would be a better option compared to frying and roasting as long as the meat is lean.
Does refrigeration of meat affect nutritional value?
Any food that you take should be as close as possible to its natural form because it always loses its nutritional value with time. Refrigeration does not prevent food from losing its nutrients either, so foods should be consumed while fresh. Refrigeration or freezing only slows the process of food degradation but does not stop it completely.
Valentine Otieno is a consultant dietician at the Aga Khan University Hospital, Nairobi