• Michael Mosley in his home with a plate of red meat and processed red meat. (BBC)Source: BBC
Dr Michael Mosley cuts through the conflicting studies about how eating red meat affects your health.
Alyssa Braithwaite

25 May 2017 - 9:31 AM  UPDATED 15 Nov 2017 - 9:21 AM

Red meat has got a lot of bad press recently. 

News reports have proclaimed many health risks associated with eating beef, lamb and pork, with headlines such as 'Red meat increases risk of dying from 8 diseases', 'Red meat is bad for you, just like smoking' and 'Want to live longer? Hold the red meat'. 

But according to Dr Michael Mosley, the host of Trust Me I'm A Doctor  and Should I Eat Meat, the war on red meat is a little unfair.

Watch Should I Eat Meat here or on SBS On Demand (article continues below):

Not only is red meat a great source of protein, says Dr Mosley, beef is an excellent source of iron and vitamin B12, which help produce healthy blood cells and are essential for brain development.

"I do think the dangers of red meat have been seriously overstated," Dr Mosley tells SBS. 

"If you have the grass fed stuff I think it's fine."

So how does he explain a 2012 study by Dr Walter Willett from the Harvard School of Public Health which found that that eating 85 grams of unprocessed meat per day (the size of a small steak) increases your risk of dying early by 13 per cent, while a 2013 European study found that eating moderate amounts of red meat had no effect on mortality?

Dr Mosley says the reason there have been so many conflicting studies about red meat comes down to where the studies were conducted and what the animals have been eating.

"A lot of the studies suggesting that meat is bad for you, red meat in particular, have been based on American studies," he says.

"When you look at what American cattle is fed, [it's full of] growth hormone and antibiotics. Some of it is grass-fed but the majority of the meat that Americans eat is finished off in these enormous great sort of centres down in Texas. They're fed this sort of green stuff, but that's only because they add food colouring to it. 

"I've been down to visit them, and they quite happily show me the huge amounts of antibiotics and growth hormone they put in." 

Studies conducted in Europe have had contrasting findings.

"The studies done in Europeans who mainly eat grass-fed beef and meat have suggested that red meat is broadly neutral, and maybe even slightly beneficial because of the iron content and things like that," Dr Mosley says.

So the questions you should be asking before you buy your steak are: Where has it come from? How was the meat reared? What was it fed on?

"If it was fed on loads of antibiotics it's extremely unlikely it's going to be wonderfully healthy for you," he says.

"And that's part of a rather encouraging message. It essentially says we should care about the animals we're eating and what they were eating in turn, because that is likely to impact on you and your gut biome."

But here's the bad news. The same can't be said for bacon, burgers and sausages. As Dr Mosley reports in Should I Eat Meat? (Thursday May 25 at 8.35pm on SBS), eating more than 40g of processed meat per day does have a negative effect on health, and rates of heart disease and cancer start to go up.

The World Health Organisation has classified the consumption of red meat as "probably carcinogenic to humans" based on "limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans", while processed meat is classified as "carcinogenic to humans" based on "sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer". And not all processed meats are the same, with cancer risks varying from one product to the next. 

Eat well: Not everything gives you cancer, but processed meat can
A new study from the World Health Organisation has grouped processed meats, like bacon and sausages, into the same cancer-causing category as tobacco, asbestos and alcohol. Red meat fared slightly better, but the results raise serious concerns about the modern diet.

In the show, Dr Mosley puts his body on the line and found that upping his consumption of bacon sandwiches and hamburgers increased his blood pressure, cholesterol and weight. 

"I'm not urging you to eat hamburgers because I think the case against processed meat is still quite strong," Dr Mosley tells SBS. "Though I still eat processed meat sometimes. But not very often."

"And I'm not encouraging you to eat vast amounts of red meat. I think there is something quite interesting to be said about flexitarianism - having a few meat-free days - and that's what I'm attempting to do now as well.

But it seems a steak here and a lamb chop there are not about to send you to an early grave.  

Watch Should I Eat Meat on SBS On Demand, and look for The Truth About Meat, Thursday 1 June  8.35pm on SBS. 

More articles on meat
Love meat too much to be a vegetarian? Go 'flexitarian'
If you'd like to cut down your meat consumption, but can't give it up entirely, #MeatFreeWeek may be the push you need. Here’s what science says about the health benefits of a flexitarian diet.
What meat should I buy?
For a meat eater who cares about the planet and the welfare of animals, it's a jungle out there. There are so many choices. Matthew Evans has some suggestions on what to buy.
Explainer: Is eating meat healthy?
Dietician Karen Inge explores the place of meat in the modern Australian diet and the health benefits and risks associated with it.
Do we eat too much meat?
Australians eat heaps of meat – more than almost any other country on earth. Matthew Evans says it’s time we had an honest discussion about whether that’s a good thing.