Explainer: Is eating meat healthy?

Australians are the world's second biggest meat eaters, consuming on around 92kg of meat per person per year. Dietician Karen Inge explores the place of meat in our modern diet and the health benefits and risks associated with it.

Is eating meat healthy?

Yes and no. It really depends how often you eat meat, whether it is fatty or lean, the size of your meat portion, what else you eat with the meat or whether eating meat displaces other important foods like vegetables, as well as how you cook the meat and whether it is commercially processed. 

Meat itself is a highly nutritious food, especially lean meat. It is an excellent source of body-building protein. Red meat in particular is a rich source of easily-absorbed iron, zinc and vitamin B12 - so important for energy, cognitive function, immunity and nerve function.

But you don't have to eat meat to be healthy. A vegetarian diet has been associated with a lower risk of heart disease, type 2 diabeteshigh blood pressureobesity and overall cancer rates compared with a diet containing meat.

And when we consider what evidence suggests is one of the healthiest omnivore diets in the world - the Mediterranean style diet - meat, especially red meat, does not feature heavily at all. It is much more plant-based, with an emphasis on vegetables, legumes, whole grains, herbs, nuts, extra virgin olive oil, red wine and fish.

This is in contrast to the typical Australian diet. Here, we consume - on average - around 92.5 kg of meat per person per year, of which around 50 kg is red meat.

According to the latest OECD figures, this places us as the second biggest meat eaters in the world after the USA. In terms of red meat consumption alone, we’re also second, behind Uruguay. Although we appear to be moving away from red meat and towards chicken, Australians are still eating too much red meat.

You can see  how your meat consumption compares to the national recommendations via the National Nutritional Calculator published by National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC Publications). 

Protein: how much do we really need?

Protein is not an 'at risk' nutrient in the Australian diet. Generally speaking, Australians are consuming adequate amounts of protein. People who may be at risk of not meeting their protein needs are vegetarians or vegans who are not following a balanced, plant-based diet; those following strict weight loss or very high-carbohydrate, high-fibre diets; and socially disadvantaged or elderly people living alone.

The actual amount of protein we need depends on our age, gender, weight, physiological state (ie growth, pregnancy and lactation), physical activity and health status. The recommended protein requirements for an average man aged between 19-70 years is 64 g per day (0.84 g/kg body weight). This increases for men over 70 to 81 g per day (1.07 g/kg body weight). For a woman aged 19-70, protein requirements are 46g per day (0.75 g/kg body weight), increasing to 57 g per day (0.94 g/kg body weight) for women over 70 years of age. Pregnant and breastfeeding women need 60 g per day (1 g/kg body weight).

Some people may confuse this figure with the actual weight of a serve of a protein-rich food like meat. Protein-rich foods are not 100 per cent protein. They contain water, fats and in some cases, carbohydrates and fibre. 

Here are some common protein-rich foods and their protein counts:

1 egg = 6 g protein

250 ml milk = 11 g protein

200 g yoghurt = 10 g protein

30g cheese = 8g protein

65 g cooked beef, chicken, pork = 20 g protein

80 g fish = 18 g protein

100 g lentils/legumes = 6-8 g protein

25 g nuts = 6 g protein

We tend to eat most of our protein at the main meal, but it’s better to distribute our protein intake more evenly throughout the day, including a variety of protein-rich foods at every meal. This appears to be important for muscle synthesis and satiety.

Do Australians eat too much meat?

According to the latest Australian Health Survey, most Australians do not meet the recommended number of serves for each of the five food groups each day. Interestingly, only one in seven Australians is consuming the minimum number of serves of lean meats and meat alternatives per day, but each week, we consume estimated 565 g of red meat - 24 per cent higher than the 455g recommended by the Australian Dietary Guidelines.

So what does this all mean? Put simply, we are not eating enough of the healthy choices within the ‘lean meat and meat alternatives’ group, nor getting enough variety.  

It’s important to note that less healthy choices like processed meats, meats included in hamburgers and pies, sausages, frankfurts, battered fish and the like are not included in the lean meat and meat alternatives group. These are classed as ‘discretionary foods’, alongside sugary drinks, high-fat, high-salt snack foods, confectionery, alcohol and other foods with little or no nutritional value. And yet, our intake of these foods is far too high. In fact, we get more than 30 per cent of our total kilojoule intake from foods which are energy-dense and nutrient-poor. 

We also need to consider what we’re not eating when we over-consume red meat and discretionary foods. For instance, over 50 per cent of Australians are not eating the two or more serves a day of fruit recommended, and only 7 per cent of us are eating the recommended five serves of vegetables each day. Only 5 per cent of Australian adults are meeting both guidelines.

The dangers of eating too much meat

The two main health issues associated with a high consumption of meat are heart disease and bowel cancer. With heart disease it is the concern that fatty meats are a significant source of saturated fat in the diet and can increase the level of LDL cholesterol in the blood. Even though the saturated fat/cholesterol connection has become controversial, the Heart Foundation's position remains firm that diets high in saturated fat increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and recommends avoiding fatty meats.  

Most saturated fat in meat is on the outside of the meat, or under the skin in poultry. The fat within the meat, or ‘marbling’, may be acceptable (ie higher in omega 3 fats), or not, depending on what the animal has been fed. Grass-fed animals tend to have less saturated fat and more omega 3s within the meat, but even animals that have been ‘finished’ with grain in Australia tend to have lower levels of saturated fat within the meat than US and European meat, where the feed is different. However, even if lean meat does contain some omega 3s, compared with oily fish, the amount is very small. 

The association between red and processed meats and bowel cancer risk appears to be consistent. In fact the World Cancer Research Fund advises limiting red meat to less than 500 g per week with very little (if any) to be processed. Red meat refers to beef, lamb, pork, kangaroo and goat. Processed meat refers to meat preserved by smoking, curing or salting or the addition of chemical preservatives, like bacon, salami and ham.


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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.

How much meat should we be eating?

The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating recommends we limit our red meat intake to no more than 455 g per week, or 65 g cooked red meat per day. That's about two small lamb chops with the fat trimmed. It may be easier for meat lovers to limit their intake of red meat to three to four times a week and have a slightly larger serving.

It is also worth considering expanding your meat repertoire to include more offal, such as liver and kidneys, which are very rich sources of iron and Vitamin B12. And keep in mind that the ‘lean meat and alternatives’ group also includes fish, seafood, eggs, poultry, nuts and legumes. Aim to make half of your choices from this group.

Women aged between 19-50 need two and a half serves of meat and alternatives a day, while men aged 19-50 need three serves. One serve is 65 g cooked, lean red meat; 80 g cooked lean poultry; 100 g cooked fish or seafood; two large eggs, one cup of cooked or canned legumes or 30 g of nuts and seeds.

So what do I do if I want to eat less red meat?

Five-spiced potatoes with egg make a great meal for breakfast or dinner. 

If you want to cut down on red meat, but are worried about your nutrient intake, you could substitute other meats, or eat slighter larger serving sizes of poultry and fish and other seafood. Consider eating more eggs, too, which are a great source of protein and many other important nutrients. And oily fish is a much better source of omega 3s than other meats, making it an excellent choice for heart health and inflammatory conditions.

Even though oysters and mussels are excellent sources of iron and zinc, they are not exactly everyday foods for the majority of Australians. It is so much easier to meet your iron and zinc requirements when you eat red meat. So, when you reduce your red meat intake you need to be mindful of balancing your diet to not only meet your iron and zinc requirements, but also ensure you combine the right foods together, to enhance absorption of iron and zinc, particularly from plant sources.

Let me explain. Legumes and green leafy vegetables are good sources of iron; but to enhance absorption, you need to eat a food high in vitamin C at the same time. So having a spinach salad with chickpeas, cherry tomatoes and a lemon juice dressing will help with iron absorption.

Animal protein increases zinc absorption, with the exception of dairy, which is slightly inhibitory. But meeting zinc requirements if you are vegetarian is more challenging. Whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes are good sources of zinc, but the phytates in these foods can inhibit absorption, so it can be helpful to soak these foods before cooking. If you are vegetarian you will need to eat 50 per cent more zinc in your diet to absorb the amount you need.

Meeting vitamin B12 requirements will only be a problem with vegan diets as this vitamin is widely available from animal sources. There are some soy and grain products that are fortified with vitamin B12, and it is thought that some fermented products may contain traces of Vitamin B12.


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The problem with high-protein, low-carb diets

Fad diets are like fashion...they get recycled, but each time they come back, there’s a slight twist that lures you into thinking this is a hot new trend!

In the ’80s, Australians replaced our ‘meat and three veg’ with huge portions of pasta and rice dishes. We not only ate less protein, but we ate fewer vegetables as well. This is in contrast to the healthy Mediterranean and Asian diets which both include pasta and rice, but also include very large quantities of vegetables.

Low carb diets have probably been the most ‘recycled’, and that's because cutting out carbs like grains and starchy vegetables also means you cut out all the refined products like white bread, biscuits, cakes, doughnuts, pastries, confectionary, soft drinks, ice cream, pizzas, hamburgers, chips, potato crisps… do I need to go on?

Of course, on these diets, you will lose weight, improve your blood sugar levels and feel better by reducing your intake of these foods. However, you will more than likely get the same health benefits in the long term by including controlled portions of nutritious, carbohydrate-rich foods like legumes, whole grains, starchy vegetable and fruit.

It is an unnecessary restriction to eliminate whole food groups from the diet unless there is a medical reason to do so. And cutting out carbs can also mean cutting out a major source of dietary fibre which has a prebiotic function in the gut. We are only beginning to understand the vital role that our gut flora plays in immune function, weight management, mood status and bowel function.

Some research suggests that it is not just the amount of meat we eat but also the other foods we eat with the meat that matters. Eating meat as part of a diet rich in vegetables, herbs and spices, fruits, whole grains and nuts provides protective bioactive compounds. The Mediterranean diet is an example of a dietary pattern that includes moderate meat serves but is higher in non-red meat options such as fish, legumes, poultry, vegetables, extra virgin olive oils, fruit, whole grain cereals, nuts and dairy foods. The health benefits of this style of eating are well documented.

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The 21st century dinner plate

Lean kangaroo meat and roasted vegetables tick the 'healthy' boxes in this couscous and pumpkin salad.


More and more, we understand that vegetables need to be the hero of our meals - meat is no longer the main player. Plan meals around a wonderful array of seasonal, colourful vegetables, packed full of vitamins, minerals, dietary fibre and antioxidant power; flavour them with fragrant herbs and spices; drizzle them with extra virgin olive oil and other healthy oils; add toasted nuts, seeds and avocados to help absorb the fat-soluble antioxidants; and ensure that we all have at least five serves every day. Fill a quarter of your plate with nutritious grains and starchy vegetables, leaving the last quarter of the plate for lean meat or meat alternatives like offal, pork, kangaroo, poultry, fish, eggs, legumes and nuts.

We need to be more conscious eaters, carefully choosing what we eat, keeping in mind nutritional value, seasonality, sustainability and environmental issues. We need to know how our food is produced, how the soils and animals are looked after and where our food comes from. We need to understand how much we need to eat to maintain our health and not consume excessive amounts. We also need to learn how to prepare food to ensure it tastes delicious; and lastly we need to enjoy the pleasures of the tables with others. Happy eating!

Find dietician Karen Inge on twitter @KarenInge


Matthew Evans is back in his brand-new series of Gourmet Farmer starting Thursday August 3 at 8pm on SBS. Visit the Gourmet Farmer program page for recipes and to find out more about the show.