Healthy eating trends have been tough on meat. But that doesn't mean you have to ban it from your balanced diet

Remember when Sunday’s leg of lamb was the culinary highlight of the week? Slow-roasted all morning, it slipped off the bone and was served with sticky roast potatoes, juicy gravy and a feeling of great anticipation. Then after lunch the grown-ups napped and the kids spent the afternoon squirming with boredom.

The rules changed over the last few decades – particularly for the leg of lamb, which slid off the Sunday-best pedestal to find itself the prime suspect in a range of lifestyle diseases including heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension and obesity. Some studies even implicated animal fats in cancers of the stomach, breast, colon and prostate.

In recent years, it also came to the fore that our carnivorous lifestyle has long-term, large-scale implications for the planet. Did you know that producing just 250g of beef uses the equivalent of 11 years' drinking water for one person?

On the other hand, there’s now a movement away from cereals and grains towards meat and fat in the diet. Some experts argue that a meat-rich diet could be beneficial in carbohydrate-intolerant people. Other experts say the scientific back-up just isn’t there yet.

So, what should and shouldn’t you be doing when it comes to eating meat?

The facts and the fats
Right now, what we can say is that red meat is essential for a balanced diet, says nutritionist Jeske Wellman. It’s one of the main sources of iron, calcium and the B vitamins, particularly B12. Plus it's our primary source of high-quality protein, which is essential for growth, immunity and healthy hair and nails.

On top of that, says Wellman, red meat contains significant amounts of good fats that can, in fact, lower cholesterol and protect your heart. But when it comes to its fat content, meat isn’t altogether innocent.

Recently, the Harvard School of Public Health released a statement to say that fat doesn’t cause heart disease.

Dietary fat can be good, but it can also be bad and sometimes downright nasty.

Mono- and poly-unsaturated fats are the good fats. They lower bad cholesterol (the LDL or low-density lipoprotein that causes arteries to narrow and harden) and mono-unsaturated fats further increase good cholesterol (the HDL or high-density lipoprotein that collects excess cholesterol and carries it back to the liver). Poly-unsaturated fats also contain omega-3 fatty acids that protect against cancer and heart disease.

Saturated fats, on the other hand, are used by the liver to manufacture cholesterol and have been linked to several cancers, including breast cancer. These fats are easy to spot because they're solid at room temperature – think of the layer of fat on a leg of lamb or the marbled fat you can see in a steak. In short, it's the saturated fats in animal products that give meat a bad name.

The really nasty fats are trans fats – artificial fats used in processed foods across the world (although less in Australia, thanks to strict regulations). Trans fats are formed when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil in a process called hydrogenation. They’re more solid than oil and therefore less likely to spoil, which means food containing trans fats stays fresh for longer. But that's probably the only good thing about them.

Trans fats can lead to heart disease and they hit cholesterol levels with a double-whammy – raising the bad LDL and lowering the good LDL levels. They also interfere with the body's ability to use the good essential fatty acids. So scour product labels for the words “partially hydrogenated” and stay away from these trans-fat-containing foods.

Cured and pickled meats don't only contain trans fats, but also more salt than fresh meat. That's why they should be avoided by people who suffer from hypertension, says Wellman. To make matters worse, eating smoked, pickled and cured meats very frequently can activate dormant cancer cells.

Manage your meat
There are three rules of thumb for making meat part of a healthy diet. Firstly, choose white meat over red because it contains less saturated fats, and secondly give preference to animals with an active lifestyle.

"Venison are better red-meat choices because they’re much leaner than mutton or beef," says Wellman. This makes sense if you consider that a sheep or cow grazes lazily all day long while a deer spends at least part of the day on the run.

The third rule is to watch your portion size and the frequency of meat intake – in other words, don't overdo it. Nutritionist Jeske Wellman recommends limiting your intake to four servings of meat per week, with each serving the size of the palm of your hand or a pack of playing cards. "There are no good or bad foods." Wellman explains. “Certain foods should just be eaten in smaller quantities."

If you must eat fast-food meats, always go for grilled options. McDonalds, for instance, has added grilled options to their menus. And, since portion sizes are so important, no super-sizing! "Even if the meat is grilled, fast foods usually still contain more salt and saturated and trans fats than home-cooked meals," Wellman continues. “It’s wise to eat fast food no more than once a month rather than once a day.”

When cooking meat at home, the golden rule is to use as little fat as possible. “Roast, steam, stew or stir-fry meat using a very small amount of oil – no more than one teaspoon per person – or fat-free liquids such as stock, wine or lemon juice,” says Wellman. “Also remove visible fat and, in the case of chicken and turkey, the skin before cooking, so the fat doesn't seep into the meat.”

Fortunately it's safe to grill meat on the barbeque – as long as you don’t burn it (good advice for any cook). “The carcinogenic potential of meat lies in the carbon that's produced when the meat is charred,” Wellman explains.

So, with a bit of planning and thought, those sizzling chops and steaks can stay on your menu. And as for the leg of lamb, it’s still on for Sunday lunch, provided you stick to a portion the size of your palm.

The gravy and roast potatoes? Now that's another story...


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