Red meat is one of the foods that, on the whole, tends not to get a vote of confidence from health agencies and health professionals. The case against this food is mainly based on the (I think, misguided) belief that eating saturated fat and cholesterol cause heart disease. After this, we have the idea that red meat causes bowel cancer. See here for some of science which simply does not support such a link.
Anyway, I’ve noticed recently that red meat has been undergoing a mini-rehabilitation in the eyes of the public. I suspect commercial interests are having some hand in this, though it has to be said that the idea that dietary saturated fat and cholesterol are not linked with heart disease is really starting to take a hold in many people’s minds.
But how about red meat as a health food? Don’t laugh, because as I wrote about here, meat contains a rich stash of nutrients, some of which are truly essential to health and life. If I were offered either meat or blueberries to eat exclusively to sustain me for as long as possible I would honestly choose meat.
One nutrient that red meat is rich in is iron. This nutrient is an essential component of the constituent of red blood cells called haemoglobin that carries oxygen around the body. Iron deficiency can cause of low haemoglobin levels (anaemia), which can lead to a serious sapping of our sense of mental and physical well-being. I was reminded of this when I came across this story this morning in the Daily Mail (a mainstream national newspaper here in the UK).
It’s essentially a case study of a woman – Kate – who gave up eating meat on health grounds. It appears, as a result, she ended up anaemic and seriously low on energy. Kate was also a regular exerciser, which may have some relevance (see later). Back eating some red meat, and with the help of an iron supplement, Kate experienced restoration in her energy levels and wellbeing.
Now, case studies can be interesting, but they can also be somewhat misleading. Not this one though, because it mirrors a situation I quite commonly encounter in practice. In the real world, anaemia associated with iron deficiency is seen relatively frequently in female vegetarians. And its not that uncommon in female non-vegetarians either. The cause of the iron deficiency is, usually, the result of low intakes from the diet coupled with monthly losses in the form of menstrual blood.
The story about Kate reminded me, though, that while iron deficiency may cause anaemia, it is possible for iron deficiency to cause problems even in the absence of anaemia. Even when haemoglobin levels are maintained at normal levels, low levels of iron can cause individuals to suffer for fatigue and listlessness. See here for a post which shows that iron deficiency in women can slow mental function. I referred to the fact that Kate was a regular exerciser because exercise has been found to lower iron levels in women. See here for more about this.
The bottom line is this: it’s important to check and monitor not just haemoglobin levels, but iron levels too. See this post for more about this.
I’m a big fan of certain iron supplements for getting iron levels towards something optimal, but some red meat would not go amiss for non-vegetarians and those who are not averse to eating it. I think Kate said it right when she commented: “I now know I need more than spinach and lentils to stay healthy.”