Newspaper article reminds us of red meat’s nutritional value

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.”

10 Responses to Newspaper article reminds us of red meat’s nutritional value

  1. Megan 22 February 2011 at 6:35 pm #

    This appears to be a re-run of the story put out by the World Cancer Research Fund UK in February 2009.

    The ‘research’ that report was based upon was, well, non-existent, to put it politely.

    This is how I blogged then and now:- –

    I’m waiting with bated breath to see what new ‘research’ they have come up with …

  2. Mathew 23 February 2011 at 2:35 am #

    Would be interested to know what the optimal level of iron in, particularly in women 30-40. My wife recently had her iron levels checked, and was told they were normal, but I suspect they may be sub optimal.

  3. John Briffa 23 February 2011 at 12:38 pm #


    I like to get ferritin levels above about 50 (that’s way above the normal low end of the reference range, by the way).

  4. Chris 24 February 2011 at 7:35 am #

    Looking at matters from the evolutionary perspective then I think there is good reason to think if our distant ancestors (progenitors) had persisted with a predominantly vegetarian diet of bulky plant matter yielding low energy density and had not learned to exploit potential foods from the carcasses of animals then our kind would spend more time with our knuckles far closer to the ground than they do now.

    The trend over three or more million years of evolution is one of an enlarging brain and shrinking gut. Since large brains require lots of energy they would seem, all things equal, incompatible with shrinking guts. I think the idea that our anatomy evolved with an evolving diet is a profound one. Changes were slow and incremental of course, but there is good reason to think our distant ancestors learned to exploit the potential in more energy dense food sources, including meat, and learned to render those novel sources more digestible by developing increasing ability for ‘pre-consumptive process’ including cooking. Even such a development as scavenging marrow form the skeletal remains of another creatures ‘kill’ could have been a favourable tipping of the balance of reward over effort of the energetics of the diet. And marrow would be rich in fats and lipids that, nutritionally speaking, could assist evolutionary development of the brain.

    For all I empathise with animal welfare concerns and sustainability issues that people have in connection with meat production homo sapiens owes it’s particular status to becoming significantly omnivorous – something that is a counter to the reactionary sense of superiority adopted by some vegetarians. Poor animal welfare, and a failure to keep to sustainable methods of agriculture are issues promoted by incentives arising from the attributes of money.

  5. Greg 24 February 2011 at 7:16 pm #

    I’ve never met a healthy veggie. Always ill in some way and mostly, full of complaints too! Humans evolved to eat meat and you can’t reverse that in a generation or two.

  6. kate 25 February 2011 at 10:23 pm #

    Vegetarians tend to be a healthier lot than meat-eaters. That’s not saying that anyone has to go ‘veggie’ – just that if you look at the research (spend an hour or two in Pubmed to see what I mean), the studies do show that. They suffer from lack of B-12 (so supplement) and anything else (there are a few) lacking can be supplemented easily. Which actually is the case for people who low-carb. It’s no accident that when they compared the Mediterranean diet (rich in vegetables and fruits) to the Atkins diet, the Atkins people (I’m thinking Eric Westman was on that team) made their Atkins diet composed of vegetables and non-meat protein sources. I believe the Ornish study was involved in that comparison as well and Dean Ornish was flabbergasted to think that the Atkins group would eliminate meat. Well, duh. Look at the research…

  7. Kathy 25 February 2011 at 10:29 pm #

    But a counter recommendation is in The Times today, saying no more than 500g of red meat and processed meat a week because haem levels in them increase the risk of bowel cancer.
    It gets increasingly confusing.

  8. Feona 26 February 2011 at 1:49 am #

    I do wish men, including you, Dr Briffa, would stop making these sweeping statements about ‘women’ as if we’re all the same all the time. I haven’t eaten red meat for about 20 years, although I do eat poultry and fish, and I’m certainly not lacking in iron, as my blood test results show. The reason is probably because I’m no longer menstruating, so I suggest that you should distinguish between pre- and post-menopausal women more often than you do. Otherwise you give a false picture of women’s health.

  9. John Briffa 26 February 2011 at 2:01 am #


    I do think I made some distinction here by referring to menstural blood loss as a major underlying cause of iron deficiency.

  10. Feona 26 February 2011 at 6:07 pm #

    Yes, you did mention menstrual blood loss, but it was almost an aside. I don’t want to get antsy about this, but the overall impression I got was of reference to all women, regardless of age. However, I see that in other posts on this subject you do refer to a specific group of women, so I stand corrected. Maybe being post-aperitif and pre-food had something to do with my irritation on this occasion!

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