As we strive for a diet that is both sustainable and nutritious, the topic of red meat often sparks heated debates. People have raised concerns about the environment, health risks, and ethics —questioning whether red meat should have a place in our diets.
However, recent research and a deeper understanding of sustainable food systems suggest red meat can play an important role in a balanced, healthy, and eco-friendly diet that ensures food and nutrition security in the future.
We are faced with the daunting task of feeding a global population, which is projected to exceed 9bn by 2050. This challenge has become a top priority for global leaders, and one of the key solutions lies in reducing food waste and maximising the productivity of our farmland.
Livestock farming play such an important role helping us achieve these goals.
Globally, 86% of all livestock feed consists of materials that are inedible to humans. Conversely, in the UK, 660,000 tonnes of human food by-products are recycled and used as animal feed, reducing the amount of waste going into landfills.
Additionally, about two-thirds of the UK’s farmland is not suitable for growing food crops, but it excels at producing grass and forage. These plants form 90% of cattle and sheep diets in the UK, showing how livestock efficiently convert inedible foods and plants into highly nutritious products.
Implementing sustainable farming practices is vital to achieving Net Zero, where the overall environmental impact of food production is minimised to the point where it does not significantly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.
This requires methods such as carbon storage (sequestration), reduced emissions, and increasing renewable energy sources like wind and solar power. The goal is to strike a delicate balance cultivating nutritious and accessible food while preserving the planet’s health.
As we face environmental threats and increasing health issues like obesity and malnutrition, there is a growing consensus that our diets need to change to be both sustainable and healthy.
So, what is a healthy, sustainable diet? It is an eating pattern that not only promotes personal health and wellbeing but also has a low environmental impact. Importantly, it should be accessible, affordable, and culturally acceptable for everyone.
In the UK, aligning with the government’s dietary guidelines, as outlined in the Eatwell Guide, is essential. This guide recommends a balanced diet that includes a wide range of healthy plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole-grain carbohydrates, nuts, and seeds. It also allows for the inclusion of animal-sourced foods like meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products.
Even though less than 1% of the UK population follow the Eatwell dietary recommendations, studies estimate that if everyone in the UK followed this pattern, both the overall population health and greenhouse gas emissions could improve significantly.
Animal-sourced foods like red meat are nutrient-dense, providing high-quality, bioavailable protein, along with essential vitamins and minerals such as iron, zinc, and B12, which are often lacking in the diets of nutritionally vulnerable groups.
For example, the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey shows that around 18% of young people aged 11-18 have low intakes of zinc, and 7% of adults aged 19 to 64 years have low intakes of zinc. Twenty five percent of females aged 19 to 64 years and almost half (49%) of girls aged 11-18 years have iron intakes below what is adequate for most people.
Our bodies absorb iron from meat more easily than from plant foods, and it is better to combine plant-based iron with foods containing animal protein and vitamin C to improve iron absorption.
Naturally rich in high-quality protein, red meat is crucial for growth, maintenance, and repair of the body. It contains about 20g-24g of protein per 100g when raw. Beef, lamb, pork and milk are a key source of vitamin B12. For those following a vegan diet, it is recommended to take a vitamin B12 supplement or include fortified foods.
How much meat is recommended?
It is important to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach when promoting dietary changes. Simply saying ‘eat less meat’ can be misleading and fails to define what ‘less’ means.
Individual dietary needs, food preferences, and the social and cultural context in which people make dietary choices must be considered. The government recommends consuming no more than 70g of red meat per day. On average, UK consumers are already following these guidelines, with an average intake of 63 grams per day.
However, there is variation, with some individuals consuming less and others, particularly young men, consuming significantly more. For those who already consume very little meat, reducing meat consumption may not be advisable as it could put them at risk of nutritional deficiencies especially if not replaced with suitable nutritionally comparable alternatives.
How meat is produced and where it comes from are essential considerations. Fortunately, UK meat and dairy are produced to world-class food and farming standards and are among the most sustainable in the world.
In conclusion, red meat and dairy can indeed be part of a healthy and balanced diet and our food choices have significant implications for the environment.
However, adopting a healthy and sustainable diet is not just about environmental impact. It is a holistic approach that considers nutrition, health, affordability, and accessibility, all while ensuring we can provide enough safe food for our growing global population.
Making informed choices about the quality and source of meat, as well as how it has been produced is key, but we must also consider individual needs and focus on reducing waste and maximising the efficiency of our food production systems. This is critical if we are to meet the demands of a growing global population while safeguarding our environment and nutrition security for both current and future generations.
Health benefits of red meat
- Maintaining muscle – Red meat provides high quality protein which helps maintain muscle mass, and potassium which enables muscles to work normally
- Bone health – Protein and phosphorous in lean beef, lamb and pork contribute to the maintenance of normal, healthy bones and the normal growth and development of children’s bones
- Reducing tiredness – Essential B-vitamins in red meat, including vitamin B12, help our body convert the foods we eat into energy. Beef also provides iron, which helps reduce tiredness and fatigue
- Mood and mental health – Red meat provides zinc and iron (in beef) which contribute to normal cognitive function
- Immune support – Beef, lamb and pork provide essential vitamins and minerals that help the immune system work properly. For example, vitamins B6, B12, iron (in beef), zinc and selenium (pork)