Thursday, 21 August 2014

Red meat

This week on BBC2, the documentary series Horizon has been looking at meat eating and meat production. It was hosted by the likeable Michael Mosley, who is the usual hands-on presenter for health-related programmes of this sort.

There were in fact two programmes. The first was called Should I eat meat? - The Big Health Dilemma. It focussed on eating red meat - primarily beef, lamb and pork. The second was called Should I eat meat? - How to Feed the Planet. That looked at different ways of rearing animals, and such issues as the amount of land in the world used for grazing animals, the share of the grain harvest allocated to feeding them if they are intensively farmed, and the colossal amount of methane gas produced as cows digest grass. Methane is a Global Warming Gas of course.

Up to a point, both programmes were enthralling. If one is responsible, and willing to take a long view on how meat production can be sustained in future decades, let alone increased to match demand, the second programme was clearly the more important. But, quite understandably, I took a more personal interest in the first. I imagine most people would. The headline assertion was that red meat is bad for you; and as someone who likes a good steak, I was always going to give this my main attention.

Actually the programme's conclusions were that a limited amount of red meat is a Good Thing. It is the very best source of protein, vitamins and trace elements available. But the saturated fat and other things in red meat will take their toll, increasing the risk of heart disease and cancer of the digestive tract, and thereby shortening your life if you over-indulge. The thing to do, if not a convinced vegetarian, is to have red meat only as a treat, now and then during the month, not every day; and rely much more on poultry.

Strangely little was said about fish, but then in the UK fish is not consumed in the vast quantities that meat is.

The important point was made that processed meat is the real killer. This means keeping clear of bacon and a whole range of meat products that take raw meat and do something to it to enhance its flavour, or present it in a different way, such as in a pie. This will be an anathema to legions of folk who regard no meal as a proper meal unless it contains meat in some delicious form.

At this point, I feel I should tell you what I have had to eat over the past month. I have the information. I usually take photographs of all meals I cook at home, and sometimes of whatever I eat in pubs, restaurants or at friends' houses. If I haven't done that, then I can recall what I ate from other types of record, such as the spreadsheet that records my expenditure and keeps track of my 'real' bank balance. (Note carefully that only nerdy women can do this, not ordinary mortals)

This then is the record.

All items were photographed, except the things eaten for main meals on 26 July, and 5, 12, and 19 August, at a restaurant in each case. All the meals at home would have included a lot of fresh vegetables, or occasionally salad. But we're concentrating on the meat content, and I won't confuse the issue by mentioning the accompaniment.

L means Lunch. M means Main Meal, usually in the evening.

Ordinary typeface denotes 'red meat' (risky). Italic typeface denotes 'processed meat' (even worse). Bold typeface denotes 'white meat' or fish (low or no risk).

22 July  M Tinned stewed steak.
23 July  L Tongue. M Lamb chops.
24 July  M Sea bass.
25 July  L Tinned salmon. M Bacon.
26 July  M Pizza (in a restaurant).
27 July  L Ham. M Pork sausages.
28 July  M Sirloin steak.
29 July  L Tongue. M Shredded beef (at a friend's house).
30 July  M Gammon steak (in a restaurant).
1 August  M Chicken.
2 August  M Pork sausages.
3 August  L Bacon. M Pizza.
4 August  M Bacon.
5 August  M Veal (in a pub).
6 August  M Haddock.
7 August  M Bacon.
8 August  L French sausage. M Chicken.
9 August  L Pork, chicken and ham pie. M Salmon.
10 August  M Chicken curry.
11 August  M Sirloin steak.
12 August  M Italian minced beef (in a restaurant).
13 August  L Tongue. M Lamb chops.
14 August  M Bacon (chopped, in an omlette).
15 August  M Sea bass.
16 August  M Chorizo sausage (in a casserole).
17 August  M Chicken.

I watched the first Horizon programme at this point, about the risks of red meat and, particularly, processed meat.

18 August  M Haddock.
19 August  M Italian sausage (in a restaurant). 
20 August  L Pickled herring. M Chicken.
21 August  L Pickled herring. M Salmon.

The predominance of bold-type items (i.e. low-risk foodstuffs) since watching the first part of the Horizon documentary is clear! But the remainder of the record isn't good at all. Overall, it all boils down to this:

Low-risk meals
13 out of 40 recorded = 33%

Risky meals
6 out of 40 recorded = 15%

High-risk meals
21 out of 40 recorded = 52%

Oh dear. It's a wake-up call, this analysis. And I thought I was eating a pretty healthy diet! It was certainly nutritious, but not necessarily good for me.

Of course, there are other things to bring into the picture. I favour lean meat, and I trim off excess fat. I don't use ready-prepared sauces to cook in. At home I nearly always bake my meat or fish in the oven, only lightly smeared with olive oil or butter, and never swimming in fat. Sirloin steaks and bacon are always grilled, never fried.

And I do eat a lot of fresh vegetables. Typically, two-thirds of the plate will be fresh vegetables, and I keep to the golden rule of having vegetables of every colour, if I can. I eat apples for dessert. And water is the usual drink, with a cup of tea to follow.

These good things must offset the effects of being a meat-lover. But clearly I have a penchant for processed meat which I must now curb. It's probably undermining my ongoing efforts to get my weight down.

Am I guilty of a knee-jerk reaction? A rapid response, certainly.

I do bear in mind that a risk is not a certainty. I might just be one of those people who can blithely chomp into any kind of food they like, red meat included, for the rest of my life, and thrive on it. But I don't think I am one of those people.

Dad died of a cardiac arrest. Knowing him, I suspect that after Mum died he was less bothered about eating healthily. I believe he threw caution to the winds and cooked up as much fried food as he fancied. He had lost his beloved life-long partner; he was old; he was racked with arthritic pain; his remaining 'son' had become odd and unfamiliar. The future was full of discomfort. Why take great care to stay alive?

Well, I have everything to live for, and plenty I want to do. So this is the moment to stop eating bacon rashers and pork pies and similar delicacies quite so often.


  1. I am truly surprised that you kept such a detailed list of what you have eaten. There is every reason on Earth to steer clear of processed foods of any kind and you will be wise to avoid them. As for the rest of what we eat, everything in moderation is the key but certain foods are more beneficial than others and some are necessary to maintain good health. Eat fresh unprocessed food and you can't go wrong. I am getting weary of all these programs about what we should be eating and what we should not. One minute we are told eggs, cheese, butter and red meats are unhealthy and then they say well actually they are not! It is all about the amounts we eat and having a well-balanced diet. This morning I drove to the supermarket at 8 o'clock to buy in packets of nuts, strawberries, blueberries and such because E couldn't get them where she does the weekly shop. Our house is full of vegetables, fruits and nuts but it is also full of red meats and fish too. You cannot really extend your life by what you eat but you surely can prevent dying sooner than you would by eating the right stuff.

    Shirley Anne x

  2. Oh, there is no list as such: I just examined the photos. You shouldn't by now be surprised that I will shoot anything!

    I do agree - everything in moderation. The programme about red meat convinced me that a little cheese each day wouldn't do me harm (I had given it up). But I will severely limit my processed-meat intake from now on.


  3. As I read your post I found myself singing In Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs of every head he's had the pleasure to know... and thought "Were Lucy a barber, she'd do that too!'

    We deliberately reduced our consumption of red meat several years ago, after finding that it worsened Sue's arthritis. The delightful consequence of this was discovering that we rlove fresh fish. The stuff served up in Tesco's, Morrison's, etc isn't really fresh (despite their claims) but there's a guy here who sells the real thing from his van once a month. It was much easier in Cornwall!

    We also now have some great recipes for chicken and turkey that are every bit as tasty as steak.


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