Is meat good for you?

Meat is a hot topic and there are plenty of conflicting headlines out there. The Heart Foundation reviewed the science on red meat and poultry, to help you know what's best for your heart health.

Steak on a plate
Eating less than 350g of unprocessed red meat a week (cooked weight) is helpful to reduce the risk of heart disease.

Our position statement

The Heart Foundation reviewed the science on red meat and poultry, to help you know what's best for your heart health.

Our position statement for meat includes:

  • red meat (including beef, veal, lamb, mutton, pork, venison and goat)
  • chicken

We didn't include processed meat in our position statement because there is already lots of research that shows eating processed meat is linked to an increased risk of bowel cancer and heart disease 1-3.

What is red meat?

Red meat includes:

  • beef
  • veal
  • lamb
  • mutton
  • pork
  • goat
  • venison.

Red meat is rich in protein, with 20-25g protein in every 100g of meat. It's also an excellent source of iron, zinc, niacin, riboflavin, vitamin B12 and thiamine.

Half of the fat in red meat is saturated fat. The rest is unsaturated fat (mostly monounsaturated fat and just a small amount of polyunsaturated fat).

What is poultry?

Poultry includes most white meats. That means chicken, turkey and duck can be grouped under this term.

The Heart Foundation only considered chicken as part of the new position statement as turkey and duck are less common within the New Zealand diet.

Chicken is also a good protein source, as well as being a source of niacin, vitamin A, magnesium and zinc.

One third of the fat in chicken is saturated fat and the remaining two thirds is both mono- and poly-unsaturated fat.

Selection of raw meat on a platter. Chicken legs, thighs, steak, mince

Unprocessed red meat and poultry

How nutritious is red meat and poultry?

The quality of a piece of meat, and how good it is for you, depends on:

  • the type of animal
  • the breed
  • what it is fed (grains or grass)
  • the cut of meat such as sirloin or rump (for red meat)
  • the part of the bird such a wing, leg or thigh (for chicken)

The amount of fat you eat, when having chicken or red meat, depends on whether you cut off any fat or remove the skin. 

The way you cook meat also affects the fat content. Different cooking methods such as baking, frying or grilling, all influence the fat content. 

What is the difference between processed and unprocessed meat?

Unprocessed meat has not been altered in a way that processed meats have.

These types of meat are unprocessed:

  • steak
  • chops
  • mince
  • diced meat

Processed meats have been changed in some way to enhance the meat’s flavour or to make it last for longer4. Ways of processing that can change meat includes:

  • salting
  • curing
  • fermentation
  • smoking

Processed meats are usually made from beef and pork, as well as poultry and offal1.

Examples of processed meats include:

  • sausages
  • ham and bacon
  • corned beef
  • canned meat
  • meat-based pre-prepared foods.

Is processed meat unhealthy?

Processed meats have been shown to increase the risk of bowel cancer. For each 50g portion of processed meat eaten daily the risk of bowel cancer increases by 18%4.

Processed meats can also have very high levels of salt and saturated fat. The Ministry of Health recommends adults eat less than 5g of salt (2000mg of sodium) a day to reduce the risk of high blood pressure and the risk of stroke.

Limiting or avoiding processed meats will help lower your intake of salt and saturated fat.

Processed meat, ham, sausages,

Processed meats

Is red meat healthy?

The evidence shows that you can eat lean red meat as part of a heart healthy diet. However, high intakes of red meat increase your risk of heart disease and stroke by 16%5. Eating up to 100g/d of red meat increases risk of heart disease and stroke by 10-20%5. Therefore, the Heart Foundation suggests you aim for less than 350g of red meat per week.

If you do choose to eat red meat, think about how your red meat is prepared and cooked. Removing skin and visible fat is important, as well as choosing the leanest cuts.

Think quality over quantity.

If you do eat red meat, try replacing some of your red meat meals with vegetarian meals that use plant proteins (chickpeas, lentils and beans). There are health benefits to this and it’s cheaper. Eating less red meat can also benefits the environment.

How often should I eat red meat?

If you choose to eat red meat, you should aim to eat no more than 350g of red meat each week. A recommended portion size of cooked meat is 100g6

This means that even after you reduce the amount of red meat you eat; you could still spread your red meat out across 2-3 meals each week.

It's important to eat a variety of protein sources through the week, other than just red meat.

Swapping 1-2 red meat meals a week with plant proteins like legumes, soy or nuts, could improve your cholesterol levels.

Chicken can also be eaten as a protein source, as well as other protein sources including:

  • fish
  • dairy
  • eggs
  • and nuts.

Meat portion sizes

Checking the weight of meat when you buy it is the best way to know how many portions you are getting. Some cuts of red meat, like chops or steak can be difficult as they all come in different shapes and sizes.  

Here is a rough guide to help keep your portions around 100g:

  • Individual cuts of meat aim for 125g of raw meat, this will cook down to your 100g portion size
  • 500g of mince or diced beef/lamb/pork will provide 4 servings of meat
  • 1 slice of roast meat is around 100g
  • 1 lamb shank will make 2 meals.

Use some of our heart-healthy recipes to get you started:

What does the Heart Foundation recommend?

If you do eat small amounts of red meat and poultry, the Heart Foundation recommends making sure that the rest of your diet is heart healthy7.

Try to:

  • Eat more vegetables and fruit
  • Swap from refined cereals and grains to whole grains
  • Choose reduced-fat dairy products
  • Eat healthy fats from nuts, seeds, plant oils (other than coconut and palm), avocado, and oily fish instead of animal fats
  • Eat less than 350g of unprocessed red meat a week (cooked weight) spread across 3 meals per week (with an individual portion size of 100g cooked red meat)
  • Swap some red meat meals for plant proteins such as soy, legumes and nuts
  • Limit, or avoid processed red meat
  • Limit or avoid processed foods such as junk food, takeaways, deep-fried foods, pastries, pies, sweet bakery items, lollies, highly processed and refined foods, processed snack foods and sugary drinks.
Download the position statementWhat is a plant-based diet?
Nickie Hursthouse, NZRD

Nickie Hursthouse, NZRD

National Nutrition Advisor

As a Registered Dietitian, I know that food gives us so much more than just nutrients. I am driven to simplify nutrition messages, educate on all aspects of food and support Kiwis to develop a love of food that helps them stay healthy throughout their life.

References:

1. Fund WCR. Diet, nutrition, physical activity and cancer: a global perspective. A summary of the third expert report. 2018.

2. Micha R, Wallace SK, Mozaffarian D. Red and processed meat consumption and risk of incident coronary heart disease, stroke, and diabetes mellitus: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Circulation. 2010;121(21):2271-83.

3. Ndanuko R, Marklund M, Zheng M, Collins C, Raubenheimer D, Wu JH. Animal sourced protein (meat and poultry) and heart health: an Evidence Check rapid review brokered by the Sax Institute for the National Heart Foundation of Australia,. 2018.

4. International Agency for Research on Cancer. IARC Monographs on the Evolution of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans: Red Meat and Processed Meat. Lyon, France: World Health Organisation; 2018.

5. Bechthold A, Boeing H, Schwedhelm C, Hoffmann G, Knüppel S, Iqbal K, et al. Food groups and risk of coronary heart disease, stroke and heart failure: A systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2019;59(7):1071-90.

6. Ministry of Health. Eating and Activity Guidelines for New Zealand Adults. Wellington: Ministry of Health; 2015.

7. National Heart Foundation of New Zealand. Dietary patterns and the heart: Backgound Paper. Auckland; 2013.