DESPITE the World Health Organisation (WHO) labelling processed meats as a definite cause of cancer and red meat as a probable cause of cancer, the actual evidence is certainly not as cut and dry as their bold proclamation, and while it can be safely said that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption, at the present time the same argument cannot be used against red meat.

Red meat is the meat of mammals that in its raw state appears red, hence the name. The most common ones are beef, lamb and pork. White meats include poultry such as chicken and turkey.

Processed meats are those which go through any process such as salting, curing or the addition of preservatives, to enhance their flavour and/or shelf life. Bacon and sausages are among this group.

As humans, we are designed to be carnivorous, having teeth to break down the sometimes-tough fibres as well as a digestive system equipped to extract valuable nutrients from meat.

Meat is high in essential B vitamins, zinc and iron, which is more readily absorbed by the body than that contained in plants. It is an excellent source of protein, required for growth and to repair muscle and tissue.

Lean cuts of meat are not high in fat and can be part of balanced diet if consumed in moderation. Current recommendations are 70 g or less of red meat per day, with the acknowledgement that many of us could benefit from a reduction in our intake, perhaps most easily achieved in the form of meat free days.

Many traditional societies so far untouched by western influences and lifestyle consume red meat in far greater quantities yet remain remarkably healthy and this is perhaps where the crux of the matter lies.

Red meat per se is not unhealthy, yet the quantities in which it is consumed, how it is cooked and indeed the lifestyle choices of those who consume large amounts of processed meats may be more to blame for the associated health risks.

As mentioned above, meat is often consumed in larger amounts than needed. A rough guide to how you should divide your plate is one third for meat or any other source of protein, another third for carbohydrates with the remaining third for vegetables. The piece of meat should not be larger than the size of your fist.

The way you cook your meat also matters. Harmful chemicals may be released if the meat is exposed to very high heat, and the application of a naked flame is discouraged.

Although beloved by barbecue fanatics, charred meat is not healthy. A gentler way is to season the meat and then cook at medium heat.

Rich sauces will obviously increase any calorie as well as fat count.

While many studies point out a link between red meat, processed meat and increased risks of bowel cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, the majority of these are observational, hence at best can only demonstrate a link, not a cause and effect.

Furthermore, many of these have not separated the consumption of red meat from that of processed meats. Though we are aware that processed meats are high in saturated fats and do have negative effects on health, red meats and processed meats are not the same thing and hence cannot be simply lumped together as one.

To argue that those who eat large amounts of processed meats are more likely to exercise less, indulge in smoking and excess consumption of alcohol is highly contentious, but it is obvious that there are several variables involved, most of which are self-reported by study individuals. The majority do not keep a diary of what they eat daily.

While what you eat is a very personal choice which should be respected, a balanced meat free diet requires more than just cutting out meat, if you wish to remain nutritionally replete.

What can be said is that red meat can be safely enjoyed in small amounts, if cooked in the correct manner. Processed meats however do pose an increased risk of bowel cancer, heart disease and diabetes, mostly due to their high calorie count, salt and saturated fat content.

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