Making healthier choices can help you eat meat as part of a healthy, balanced diet. But some meats are high in saturated fat, which can raise blood cholesterol levels.
If you eat a lot of red and processed meat, it is recommended that you cut down as there is likely to be a link between red and processed meat and bowel cancer.
Meats such as chicken, pork, lamb and beef are all rich in protein. A balanced diet can include protein from meat, as well as from non-animal sources such as beans and pulses.
Red meat provides us with iron, and meat is also one of the main sources of vitamin B12.
Food hygiene is important when storing, preparing and cooking meat.
Meat and saturated fat
Some meats are high in fat, especially saturated fat. Eating a lot of saturated fat can raise cholesterol levels in the blood, and having high cholesterol raises your risk of heart disease.
The type of meat product you choose and how you cook it can make a big difference to the saturated fat content.
Make healthier choices when buying meat
When buying meat, go for the leanest option. As a rule, the more white you can see on meat, the more fat it contains. For example, back bacon contains less fat than streaky bacon.
These tips can help you buy healthier options:
- ask your butcher for a lean cut
- if you’re buying pre-packed meat, check the nutrition label to see how much fat it contains and compare products
- go for turkey and chicken without the skin as these are lower in fat (or remove the skin before cooking)
- try to limit processed meat products such as sausages, salami, pâté and beefburgers, because these are generally high in fat – they are often high in salt, too
- try to limit meat products in pastry, such as pies and sausage rolls, because they are often high in fat and salt
Cut down on fat when cooking meat
Cut off any visible fat and skin before cooking – crackling and poultry skin are much higher in fat than the meat itself.
Here are some other ways to reduce fat when cooking meat:
- Grill meat, rather than frying – trimmed pork chops that have been grilled contain around one-third the fat of roasted untrimmed chops, while a lean grilled rump steak contains about half the fat of fried rump steak with the fat and fried chicken breast in breadcrumbs contains nearly 6 times as much fat as chicken breast grilled without the skin
- don’t add extra fat or oil when cooking meat
- roast meat on a metal rack above a roasting tin so the fat can run off
- try using smaller quantities of meat and more vegetables, pulses and starchy foods in dishes such as stews, curries and casseroles
How much red and processed meat should we eat?
Red meat (such as beef, lamb and pork) can form part of a healthy diet. But eating a lot of red and processed meat probably increases your risk of bowel (colorectal) cancer.
Processed meat refers to meat that has been preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding preservatives. This includes sausages, bacon, ham, salami and pâtés.
If you currently eat more than 90g (cooked weight) of red and processed meat a day, the Department of Health advises that you cut down to 70g, which is the average daily consumption in the UK.
Ninety grams is equivalent to around three thinly cut slices of beef, lamb or pork, where each slice is about the size of half a piece of sliced bread. A cooked breakfast containing two typical British sausages and two rashers of bacon is equivalent to 130g.
For more information, read Red meat and bowel cancer risk.
Storing meat safely
It’s important to store and prepare meat safely to stop bacteria from spreading and to avoid food poisoning:
- store raw meat or raw poultry in clean sealed containers on the bottom shelf of the fridge, so the meat can’t touch or drip onto other food
- follow any storage instructions on the label and don’t eat meat after its “use by” date
- if you cook meat that you’re not going to eat straight away, cool it as quickly as possible and then put it in the fridge or freezer – remember to keep cooked meat separate from raw meat
- always thoroughly clean plates, utensils, surfaces and hands straight away after they have touched raw or thawing meat to stop bacteria from spreading
Freezing meat safely
It’s safe to freeze raw meat providing that you:
- freeze it before the “use by” date
- follow any freezing or thawing instructions on the label
- cook the meat straight away if you defrost it in a microwave. If you want to defrost meat and cook it later, thaw it in a fridge so that it doesn’t get too warm
- use the meat within two days of defrosting. It will go off in the same way as fresh meat
- cook food until it’s steaming hot all the way through
When meat thaws, liquid can come out of it. This liquid will spread bacteria to any food, plates or surfaces that it touches. Keep the meat in a sealed container at the bottom of the fridge so that it can’t touch or drip onto other foods.
If you defrost raw meat and then cook it thoroughly, you can freeze it again. But never reheat meat or any other food more than once as this could lead to food poisoning.
There is more information about how to freeze foods safely in Food safety.
Cooking meat safely
Some people wash meat before they cook it, but this actually increases your risk of food poisoning, because the water droplets splash onto surfaces and can contaminate them with bacteria. For this reason, it’s best not to wash meat.
It’s important to prepare and cook meat properly. Cooking meat properly ensures that harmful bacteria on the meat are killed. If meat isn’t cooked all the way through, these bacteria may cause food poisoning.
Bacteria and viruses can be found all the way through certain meat. This means you need to cook these sorts of meat all the way through. When meat is cooked all the way through, its juices run clear and there is no pink or red meat left inside.
Meats that you should cook all the way through are:
- poultry and game, such as chicken, turkey, duck and goose, including liver
- offal, including liver
- burgers and sausages
- rolled joints of meat
You can eat whole cuts of beef or lamb when they are pink inside – or “rare” – as long as they are cooked on the outside. This is because any bacteria are generally on the outside of the meat.
These meats include:
Liver and liver products
Liver and liver products, such as liver pâté and liver sausage, are a good source of iron, as well as being a rich source of vitamin A.
You should be able to get all the vitamin A you need from your daily diet. Adults need:
- 700 micrograms of vitamin A per day for men
- 600 micrograms of vitamin A per day for women
However, because they are such a rich source of vitamin A, we should be careful not to eat too much liver and liver product foods. Over the years, a harmful level of vitamin A can build up in the body. This is because the body stores any vitamin A it doesn’t use for future use, which means you do not need to consume it every day.
Having too much vitamin A – more than 1.5mg of vitamin A per day from food and supplements – over many years may make your bones more likely to fracture when you are older.
People who eat liver or liver pâté once a week may be having more than an average of 1.5mg of vitamin A per day. If you eat liver or liver products every week, you may want to consider cutting back or not eating them as often. Also, avoid taking any supplements that contain vitamin A and fish liver oils, which are also high in vitamin A.
Women who have been through the menopause, and older men, should avoid having more than 1.5mg of vitamin A per week from food and supplements.
This means not eating liver and liver products more than once a week, or having smaller portions. It also means not taking any supplements containing vitamin A, including fish liver oil, if they do eat liver once a week. This is because older people are at a higher risk of bone fracture.
Pregnant women should avoid vitamin A supplements and liver and liver products.
Eating meat when you’re pregnant
Meat can generally be part of a pregnant woman’s diet. However, pregnant women should avoid:
- raw and undercooked meat because of the risk of toxoplasmosis – make sure any meat you eat is well cooked before eating
- pâté of all types, including vegetable pâté – they can contain listeria, a type of bacteria that could harm your unborn baby
- liver and liver products – these foods are very high in vitamin A, and too much vitamin A can harm the unborn child.