Meat is a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals in your diet. However, the Department of Health has advised people who eat more than 90 grams (cooked weight) of red and processed meat a day to cut down to 70 grams.
Making healthy choices can help you to 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 because 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 is a good source of 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
How much red meat?
Storing and preparing meat
Liver and liver products
Meat and pregnancy
Meat and a healthier diet
Making healthier choices can help you to eat meat as part of a healthy diet.
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.
- Pork chops: trim the fat from pork chops and grill them and they will contain around one third the fat of untrimmed chops that are roasted.(6.4g fat and 2.2g saturated fat per 100g compared with 19.3g fat and 7.0g saturated fat per 100g).
- Rump steak: a lean grilled rump steak contains about half the fat of fried rump steak with the fat (5.9g fat and 2.5g saturated fat per 100g compared with 12.7g fat and 4.9g saturated fat per 100g).
- Chicken: fried chicken breast in breadcrumbs contains nearly six times as much fat as chicken breast grilled without the skin (12.7g fat and 2.1g saturated fat per 100g compared with 2.2g fat and 0.6g saturated fat per 100g).
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. So, for example, back bacon contains less fat than streaky bacon.
These tips can help you to 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, because these are lower in fat.
- 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.
- Don’t add extra fat or oil when cooking meat.
- Roast meat on a metal rack above a roasting tin, so fat can run off.
- Try using smaller quantities of meat in dishes and more vegetables, pulses and starchy foods.
How much red and processed meat?
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 90 grams (cooked weight) of red and processed meat a day, the Department of Health advises that you cut down to 70 grams.
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 standard British sausages and two rashers of bacon is equivalent to 130g.
For more information, read Red meat and bowel cancer risk.
Storing, preparing and cooking meat
Good food hygiene is especially important when dealing with meat, because of the bacteria that meat can contain.
It's important to store and prepare meat safely to stop bacteria from spreading, and to avoid food poisoning:
- Store raw meat/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 after they have touched raw or thawing meat, to stop bacteria from spreading.
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 food, more than once as this could lead to food poisoning.
There is more information in Food safety.
It’s important to store 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, and 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, and they are also a rich source of vitamin A.
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. This is because the body stores any vitamin A it doesn't use, and over the years a harmful level of vitamin A can build up in the body.
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 more 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. See below for more advice.
Meat and pregnancy
Pregnant women should avoid:
- 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.
- Supplements containing vitamin A, including fish liver oils, except if you are advised to take these by your GP.
For more information on pregnancy and food, see the Pregnancy and baby guide: foods to avoid.