Red meat - cutting through the confusion

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently announced that processed meat is carcinogenic and that red meat is probably associated with an increased risk of developing bowel cancer. Does this mean we should give up ham sandwiches? Is steak now off the menu? Or is this yet another story that's been hyped up to be more sensational than it really is?

Myth 1: Red meat causes cancer

There is not enough research to suggest that red meat causes cancer. The WHO findings clearly stated that there is limited evidence.

Myth 2: Processed meat is as bad for you as smoking

Processed meat is not equally dangerous to smoking. You can continue to eat some processed meat, but it's important to consider how much you eat, so you reduce your risks.

Myth 3: We should stop eating meat

Red meat is an important source of many nutrients, especially iron. Thirty per cent of teenage girls have low iron stores, putting them at risk of iron deficiency.

How much should we eat?

The UK Department of Health advises that we should eat up to 500 g (cooked weight) of meat a week. Check out these examples to help you keep within these guidelines:

2 grilled lean lamb chops (140 g cooked meat)

Small sirloin steak (160 g)

2 thick slices roast beef (90 g)

2 average slices roast pork (80 g)

1 large hot dog (47 g)

Average basic beefburger (35 g)

Average quarter pounder (90 g cooked)

Thick slice corned beef (60 g)

5 oz grilled fillet steak (cooked weight 105 g)

Medium portion minced beef (140 g)

Average slice ham (25 g)

Average portion meat on a skewer (90 g)

Meat tikka, main course (200 g)

So, in a week, you might go for a Sunday roast with 2 slices of roast beef (90 g); on Tuesday you could reach for a couple of grilled lamb chops (140 g) with a pile of roasted veg; lunch on Wednesday could be a beef (30 g), lettuce, mustard and tomato wholegrain sandwich; Thursday might be spaghetti bolognese night (140 g) with salad; and you could create a homemade quarter pounder burger (90 g) at the weekend!

What else to keep in mind…

1. Meat that you cook in a BBQ till charred produces compounds that have been linked with cancer. This doesn't mean you should never eat a barbecued kebab - simply don't eat too much of it.

2. It's best to eat as little processed or cured meat as possible, to keep to lean meats, and to use healthier cooking methods like grilling and roasting without added fat.

3. UK National Diet and Nutrition Surveys indicate that people in the UK are, on average, eating about 71 g of red meat and 17 g of processed meat a day. This means some people are eating less and some are eating more. If you eat more, it's best to cut down.

4. Red meat provides protein, iron, zinc, B vitamins and potassium. Some groups of people are low in these nutrients and lean red meat can be a valuable source.

5. It's never too early to start getting children to eat well. Bring them up so they don't expect meat at every meal, and remember that cured meats are high in salt.

The message really hasn't changed: eat a wide variety of foods with moderate amounts of red meat, choose plenty of fruits and vegetables, and cut down on processed foods.

Azmina Govindji is Patient's award-winning resident dietitian. She comes with a background in diabetes, having worked as Chief Dietitian to Diabetes UK from 1987 to 1995. She was a member of the British Dietetic Association (BDA) Executive Council and Chair of the BDA Public Relations Committee from 2001-2004, and is still a renowned BDA spokesperson. But you may be more familiar with her work on TV and radio - she's appeared regularly on This Morning, The Wright Stuff and The One Show. Azmina is also a best-selling author and co-founder of the award-winning RDUK twitter chats.

Azmina is a mum of two and understands the pressures of family life. She runs her own nutrition consultancy at Azmina Nutrition, and offers advice to the food industry, the media, patients, nurseries, and health organisations. In her spare time she loves to entertain friends and travel.

Tweet with her on @AzminaNutrition.