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Moderate intake of red meat is fine

A high intake of red meat increases the risk of developing kidney failure, heart disease and stroke.
A high intake of red meat increases the risk of developing kidney failure, heart disease and stroke.PHOTO: ISTOCK

Those with chronic kidney disease should take fish, chicken and plant proteins instead

Last week, a local study found that eating a lot of red meat raises the risk of developing kidney failure and that replacing red meat in one's diet with other sources of protein - such as poultry and fish - significantly cuts the risk.

The participants in the study were Chinese adults living here and the red meat they consumed the most (97 per cent) was pork.

Their age range was 45 to 74 years old during the recruitment for the study, from 1993 to 1998.

Most of the meat (87 per cent) was in fresh form. Organ and preserved meat accounted for 3.6 per cent and 8.5 per cent of the total red meat intake, respectively.

The findings did not apply to non-Chinese and other red meat such as beef, lamb or duck. Red meat has previously been linked to other health issues, such as higher risk of heart disease and stroke.

MODERATION IS KEY

Just make sure red meat is not the single meat item at every meal.

PROFESSOR KOH WOON PUAY, on not having to avoid red meat.

The World Health Organisation said last year that eating processed meat can cause colorectal cancer. It classified unprocessed red meat such as beef steaks as "probably carcinogenic".

But there is no need to say no to a good steak or juicy pork rib.

Dr Akira Wu, a renal specialist at Mount Elizabeth Hospital, said that the moderate intake of any meat as a source of protein is healthy.

But those with health issues have to watch their diet carefully. "People with high cholesterol or uric acid, which can cause gout, should avoid taking too much red meat."

Those with chronic kidney disease should substitute red meat with white meat such as fish or chicken, or dairy products, and eat more plant proteins, he said.

This is because a high-protein diet can cause their kidney function to deteriorate faster.

For the general public, Professor Koh Woon Puay from the Duke- NUS Medical School and NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, who led the local study, recommends eating red meat in moderation, "not for every meal and not daily, if you can".

"You don't have to avoid it. Just make sure red meat is not the single meat item at every meal," she said.

"As long as we have sufficient food sources for the important nutrients, it is better to eat from as wide a range of food as possible."

Also, one can counteract any risk with other healthy lifestyle factors such as increasing physical activity, not smoking and maintaining one's body weight, said Prof Koh.


What you need to know about different sources of proteins

The human body needs protein to repair and maintain itself. Protein is thus called the building block of the body. Our hair, skin, eyes, muscles and organs are made from protein.

Protein comprises 20 amino acids, of which nine are considered essential and can be obtained only from food. The other 11 can be made by the body if needed.

ANIMAL PROTEINS

These can come from red or white meat and dairy products, and are more easily absorbed by the body than plant proteins.

Good sources of proteins are milk, eggs, fish and soya as they contain complete protein, or all nine essential amino acids, said Ms Fiona Chia, director of nutrition consultancy Health Can Be Fun.

Proteins on their own are not good or bad. It is the saturated fats that animal proteins come with that are problematic, she said.

Animal proteins can provide all the essential amino acids a person needs, but red meat has fat nestled within the protein tissue that can be harmful when taken in large amounts, she added.

Professor Koh Woon Puay from the Duke-NUS Medical School and NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health said red meat is eaten for the richness of its protein, iron and vitamin B.

"There are other minerals such as zinc and other nutrients that are good for the body," she said.

However, apart from containing fat and cholesterol, red meat is most commonly eaten in processed form or cooked at high temperatures, both of which can lead to the formation of potentially cancer-causing chemicals, she said.

Red meats such as beef, lamb and pork have more cholesterol and saturated fat than chicken, fish and plant proteins such as beans, according to the American Heart Association.

"Cholesterol and saturated fat can raise your blood cholesterol and make heart disease worse," it said.

Fortunately, Prof Koh said, dietary items can be substituted. "No single food item is really indispensable."

She added: "Once you eat a variety of foods, you won't likely overeat any one type of food."

PLANT PROTEINS

These can come from beans, lentils, peas, nuts and nut butters, seeds and some grains like quinoa.

The local study linking red meat to kidney failure observed that eating soya and other legumes could reduce the risk of kidney failure.

With the exception of soya beans and soyabean products such as tofu, tau huay and bean curd, plant foods are incomplete proteins.

This is because they lack significant amounts of certain essential amino acids.

So plant proteins, such as peas, should be eaten with other food items such as rice and beans, said Ms Chia.

"Vegetarians will need to combine various sources of plant proteins to get the nine essential amino acids their body needs," she said.

Joyce Teo

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 26, 2016, with the headline 'Moderate intake of red meat is fine'. Print Edition | Subscribe