The short answer is: Unless you are a vegetarian, vegan or flexitarian; yes.
The majority of us eat too much meat, way too much in fact. And we’re not even talking about getting you to eat tofu or lentils day in, day out. At this point, it’s the portions that appear as normal which make us eat too much meat.
Reasons to cut down on meat
First of all, there is nothing wrong with meat. In itself, a non-processed piece of meat, contains proteins, mineral and vitamins and depending on your lifestyle and level of activity, it is a very healthy part of your diet.
In our society and culture however, it has become the centre of most meals, and often in a processed form (meaning salami, bacon or processed sausages instead of beef or pork).
These processed meats can cause cancer and by cutting down you are at a lower risk. Even red meats in general are likely to cause bowel cancer according Cancer Research UK, and it increases “for every 25g of processed meat a person eats a day”.
Other health risks include heart disease and diabetes.
As well as your own health, consider the cost (meat is often the most expensive part of your food shopping) and the environmental impact as well as animal welfare. The meat industry (from cheap to organic) is bad for the environment and cutting down will vastly reduce your carbon footprint. The quick facts are these: The majority of our greenhouse gases come from the meat industry, so no matter how much you cycle and use public transport, they are still being produced for your food. It also requires (either the animals themselves or the agriculture land to grow food for the animals) and causes deforestation, forest fires, people being moved from their land, and wild animals dying because their natural habitat is destroyed.
How much meat should I eat?
Back in school, we learnt we needed about 100g of protein (translated into “meat”) in a meal. This is long outdated and the NHS suggests just 70g per day. Those who consume 90g of cooked red or processed meat should therefore consider cutting down. [Note that this is for the average, able-bodied, healthy person; dietary requirements may of course vary in some situations.]
This is far from the typical meat-heavy meal we know, as this covers the entire day, meaning a slice of meat on your sandwich is already a portion of these 70g.
It seems almost impossible to make these portions, so consider that you can eat a recommended 500g (a little more than a pound) a week and balance out meaty and meat-free days.
What does the recommended amount look like on a plate?
Here is where you realise our eye is not used to 70g at all – and neither are the portion sizes at the supermarket (plus remember you may have already had a slice of bacon in the morning or meat on your sandwich at lunch!).
We’ve looked at a few supermarket items to see how to re-think portions.
For example, a 500g pack of minced meat, which represents your weekly meat allowance, is enough for 7 people, not the usual 4 or 5 we allocate it for.
A pack of British Cooked Ham in a supermarket comes in 120g packets of 7 slices. That means a slice is around 17g – a little more than a quarter of your daily meat intake, so a ham sandwich cuts your dinner portion down to almost 50g.
And while we are mostly looking at red and processed meat, the portioning is an issue elsewhere as well: Chicken breast fillets come in packs of 5 for 1 kilo or 3 for 600 to 640g. That means one fillet – usually you’d plan one per person – is at 200g. That’s almost three times what a person should eat in a day.
Sausages are a little easier to portion. The average pork sausage for example is at around 50 to 60g (a pack of 8 weighing 450g) so one sausage is what should be on your plate.
When it comes to bacon (we looked at smoked streaky bacon as an example) a single strip weighs around 15g so 4 strips would be just below your daily recommended intake for the day. With bacon rashers, they are around 50g each, so you could have one with your dinner and you can have a meaty sandwich on the same day.
All this will take some time to adjust to seeing the new meat portions, but it clearly shows most of us are probably overeating on meat.
What are the alternatives?
The options are endless and the key is to add variety.
Some meals might contain poultry (which is a little better for you than red meat), others may contain fish or no animal protein at all.
When cooking without animal protein, you can find “replacements” that look the same so you can still cook your favourite recipes, or you can simply do something completely different.
What you need to substitute are protein and vitamins and iron. And there are many options such as peas and pulses (yes, there is more than just white beans!), mushrooms, eggs, dairy, nuts…
Remember the recommended amount of protein is only just below 50g per day, which includes your breakfast (usually with milk) and maybe a yogurt for a snack or dessert, so your main meal doesn’t really require that much protein. An easy way to add protein to your diet is no have a bean dip (chickpeas or black beans for example) as a snack or side, or add nuts to your salad!