Millions of people in the U.K. are putting their health at risk because of an inadequate intake of vital minerals and vitamins that's due, in part, to an inadequate intake of red meat, which plays a critical role in covering the gap between actual and recommended nutrient consumption, according to a new study conducted by U.K. dietary experts.
Meat has been an important part of the human diet since the dawn of mankind, but in recent years, a debate over meat's ties to health problems has questioned that role, according to the study.
The study -- a review of more than 100 previous studies in the U.K. -- found that people in the U.K. of all ages "can be worryingly low" in nutrients that are commonly found in meat, including vitamins A and D, iron, magnesium, zinc, potassium and selenium.
The researchers said integrating meat -- beef, veal, lamb and pork -- into diets across all ages, from infanthood to old age, can help address this nutrient worry.
The study was led by Dr. Carrie Ruxton, an independent dietician, along with Emma Derbyshire, a lecturer in human nutrition at Manchester Metropolitan University, and Robert Pickard, a professor in neurology at the University of Cardiff.
The work was funded by a grant from the English Beef & Lamb Executive and the British Pork Executive, both of which are divisions of the British Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board.
The study, titled "The Seven Ages of Man -- Is There a Role for Meat in the Diet," is scheduled to be published in the British Nutrition Foundation's "Nutrition Bulletin."
The study examined mineral and vitamin intake in seven age groups: (1) infants and preschool children, (2) prepubescent children, (3) teenagers 13-18 years old, (4) adults 19-50 years old, (5) pregnant women, (6) middle age and up, or people who are 50-75 years old and (7) older age, or people who are 75 years old and up. It found that people in every age group were deficient in minerals and vitamins.
However, the researchers said beef, veal, lamb and pork are good to "rich" sources of high-quality nutrients and protein and can help improve human nutrition in the U.K.
The researchers noted that some studies have linked meat consumption to health problems such as cancer, heart disease and obesity but said the evidence is often inconsistent and "of questionable quality."
For instance, one analysis concluded that there was a definitive link between obesity and diets that included meat, but the diets studied included pastries and pies as well as lean cuts of meat.
Other research showed that a diet in which lamb was consumed three times a week had no effect on levels of low-density lipoprotein ("bad cholesterol") and triglycerides, both risk factors for cardiovascular disease. In research that involved people with high cholesterol levels, those who consumed meat every day had fewer markers for cardiovascular disease than those who did not eat meat.
Other research found no impact of meat on chronic diseases.
Some work has indicated that meat protein can help delay or reduce sarcopenia, i.e., a gradual loss of muscle mass, and that meat consumption in younger years contributes to memory recall in older years.
The British Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition now recommends that adults should consume 70 g (2.5 oz.) of lean red meat per day and up to 500 g (17.6 oz.) per week, according to the study.
"Meat has long played a central role in the human diet and is now recognized as an important source of essential nutrients and high-quality protein," Ruxton said. "Our review indicates that even in developed nations such as the U.K., there is evidence of under-consumption of key minerals and vitamins that support long-term health, many of which are present in red meat."
Furthermore, she said people who regularly consume lean meat tend to also eat more fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products, which suggests that including red meat in the diet does not displace other important foods.
"Meat had a central role in the diet of early man and continues to have such a role in modern times," Ruxton said.