Fossil evidence suggests that our ancestors have been hunting animals and eating meat for millions of years, and that we eventually became omnivores. And, with a few blips, human life expectancy has consistently risen since our ancestors began to diversify their diet. There is also research suggesting that meat consumption helped improve cognitive function, allowing early humans to assert superiority over competing species. It can be said to have made us what we are.
So, it may come as a surprise to some to discover that red meat has been linked with pancreatic and prostate cancer by the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer. It has been classified as probably carcinogenic, alongside glyphosate, the active ingredient in weedkillers, but on a lower risk level than tobacco and asbestos.
Before you race to the refrigerator and throw out the steak intended for tonight’s dinner, it is worth noting that WHO’s recommendations were more damning about processed meats such as sausages, hot dogs, corned beef and jerky. A 50-gram portion of any of these products eaten daily is said to increase the chances of bowel cancer by 18 per cent.
To put things in perspective, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that tobacco use causes nearly 6 million deaths a year worldwide; the WHO report says that processed meat consumption is responsible for 34,000 cancer deaths per year.
The Mayo Clinic recommends red meat, along with chicken, as "valuable sources of protein and other important nutrients". Its recommendation is that you avoid the fat and choose lean cuts, use low-fat cooking methods and limit your portion sizes. Experts also suggest that we have a few meatless meals each week.
In the end, diet and healthy living are about common sense. Consumed in moderation, meat can be a valuable part of a balanced diet that also includes fruit, vegetables and grains, and of a lifestyle that embraces regular exercise.