I'll start with the health benefits meat can offer us. The most obvious nutrient we receive from meat is protein, which is essential for the human body to function properly. Animal products are the richest source of protein we can get and are a 'complete' protein – that is, they contain all nine essential amino acids that humans need to obtain from their diet to avoid malnutrition.
If you decide to give up meat, you'll have to find your protein from other sources. Eggs, dairy products and Quorn are also complete sources of protein, which is great for vegetarians, but vegans don't have to be deficient. They can get their protein fix from quinoa, buckwheat, chia seeds, soy products and seitan (all complete proteins). It's also possible to make a complete protein by combining incomplete proteins – such as peanut butter on wholewheat toast or beans with rice. Protein powder is also an option, with vegetarian and vegan products readily available – just read the label to make sure.
Meat is a rich source of iron, an essential mineral which helps transport oxygen throughout the body. Without iron, your body wouldn't be able to make enough red blood cells, and without red blood cells you won't receive enough oxygen. If you're a woman of child-bearing age, iron is especially important as you could be at risk of developing anaemia during pregnancy if you're deficient. This can lead to lack of energy, fatigue, headache, dizziness, insomnia and pica – a potentially dangerous craving for non-food items such as coal or dirt. It can also increase the risk of having a preterm or low birthweight baby who is more likely to suffer from health problems.
You can get iron from non-animal foods like tofu, spirulina, lentils and leafy green vegetables such as spinach. However, the iron from these sources is not as readily available to the human body as the iron in meat. Here's a tip though: vitamin C can encourage better absorption by the body of plant-based iron, so one way to help your body out is to consume it with a drink of orange juice or another vegetable which is rich in vitamin C. If you're worried you're not getting enough iron from your diet, consider taking a supplement.
Meat is also high in zinc and selenium. Zinc helps to build and repair cells in the body and is important for healthy muscles, bones, skin, hair, nails and the immune system, to name just a few things. Selenium is an antioxidant and also supports the immune system. It's thought to reduce certain types of cancer, especially skin cancer. Non-meat sources of zinc include beans, nuts and fortified breakfast cereals, and selenium can be found in brazil nuts, wholegrains and most vegetables. Like iron, you can buy zinc in supplement form if you feel you may be deficient, but not many people have a selenium deficiency.
Oily fish such as salmon and mackerel contain omega-3 essential fatty acids, which are polyunsaturated (AKA healthy) fats. They possess anti-depressant properties and can slow down age-related loss of brain volume and guard against dementia. Some people who don't generally eat meat will eat fish because of its health benefits. These people are known as pescatarians. However, it is possible to get omega-3s into your diet without eating fish - plant oils which contain them include walnut oil, flaxseed oil and hemp oil.
Now for a few disadvantages of eating meat. Red meat, for example beef and pork, has been linked to certain cancers when eaten in excess. It can also be high in saturated fat, which is thought to raise LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. Therefore it's sensible to limit your intake of red meat and only eat lean cuts, or stick to white meat and fish.
There's no denying the fact that processed meat is bad for you. Sausages, bacon, ham, hot dogs, burgers and cold cuts fall into this category. They can contain huge amounts of salt, fat and chemicals which lead to high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease and certain types of cancer. So yes, it's definitely a good idea to cut processed meat from your diet.
A person doesn't necessarily become healthier just by giving up meat and a vegetarian diet is only healthy if you actually eat vegetables. Eating a poor diet and only cutting out one aspect of it (in this case, meat) is not the way to better health. You also need to eat fewer sweets, refined white carbs and foods high in salt, sugar and sat fat and start to incorporate a variety of fruit and veg into every meal you eat to receive the maximum amount of nutrients you possibly can.
If you don't want to give up meat completely, you could try just cutting down. Only eat meat with one meal a day and get your other sources of protein from elsewhere. Or give up meat for one day a week by joining in with Meat Free Mondays, for example. Meat offers some amazing health benefits but doesn't have to be eaten religiously with every meal.
After reading this post, you might be wondering whether I myself am a vegetarian or a meat eater. If you're a regular reader you'll have noticed that I do mention meat in my blog and also post recipes which include it. However, I only eat chicken, fish (especially salmon) and occasionally some lean beef. Although I eat meat, something I love to do is watch videos by vegans on YouTube. I'm a vegetable monster and love recipes involving veg – and vegan videos often pile them on. I advise you to watch a few, even if you're not planning to give up meat any time soon.
So what's the answer to the question in the title of this post? Well, the truth is that you can live a healthy lifestyle without meat as long as you're eating a balanced diet and are careful not to become deficient in protein and other nutrients offered by meat. However, meat can be a beneficial addition to a healthy lifestyle as long as you're eating the right kinds, in sensible quantities.
Now I want to hear your thoughts on the great meat debate! Are you a meat eater, vegetarian or vegan and why? What health benefits have you found from either eating or quitting meat?