Meat: A lot in a little

01 December 2009

Fossil evidence indicates that humans have been eating meat for a very long time. Meat contains a wide variety of important nutrients, including high-quality protein, vitamin D, B vitamins, particularly vitamin B12, as well as iron, zinc and selenium. Consumed in moderation, meat forms part of a healthy balanced diet.

Rich in nutrients


The protein in meat is high quality, containing a complete and well-balanced range of amino acids, the building blocks for growth. Protein is particularly important for children and teenagers, athletes and pregnant women, as well as older people, when recovering from surgery or illness.

Minerals – iron, zinc and selenium

Meat is a major source of iron, and in general, the redder the meat, the higher the iron content. Although iron is found in a number of foods, meat and seafood are the only sources of haem iron. This type of iron is absorbed by the body much more easily than the iron in vegetables and cereals. Iron is needed to produce healthy blood, carrying oxygen as part of haemoglobin to all parts of the body, including the brain and muscles. A lack of iron can cause tiredness, difficulty concentrating and a reduced ability to fight infection. It is still one of the most common nutritional deficiencies across Europe. Eating meat regularly is one way to help prevent iron deficiency.2

Like haem iron, zinc from meat is more available to the body than plant zinc, making meat a significant source of this mineral, and one of the most common in Europe. Zinc is needed for growth and reproduction as well as to fight infection and heal wounds.2

Meat is also an important source of selenium. The selenium content of soil determines how much is found in the pasture and grain on which animals are fed and, therefore, in meat. In our body, certain selenium-requiring proteins are involved in antioxidant defence and DNA repair.

Vitamin B12

Meat contains a number of B vitamins, but vitamin B12 is particularly important as it is only found, naturally, in animal foods (e.g. meat, milk and dairy products, eggs and seafood). Vitamin B12 is needed to build our genetic material, DNA, so has many functions in the body, including the production of healthy blood and a well-functioning nervous system. Deficiency of this vitamin, which can cause neurological dysfunction, is becoming of increasing concern amongst older people due to a reduced rate of absorption as well as inadequate intake.


Meat fat is an important source of energy, some fat soluble vitamins and essential fatty acids. The type of fat found in meat is almost evenly split between saturated and monounsaturated. Small amounts of polyunsaturated fat may be found in meat, and these will be higher in meat from animals raised on pasture or given a specific diet, compared to those fed traditional grain. The overall fat content of meat has decreased over the years through breeding, feed changes and an increased level of trimming, before and after purchase. The use of low fat cooking methods, such as grilling, can add to this reduction. Trimmed of fat, lean meat (including skinless poultry) is low in saturated fat, with many cuts containing less than 10% fat.2-4

Safe to eat

Most countries now have quality assurance schemes, which cover all aspects of meat production from farm to fork and which promote good farming practices and food safety. In addition, legislation may be set at either national or European Union (EU) level. For example, the use of growth-promoting hormones is banned in the EU, and some countries (e.g. Denmark) allow antibiotics only for medicinal purposes. If treated, animals cannot be slaughtered until residues have dropped below a defined level.5,6

While most dietary guidelines in Europe recommend to have meat, poultry or fish on a daily basis, the World Cancer Research Fund advises to limit the intake of red meat (such as beef, pork and lamb) to a maximum of 500 g (cooked weight) per week.7

Table 1. Nutrient composition of various meats8











Protein (g)





Fat (g)





Iron (mg)





Zinc (mg)




no data

Selenium (µg)





Vitamin B12 (µg)





a muscle tissue, b breast with skin


  1. Mann N (2007). Meat in the human diet: An anthropological perspective. Nutrition & Dietetics 64 (Suppl 4):S102-S107
  2. Williamson CS, Foster RK, Stanner SA and Buttriss JL (2005). Red Meat in the Diet. Nutrition Bulletin 30:323-355
  3. Li D, Siriamornpun S, Wahlqvist ML, Mann NJ and Sinclair AJ (2005). Lean meat and heart health. Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition 14(2):113-9
  4. Honikel K-O (2008). Meat – an essential part of a balanced diet. Fleischwirtschaft International 4:21-26
  5. UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Animal health & welfare section
  6. European Commission, Food Safety section: Residues
  7. European Commission, Food Safety section: Hormones
  8. WCRF International. Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective - Online. Recommendations section.
  9. Food Composition and Nutrition Tables, 7th revised and completed edition, Ed. SW Souci, W Fachmann, H Kraut. Wissenschaftliche Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, Stuttgart, 2008.