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Why a Big Mac is sometimes healthier than a roast beef dinner

We've grown up with spaghetti bolognese, fry-ups and steak and chips. But according to new guidelines, we are cooking our way to a health crisis.
  • @jeremylaurance

Separating an Englishman from his roast beef was never going to be popular. Like the French and their vin rouge or the Indians and their cricket, yesterday's advice that we should make do with less of it was bound to provoke cries of anguish.

The latest findings, from researchers at Harvard Medical School in the US, who carried out one of the largest studies of the link between red meat and heart disease and cancer, suggest it is even worse for us than had been thought.

A single extra daily portion of lamb or beef or pork raises your risk of dying from heart disease by 18 per cent and from cancer by 10 per cent. Processed meat – bacon, sausages, salami – increases the risk still further, by 21 per cent for heart disease and 16 per cent for cancer per extra daily serving. What's a red-blooded carnivore supposed to do? The answer is: eat more imaginatively. The warnings on eating red and processed meat have been sounded for more than five years and they are worth heeding because of the central place animal flesh occupies in the typical Western diet.

The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, a Government quango, last year suggested that consumption should be limited to an average of 70g a day of red meat – or about 500g a week. That advice is reinforced by the Harvard research.

What will shock many meat lovers is how easy it is to exceed this level. A typical English breakfast, including two sausages and two rashers of bacon, weighs in at around 130g of meat. Spaghetti bolognese is about 140g, a 5oz rump steak just over 100g and a typical Sunday roast serving 90g. Only a McDonald's Big Mac comes in at 70g – because the two "meat patties" it contains are so thin.

Cutting down on these amounts is not a practical option. It would leave too many diners hungry. If the meat element is to be reduced it must be replaced with something else. That could be white meat (chicken, turkey) fish or vegetables.

The simplest advice is not to abandon meat but to think more like the peoples of the Mediterranean do, where the bulk of the meal comes from vegetables and carbohydrate – pasta or rice – and meat is used more as a relish than a main ingredient.

Die-hard carnivores will protest that man has been eating meat for millennia and is not about to stop now. In fact, we probably eat more meat than our ancestors, and we live longer so have more time to develop cancer.

But this is not about becoming a nation of vegetarians. That would be unrealistic. Roast beef lovers won't be satisfied by a diet of green leaves, pulses, fruit and nuts. It is about the direction of travel, not the destination. We should be aiming to reduce our meat consumption and to increase our consumption of fruit and vegetables.

Instead, we are on the opposite trajectory – meat consumption is 50 per cent up since the 1960s. Most of that is chicken, admittedly. We eat less red meat than we did – and much less than the Americans. But in terms of overall meat consumption, we are not even going in the right direction.

There is another reason for making the change, and one not only based on self-interest. Raising animals is a very inefficient way of producing food. It takes 8kg of grain to produce 1kg of beef.

Large tracts of forest have been cleared for grazing land that could have been used to grow crops and reduce world hunger. Thinking more like a vegetarian could not only save our own lives – it might help save others.

Why the Big Mac is OK

Under guidelines issued by the Scientific Advisory Commission on Nutrition, adults should eat no more than 70g of red and processed meat per day. Of the six meals in our gallery, the only one that does not contain too much is the Big Mac.

Click here to launch gallery


Meal 1: Cooked breakfast Too much

Two standard sausages and two thin rashers of bacon.

Total meat content: 130g


Meal 2: Spaghetti bolognese Too much

Standard portion of minced beef: 140g


Meal 3: Doner kebab Too much

Containing several slices of processed marinated lamb: 130g


Meal 4: 5oz rump steak Too much

A 5oz steak is smaller than a typical restaurant serving: 102g


Meal 5: Big Mac OK

Contains two thin burgers: 70g


Meal 6: Sunday roast Too much

Assumes three slices meat: 90g