PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 October, 2010, 12:00am

'Mummy, if you don't feed me sausages, I'm going to call Childline!' That was the threat from my nine-year-old son, who was raised to be a vegetarian because I thought it was healthier. He never did phone the British children's support charity because I relented and allowed him to have the occasional meal with white meat.

That was 16 years ago. He has since had his revenge by becoming a chef/restaurateur and cooking me steak that he insists I eat rare. And I do, because I enjoy it. And also because I believe it is a good source of nutrients.

Red meat gets bad press for several reasons. Where health is concerned, it's because its consumption is thought to increase the risk of major diseases such as cancer and heart disease.

Hardly a day goes by without news of some study revealing that too much red meat in our diet can be harmful. The definition of 'too much' has yet to be determined. Some health experts say eating it every day is unhealthy, while others say twice a day is risky, and still others are adamant that we shouldn't eat it more than twice a week.

None of that advice appears to have deterred most of the public, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, whose records show that the average amount of meat consumed per person globally has doubled over the past 40 years.

What are the implications for our health? Hong Kong dietitian Mimi Li says: 'Red meat is a good source of essential nutrients. These include protein, fat, vitamin A, all the B vitamins, vitamins D and E, minerals zinc and magnesium, and omega 3 fatty acids. It is a very important source of iron, especially haem iron, a type that is easily absorbed by the body and not found in vegetables. Therefore, a good intake of red meat can help prevent anaemia.'

The iron we get from red meat forms a crucial part of our diet, agrees Max Clark, author of Leith's Meat Bible, a well-established food industry manual. She says: 'The iron content in red meat is absorbed very easily by the body, and a kilogram of dark green leafy vegetables would have to be consumed for the body to absorb the same levels of iron as that of a regular-sized, lean beef steak.

'So, it's not that there aren't other good sources of iron out there in a range of other foods, it's just that the body can't absorb it and use it as efficiently.

'Vegetarians may eat a lot of eggs, nuts and vegetables in order to compensate for the absence of meat, but they may still end up suffering from anaemia as a lot of the iron will be passed through the system, unprocessed and unabsorbed.'

Generally speaking, the darker the variety of meat, the richer the iron content. Beef and lamb tend to be higher in iron than pork. Offal, such as kidneys and liver, contains the highest levels of iron and is the lowest in fats, so it is a healthier option.

A diet low in iron may lead to tiredness, decreased resistance to colds and infections, general impaired immunity and anaemia. Symptoms of iron deficiency include fatigue, lack of concentration and reduced capacity to exercise. Clark says that, in the case of women of childbearing age, little will do what red meat can.

'There are times when I crave red meat in the way that I crave chocolate. A real out-of-nowhere, powerful desire. When I stop to think about it, almost without fail, it is connected to the menstrual cycle. I know a lot of other women that experience this too,' she says.

It's not only women who admit to such desires. Chef David Lai says he has cravings for red meat at times when he knows that 'nothing else will do'. The co-owner of On Lot 10 in Gough Street, Central, says: 'There's a strong emotional resonance with red meat. It has primitive and lustful associations that you just don't get with other meats.' He also acknowledges what many good chefs will tell you - that a menu without at least one red meat dish would be untenable. 'It's such a fundamental category of food. If I couldn't include it, I would definitely miss it and I know my customers would,' Lai says.

He says most people have tried steak at some point in their lives and for many it's still the ultimate indulgence when dining out. He claims his diners never express concerns about the health risks associated with eating red meat. On the contrary, he says, 'I think more people are eating red meat now because of diets such as the Atkins. I eat a lot of fish, so I'm more concerned about [the possibility of] mercury poisoning'.

As there are no cattle farms in Hong Kong, most meat is imported. Chefs and health experts agree that it's important to check your source sells meat that is free of chemicals and from a place that has no history of livestock disease.

Calvin Choi, chef at the InterContinental Steak House wine bar and grill, says the benefits of eating red meat far outweigh the risks, but it's the quality that counts.

'At the Steak House, we only use the finest beef from around the world. Our menu also includes a selection of US Department of Agriculture natural beef, which is free of hormones and antibiotics,' he says. 'Like all good things, beef should be eaten in moderation, but there are definitely nutritional benefits [to be gained from eating] red meat.'

When it comes to fat content in red meat, if you choose a lean cut, its fat content will not be as high as you may think, says Li, founder of Diet Fit Nutritional Services and an Australia-accredited practising dietitian, sports dietitian and psychodietetics consultant. 'It is as lean as a piece of fish or a piece of skinless chicken breast in the same portion size. Conversely, if you pick a piece of eel, the calorie content is actually two to three times higher than lean red meat.' But she says people should be aware that the calorie content in red meat varies according to which cuts you choose.

Clark reiterates this point, adding that the cut of meat and the way it is cooked are key to eating red meat healthily. She points out that a diet that regularly includes a lot of poor-quality and processed meat will be high in saturated fats, so the calorie intake will be significant and the health benefits poor.

Processed meats, such as sausages, tend to also require the addition of extra saturated fat to cook them in. Pies, pasties and sausage rolls also have the addition of a high fat pastry topping or casing.

This, Clark says, combined with a sedentary lifestyle, amounts to a diet that is low in the nutrients that red meat can offer and high in fat, additives and calories.

'Fat plays an important part in keeping meat moist during cooking and is very flavoursome, so some is desirable. Also, fats are a necessary part of a healthy diet - for example, in the complex production of hormones,' she says.

Most cuts of meat, with the exception of prime fillet, will have enough marbling of fat embedded within the meat fibres to remain succulent during cooking. While very lean cuts are usually cooked very quickly at a high temperature, and often served rare to medium, little additional cooking fat is required as they are unlikely to dry out during the cooking process.

On average, 100 grams of trimmed beef steak will contain about 300 calories. Lamb of the same size will be about 246 calories and pork 252. Lamb and pork are usually trimmed rather more than beef steaks as the fat is not as soft and will be much stronger in flavour.

Li recommends Hongkongers eat 65 grams to 100 grams of red meat three or four times a week. But she says they should avoid sausages.