Meaty questions ─ how do you prioritise protein to benefit your health and budget?

9 JUNE 2022

Meaty questions ─ how do you prioritise protein to benefit your health and budget?

Australians are the largest annual consumers of protein in the world at 120 kilograms per person per year, though you don’t need to consume that much protein, or purchase expensive cuts, grass fed, or free range versions.

Meat prices have jumped more than 12 per cent in the past year, and consequently sitting down to a steak is becoming a luxury that many Australians cannot afford.

Australians are the largest annual consumers of protein in the world at 120 kilograms per person per year, though you don’t need to consume that much protein, or purchase expensive cuts, grass fed, or free range versions – which is good news for your health and your wallet!

 Dr Marissa Samuelson, Lecturer in Nutrition and Dietetics in the Charles Sturt University School of Allied Health, Exercise and Sports Sciences explains why our bodies need protein at different life stages, and how we can consume it without breaking the bank.

Why do we need to eat protein, and why is red meat protein unique?

Meat is an important source of nutrition for humans.

The key nutrients in red meat are iron, B12 and protein, and while it is possible to extract these same nutrients from other food sources, the availability of nutrients from meat is better than many other foods.

Is the quality of the meat, a reflection of the quality of the protein?

From a scientific point of view, the quality of protein is often viewed with respect to it’s biological value, which describes how much of the protein is absorbed by the body. Animal sources of protein do tend to have higher biological value than plant foods.

However, plant sources of protein have other benefits, such as a better fatty acid profile, fibre and other important plant phytochemicals which are important for optimal health and wellbeing.

Consumers often see quality slightly differently and beyond just the nutritional value of food.

Factors like the way and where the food is produced (e.g. organic), how the animal is treated and the life the animal leads (e.g. caged versus free range eggs), and what the animal is fed (e.g. grass versus grain fed beef) often make a big difference to what people purchase.

These changes to food production often translate into a higher cost. The good news, though, is that it is absolutely possible to obtain the nutrients we need for good health without breaking the bank.

A recent systematic review  from the UK of the evidence of whether organic meat is better from a nutrition perspective found the evidence was too weak to draw conclusions.

Another argument is that organic products contain less nasties with respect to pesticides, hormones or antibiotics. In Australia, the levels of these compounds in food are well controlled by our Australian Standards Code and products not labelled organic are therefore safe to consume.

When it comes to grain fed versus grass fed, the difference is probably in the omega-3 fatty acid content, in that grass fed is probably higher in omega-3 fats. However you would still get much more omega-3 in a tin of salmon than beef.

Therefore, preparing a slow cooked cheaper cut of red meat and serving it with lots of vegetables and wholegrains will offer you similar health benefits as a premium cut seared in your pan.

How you do you boost your protein intake and not break the bank?

It is important to consider not only the type of red meat you eat as well as the quantity.

Excess consumption of red meat (more than 100–120 grams per day) and consumption of processed meat like sausages has been associated with the risk of colorectal cancer, and other large-scale research has found that regular red meat consumption increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

To avoid excess red meat consumption while maintaining your intake of key nutrients, iron, B12 and protein, across all life stages it’s important to eat a range of foods.

While there is some variation in the amount of these nutrients in different foods (especially iron), we most certainly can get these nutrients from other foods within the lean meats/alternatives food group such as chicken, fish, eggs, nuts, legumes. We can also get protein and zinc from dairy and grains (grains being a lesser source of protein).

For example, chicken has roughly the same amount of protein but far less iron and B12.

Kidney beans are a great source of iron but people often shy away from using them if they are not used to them. One way to introduce them is to halve the amount of meat used in a mince dish and add a can of rinsed kidney beans. Baked/kidney beans also add fibre to the diet (e.g. red kidney beans contain 9.8 grams per 100 grams of fibre).

Eggs are also a good source of iron, but do contain less iron percentage-wise than red meat. Parents are often concerned about introducing foods like eggs and peanut butter to children given allergy concerns.

However, the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) recommends that “ … all infants should be given allergenic solid foods including peanut butter, cooked egg, dairy and wheat products in the first year of life. This includes infants at high risk of allergy”.

Fish also has far more omega-3 fatty acids than red meat. Tinned salmon in springwater has more iron but slightly less of the other nutrients, so it is still a good alternative to fresh fish and much cheaper.

There are some precautions in consuming fish in pregnancy, breastfeeding and infancy due to the mercury content which can impact on development. More information can be found  at Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ).

Vegetarian processed meats are becoming more widespread in the market, but not necessarily always a healthy alternative; as per any processed food they can be high in salt and fat, so not necessarily a great choice. These products can also be quite expensive.

A whole diet approach on a budget?

We cannot ignore the constraints that people experience when shopping for food. The high cost of food, and poor availability and accessibility of various foods, especially in rural and remote areas, can mean people cannot obtain a sufficient amount of nutritious food for themselves and their families. This is known as food insecurity, and is experienced by many in Australia.

An emphasis on a whole of diet approach that incorporates a variety of foods allows for individual variation in what we can afford, as well as what we find morally and socially acceptable.

Frozen and tinned versions of meat, vegetables and fruits offer the same, or similar nutritional benefits as fresh products at a reduced cost, while offering a longer shelf life.

Cost is clearly an important consideration in relation to food consumption. An Accredited Practising Dietitian can help people in all stages of life to consume food that fits in the budget as well as being nutritionally valuable and enjoyable.

Media Note:

To arrange interviews with Dr Marissa Samuelson please contact Lisa Ditchfield at Charles Sturt Media on mobile 0417 125 795 or


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