Should runners be eating red meat?

Leading sports dietitian and RW columnist Renee McGregor weighs up the pros and cons…


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In recent years, increasing numbers of us have opted for a more plant-based diet, with the latest data by DEFRA (2022) showing that the consumption of meat has dropped by 14% in the last decade. This decline could be due to health, environmental or ethical considerations, but as runners, are we potentially missing out on key nutrients by avoiding meat?

Red meat, opposed to poultry, has particularly taken the hit, with fears around its higher saturated fat content and associations with a higher risk of certain cancers.

However, it’s also important to highlight that red meat (that is lamb, beef and pork) also provides us with a high dose of a wide range of important nutrients, such as proteiniron and B vitamins. Let’s weigh up the pros and cons.

The benefits of red meat


Protein is an important nutrient for anyone who is physically active as it has a role in the response to exercise. As a rule of thumb, if you are taking part in endurance exercise, you’ll need anything from 1.6-2.2g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day depending on your age, training age, gender and the volume and intensity of your training.

Per 100g, a portion of any red meat provides around 26g of protein, in comparison to eggs, which are also high in biological value, at 13g and a plant-based option such as chickpeas, that provide 19g. However, the protein in meat is also complete in that it contains all the essential amino acids, whereas plant-based options need to be combined, for example beans and grains, in order to be complete.

That said, it’s much easier from a volume perspective to consume 100g of meat compared with chickpeas and rice in order to obtain a complete source of protein. A 2023 study in the Journal of Nutrition concluded that average muscle protein synthesis rates were 47% higher when participants consumed a meal based on beef in comparison to the same value of protein supplied by a plant-based meal. So while it is absolutely possible to obtain the nutrients you require for recovery and repair via a plant-based diet, in practice, a carnivore diet, especially one containing red meat, is more efficient.

Finally, a diet higher in protein also tends to have higher satiety, which can help those runners who are trying to be mindful of their weight. That said, just to caveat, this is as part of a healthy, balanced diet that also includes good and sufficient sources of complex carbohydrates.


Red meat is also an excellent source of iron. Iron deficiency anaemia is one of the most prevalent causes of poor performance in runners. While plant-based diets and diets that include white meat and fish do provide sources of iron, the concentration in white meat and fish is much lower, while iron absorption, particularly from vegetarian and vegan options, is much more difficult. As an athlete, iron is one of your key nutrients as it supports the optimal transport of oxygen around the body and especially to working muscles.

Zinc and B vitamins

Similarly, red meat is a great source of zinc, which is involved in maintaining optimal immune function and also critical in building muscle. Plant-based diets tend to be significantly lower in zinc.

B vitamins are necessary for energy-producing pathways of the body, synthesis of new cells (such as red blood cells) and for the repair of damaged cells. Red meat is an excellent source of all B vitamins, but in particular B12, which is only available in animal products.

While all these nutrients can be supplemented in diets that avoid red meat, it’s important to appreciate that their absorption and bioavailability will always be optimal from food sources.

Red meat health risks

One of the main reasons many of us have turned our back on red meat are the concerns around the higher saturated fat content. It has been shown that a diet high in saturated fat can contribute to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. So any runner that has a family history of heart disease or has high cholesterol should be more mindful of red meat consumption. Regardless of risk, it’s recommended that leaner cuts or lower fat mince for example, are more appropriate.

How often is it OK to eat red meat?

Those who have no risk can consume 3-4 servings of red meat a week, while those with risk should reduce this to 1-2 servings a week in order to ensure that they still get the benefits.

One type of red meat that should be kept to a minimum, or avoided altogether, is processed meat, including ham, bacon, sausages and salami. This is one area of nutrition where the public health messaging is relevant even if you are an active individual – the links are fairly conclusive that higher intakes of processed red meat are associated with higher risk of certain cancers, namely colon cancer. Presently there are no conclusive recommendations on the amount of processed red meat that is safe to consume.

Is it necessary?

While the evidence is clear that there is value in consuming red meat if you are a runner, it still doesn’t mean it is necessary. A well-curated plant-based diet or a diet that avoids red meat can still provide all the nutrients you require for health and performance, but it just takes a little more consideration – for example, ensuring that you’re optimising your absorption of iron by consuming plant-based options with, or combining grains and beans to ensure you’re consuming all the essential amino acids and being mindful of certain nutrients that are only available from animal sources, such as B12, Vitamin D and omega 3 fatty acids, and supplementing.

As in most cases when it comes to nutrition, a sensible approach, ideally having as much variety as possible, will ensure that you are unlikely to be deficient in key nutrients that support both health and performance.

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