Meat, fish and eggs - How much is enough?

What exactly is a balanced diet? The meat, fish and poultry food group can make important contributions to our nutrient intakes. But how much is enough?

What do these foods contain?
Meat, fish and eggs, are rich in high-quality protein, vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids.

High-quality protein
These foods, which are all derived from animals, are the richest sources of complete, or high-quality, protein in the diet.

Proteins consist of building blocks, called amino acids. Certain amino acids cannot be manufactured in the human body, so we need to obtain these "essential" amino acids from the food we eat. During periods of rapid growth, such as pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, the teenage years, and when one is recovering from wasting illnesses, our bodies require high-quality protein in larger quantities than when we are not building body tissues. Certain athletes also need more protein when they are training to achieve optimal muscle growth.

Plant foods also contain protein, but for periods of rapid growth plant proteins are not sufficient. You need some animal protein to supply the important amino acids. Also keep in mind that one has to eat really large quantities of plant foods to obtain the same amount of protein that is contained in one egg or a small portion of meat or fish.

Infants and young children just don’t have the capacity to eat sufficient plant protein, they really need some protein derived from animals, such as milk, cheese, eggs, meat or fish.

Meat, fish and eggs, are generally good sources of B vitamins, including niacin, riboflavin, vitamin B12, niacin, and pantothenic acid. If you cut out all animal foods, including eggs and milk or cheese, then you run the risk of developing vitamin B12 deficiency, which can result in pernicious anaemia.

Meat, fish and egg yolk are the richest sources of bioavailable iron in the diet. The iron in these foods is more easily absorbed and utilised in the human body than iron found in plant foods, because the latter foods tend to contain a number of chemical compounds that bind the iron and make it difficult to absorb. Iron is important for healthy blood and to prevent iron-deficiency anaemia, which is one of the commonest deficiency diseases in the world today.

In addition to iron, the meat, fish and egg group also contains other important minerals such as zinc and phosphorus, which is required to keep the immune and nervous systems healthy.

Essential fatty acids
Essential fatty acids are nutrients which the body can also not manufacture and which we have to obtain from dietary sources.

The vital role played by essential fatty acids, especially omega-3 fatty acids, is to ensure normal development of the brain, the nervous system and the eyes before birth and during the first year of life. Research has shown that Western diets tend to be deficient in omega-3 fatty acids, which we need to boost immunity, prevent heart disease and promote infant development. The reason for this is the modern trend to eat less fish. Fish, especially salmon, mackerel and other fatty fish, are excellent sources of the omega-3 fatty acids. Nowadays, you can also buy omega-3 enriched eggs at most supermarkets.

How much do you need?
There is no doubt that eating meat, fish and eggs is good for nutrient intake, and most South Africans who can afford these foods don't need to be encouraged to eat them. In fact, more affluent South Africans, probably eat far too much red meat, what with “braaivleis, biltong, rubgy and sunny skies!”

People who eat red meat more than four times a week and consume vast portions at a sitting, are in danger of overloading their systems with saturated fat and increasing their risk of obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Guidelines for eating meat, fish and eggs:

  • Eat red meat only once or twice a week, and certainly not every day (most certainly not at two or more meals a day)
  • Replace red meat with white meat - eat chicken, turkey or ostrich instead of steak or chops
  • Selected the leanest cuts you can buy, e.g. purchase lean mince instead of standard mince and halve your fat intake
  • Cut all visible fat from meat and don’t eat the skin of the chicken
  • Replace meat with fish as often as possible
  • The SA Heart Foundation advises that anyone with cholesterol or heart problems should not eat more than four eggs a week
  • Don't add fat when preparing foods, e.g. grill meat, discard dripping, steam and bake fish, boil and poach eggs
  • Have meatless meals regularly, replacing meat with pasta or legumes (dry beans, peas and lentils, Toppers and textured vegetable protein dishes)
  • Avoid eating too much smoked, cured or charred meat, as these methods of preservation and preparation promote cancer
  • Combine plant and animal protein foods to get the greatest benefit and avoid excessive saturated fat intake, e.g. add dry beans to stew, or stretch mince with cubed soy protein

The way to use this food group, is to eat some meat, fish or eggs to ensure that you are getting sufficient protein, iron, B12, and other nutrients, but don’t overdo things, otherwise you will expose yourself to a whole host of degenerative diseases. - (Dr I.V. van Heerden, DietDoc)

Any questions? Ask DietDoc

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