There’s nothing quite like a juicy burger or steak sizzling on the grill. But beef, along with other types of red meat (pork, lamb, veal), has gotten a bad rap over the past few decades. Red meat is blamed for raising blood cholesterol and increasing the risk of heart disease. It’s also been blamed for causing cancer. On the other hand, beef contains important nutrients, like protein and iron, that are necessary for good health. Is beef healthy…or not?
- Heart health. It may seem hard to believe, but eating beef may actually be good for your heart. In one study, 36 people with high cholesterol ate about 5 ounces of beef each day, along with fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The result? Their LDL (bad) cholesterol dropped 10 percent. Why? Beef contains two types of fatty acids – stearic acid and oleic acid – that have been shown to improve cholesterol levels. However, this was a small study and it’s important to note that beef also contains other types of fatty acids that have been shown to raise cholesterol levels.
- Beef is an excellent source of high quality protein, containing about 7 grams of protein per ounce. Protein builds muscle, bones and cartilage, and is needed for many other functions in the body, like making enzymes and hormones. While most people get plenty of protein in their diets, some people, like the elderly, athletes, and people who are sick, need more. Ounce per ounce, lean beef provides only slightly more saturated fat than chicken, making it a good choice to help meet daily protein needs.
- Iron is a mineral needed to make hemoglobin, a substance in red blood cells that carries oxygen to cells and tissues. Without enough iron, you can become easily tired and weak and develop iron-deficiency anemia. About 20% of women and 50% of pregnant women have anemia. Most women need 18 milligrams (mg) of iron per day, while men need 8 mg. Beef is a good source of iron, providing about 2 mg per 3 ounces.
- Heart health. Fattier cuts of meat, such as prime rib, beef ribs and beef brisket, are fairly high in saturated fat, the unhealthy fat that is believed to increase the risk for heart disease. Studies comparing vegetarians to meat-eaters show that vegetarians tend to have lower rates of heart disease. But it’s not just saturated fat that’s the culprit. Beef contains a nutrient called carnitine that has been linked to hardening of the arteries, although scientists now believe that it is processed beef and other meats, like cold cuts and hot dogs, that are to blame.
- Type 2 diabetes. French researchers have discovered that a diet high in beef and other animal foods increases the acid load in the body which, among other things, can decrease insulin sensitivity. Impaired insulin sensitivity can lead to type 2 diabetes.
- Eating red meat (such as beef and pork) and processed meats has been linked to an increased risk of colorectal cancer. While scientists have different theories to explain this link, studies show that meat-eaters have a higher risk of colon cancer than people who eat mostly poultry and fish, or are vegetarian.
The Bottom Line
Beef has many nutritional benefits and can be part of a heart-healthy (and diabetes-friendly) eating plan. Follow these tips to help you safely enjoy eating beef:
- Choose lean cuts of beef – eye of round, top round sirloin
- Choose cuts that are graded “choice” or “select” and look for meat with less marbling.
- Keep portions to about 3-4 ounces.
- Trim any visible fat off before cooking.
- Broil, roast or grill rather than frying.
- If you grill your beef, avoid charring by cooking directly over a high flame.
- In addition to beef, eat seafood and poultry, too.
- Include a few meatless meals each week.