By Omar Shamout

Here in the United States, it’s hard to throw a dart at a menu without hitting the words “hamburger,” “steak,” or “beef.” (Actually, it’s hard to throw a dart at a menu without being asked to leave most restaurants.) Back on point, however, red meat is a huge part of our national identity. But is this a good thing? There are so many articles and studies proclaiming both the benefits and the detriments of cow flesh, it seems impossible to form a definitive conclusion about whether to embrace beef or avoid it completely. Instead of asking everyone’s favorite ’80s catchphrase, “Where’s the beef?” maybe we should ask, “What’s in the beef?”

The Good:

Beef pumps you up! Long a favorite among bodybuilding enthusiasts, red meat is an excellent natural source of protein, iron, zinc, and creatine, all of which are essential to building muscle. Consider it nature’s answer to Beachbody’s Strength and Muscle Men’s Formula supplement, but in convenient grillable form.

Beef has selenium. Beef also contains a trace mineral called selenium, which binds to proteins to form antioxidant enzymes that help prevent cell damage from free radicals and are also thought to have cancer-fighting properties.

Beef has vitamin B12. Red meat is a good source of this essential vitamin that’s responsible for maintaining healthy nerve and red blood cells. However, vitamin B12 deficiency is usually only a problem for the elderly, those with pernicious anemia, or vegetarians who have not compensated for the lack of B12 in their meatless diets.

The Bad:

Beef has saturated fat. High saturated fat intake has been linked with increased rates of heart disease and atherosclerosis. Some cuts of beef can contain 30 to 40 percent fat, of which more than half can be unsaturated. Compare that to chicken—roasted skinless chicken breast is only 3.5 percent fat, only a third of which is saturated. (Keeping the chicken skin on more than doubles both of those numbers.) The leanest cuts of beef are eye of round, top round roast, top sirloin, and flank.

Tip: Limiting your portion size of red meat to 3 ounces—about the size of a deck of cards— will help keep saturated fat intake in line with nutritional guidelines. For instance, a trimmed 3-ounce portion of sirloin contains only 1 gram of saturated fat, and a trimmed loin portion only has 2 grams.

Beef has cholesterol. Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in the blood. Cholesterol comes in two types, commonly known as good and bad. Good cholesterol, or HDL (High-Density Lipoprotein), actually picks up excess cholesterol from the walls of blood vessels and eliminates it from the body. Luckily, lean beef contains this healthy type of cholesterol, which can be regulated by exercise and a diet high in monounsaturated fats. However, beef also contains LDL (Low-Density Lipoprotein), which stays in your body by clinging to the walls of blood vessels. Trimming excess fat from the beef you consume is essential to regulating your LDL levels.

Admittedly, there is new research that claims consumption of saturated fat and dietary cholesterol have no negative impact on the human body. The Paleolithic or Paleo diet, a fad that suggests we mimic the hunter-gatherer diet of our Paleolithic ancestors, even suggests that piling on the beef might be a good thing. While we’re sorting through this information, though, here’s something to think about: While there are countless studies pointing out the negative impact of too much saturated fat and cholesterol, I know of no studies that show any negative impact resulting from limiting your intake of saturated fat and cholesterol. It’s certainly food for thought.

The Confusing:

Grass-fed vs. grain-fed. The food an animal eats is also the food you end up eating, so it’s important to consider how your meat was raised when you’re deciding what to put on the grill or in the pan. Studies have shown that meat from grain-fed animals raised in feedlots often contains more total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and calories than grass-fed beef does. Products from grain-fed animals also contain less vitamin E, beta-carotene, vitamin C, and omega-3 fatty acids. Cattle raised on low-fiber grain diets are also prone to a condition known as subacute acidosis. These grain-fed animals are often given chemical additives along with a constant, low-level dose of antibiotics to keep the cattle from contracting any fatal diseases. When these antibiotics are overused in the feedlots, bacteria become resistant to them, and these bacteria are passed on to the consumer in the beef.

In addition to containing more essential vitamins and nutrients, grass-fed cattle raised in open pastures are the richest known source of conjugated linoeic acid (CLA), which is another type of good fat. CLA is stored in fat cells and has been shown to reduce cancer risks in humans. Grass-fed animals can contain as much as three to five times more CLA than grain-fed animals.

Ground beef fat content. Ground beef can’t be sold in stores if it has a fat content higher than 30%. Here’s a fat breakdown for the other types of raw ground beef available for purchase:

Type Fat % Saturated Fat %

70% Lean Ground Beef 30% 11%

80% Lean Ground Beef 20% 8%

85% Lean Ground Beef 15% 6%

90% Lean Ground Beef 10% 4%

95% Lean Ground Beef 5% 2%

Buffalo (bison) meat is considered a heart-healthy alternative to fattier beef, because while on average it contains approximately 16 percent fat, it contains less than 1 percent saturated fat.

The Preparation:

Grilling is probably the healthiest way to prepare beef without raising the saturated fat content. Stir-frying and sautéing the meat in a pan with a small amount of oil are also great ways to make the meat more flavorful by adding seasonings, low-fat or fat-free sauces, and any of a wide variety of healthy vegetables. The meat also cooks quickly in the hot pan, preventing nutrient loss.

The Conclusions:

It’s quite possible to enjoy beef as part of a nutritious diet that’s still low in saturated fat and cholesterol if we remember that being strict about portion size and choosing the proper cut are vital to getting the best out of what’s in the meat. As is so often the case, both moderation and education are key to enjoying the foods you love while also being smart and proactive about your health.

References and Further Reading:

“10 Diet & Nutrition Myths Debunked.” Gloria Tsang, RD. November 2005.

“8 Foods that Pack on Muscle.” Adam Campbell. Men’s Health.

“Nutrition/Infection Unit.” Tufts University School of Medicine.

“The Truth About Cholesterol. A Look at Cholesterol and your Health: Myths, Facts, and Controversies.” Ed Bauman, Ph.D. and Marsha McLaughlin, N.C. Share Guide, The Holistic Health Magazine and Resource Directory.

“Cholesterol and Beef.” The Irish Food Board.

“Reducing the Fat Content of Regular Ground Beef by Draining and Rinsing.” The Hillbilly Housewife.

“America’s Original Health Food.” Missouri Bison Association.

For more information on the benefits of buying grass-fed animal products, please visit:

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