Can Beef Be Part of a Healthy Diet?

— Written By Tracy Davis
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Image of steaks cooking on top of a grillMay is Beef Month as well as Med (Mediterranean) Month. Promoting both beef and the Mediterranean diet may seem contradictory since the Mediterranean eating pattern limits red meat. Many Americans say beef is one of their favorite protein foods, so if you like a good steak or burger, you’ll be glad to hear that consuming moderate amounts of lean red meat has a place in healthy diets.

In a recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers found that healthy diets can include red meat and still be heart friendly. Red meat such as beef has been associated with an increased risk for cardiovascular disease in previous studies. But what has remained unclear is whether red meat actually causes these effects or if they are caused by other diet and lifestyle choices that people engage in alongside red meat consumption. Many studies combined both fresh and processed meats together when evaluating red meat consumption and health. Processed red meats have a very different nutrient profile than fresh meat. Processed meat products are much higher in sodium and saturated fat, for example.

Jennifer Fleming, Ph.D., assistant teaching professor of nutrition at Penn State, says “when you create a healthy diet built on fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based foods, it leaves room for moderate amounts of other foods like lean beef”. The keys to incorporating beef into a healthy diet is choosing the right cuts of meat, consuming appropriate amounts, and pairing it with other nutrient-rich foods.

When choosing beef, look for lean or extra-lean and select cuts with minimal visible fat. Look for “loin” or “round” in the name such as sirloin or tenderloin, top or bottom round, or eye of round. Choose the lowest percentage of fat when selecting ground beef.

As you plan meals for your family, keep the recommended serving size in mind. A 3-ounce portion of meat (about the size of your hand) is one serving. Most of us consume larger portions than recommended. The good news is that just a 3-ounce serving of lean beef has less than 180 calories and offers 10 essential nutrients – protein, Vitamin B12, zinc, selenium, niacin, Vitamin B6, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin, and choline. Two of these nutrients, Vitamin B12 and Zinc, are especially noteworthy. Vitamin B12 is essential in the production of red blood cells and the maintenance of the protective coating on nerves. This vitamin is found mostly in foods of animal origin and a 3-ounce serving of beef provides 41% of your recommended daily intake of B12. Zinc is a key nutrient for proper brain function especially for strengthening communications between neurons. There are a few other foods rich in zinc (spinach, dried beans and peas, shellfish, and wheat bran and wheat germ), but none of them provide the high percentage of zinc per serving as beef.

While lean beef is considered nutrient-rich, it is only one of many healthy protein choices. To better understand red meat’s place in the Mediterranean eating pattern, imagine protein foods listed on a continuum. In this protein choice continuum, the best protein choices are beans, fish, white-meat poultry, and eggs. Lean cuts of beef, pork, and lamb are next on the continuum and are better choices than dark-meat poultry and other high-fat meats. Highly processed meats are at the end of the continuum and should be greatly limited or eliminated from the diet. Consuming a variety of healthy proteins in the right amounts is easier than you might expect. With so many options, including red meat, you can enjoy a different protein choice each day of the week.

Pairing beef with nutrient-rich foods like fruits and vegetables is another way to incorporate red meat into a healthy diet. Grilled, roasted, or stir-fried vegetables, for example, can be substituted for the typical side dish of white potatoes. Topping a vegetable salad with strips of lean beef also makes a nutritious and satisfying meal. When choosing foods, remember the importance of balance, variety, and moderation. Despite what seems to be ever-changing dietary guidance, these three keys to nutrition – balance, variety, and moderation – have been consistent messages within every healthy eating recommendation over the past 50+ years.

For more information on incorporating more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and healthier fats and proteins, check out recipes and much more at facebook@rutherfordcountyFCS,, or