When it comes to planning out your meals, you might feel conflicted about which protein to choose. You want to reach for the steak, but are instantly reminded of the latest news stories saying that red meat is bad for your health.
But the reality is that red meat has long been known as a good source of protein—and we know athletes need protein. So, we tapped Natalie Rizzo, M.S., R.D. and Amy Goodson, M.S., R.D. to find out more about red meat’s nutrition, and what all the buzz is about.
Red meat is unhealthy because it’s high in saturated fats. Consuming a diet high in saturated fats can lead to high cholesterol and put you at risk of heart disease, so you should avoid when you can.
Scan the meat aisle at any grocery store and you’ll find rows and rows of burgers, ribeyes, T-bones, and more. In fact, the average American consumes 4.5 servings of red meat per week (but 10 percent of people eat at least two servings per day), according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report.
But research has linked eating red meat regularly to the development of chronic health issues, such as heart disease, cancer, and even early death. One study in particular observed more than 13,000 women and how often they ate red meat. The results showed that women who ate red meat more than three times per week had higher risk of cardiovascular disease. (It’s worth noting that these are are observational studies that show correlation, not causation, and don’t always take other lifestyle factors into account, such as smoking, drinking, and physical activity.)
Certain red meats—especially if they’re processed like beef hot dogs and deli meats—are high in saturated fat and calories, and can have carcinogenic (cancer-causing) nitrates, which you want to avoid when you can, says Rizzo. And, a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that red meat (and white meat) increased levels of LDL or “bad cholesterol” compared to a plant-based diet,
While it’s easy to see results like these and want to swear off all red meat forever, it’s really all about the types and portion sizes you’re consuming. The misconception is thinking of eating red meat as devouring a 16-ounce ribeye versus a 3-ounce filet. Choosing a healthy cut of meat in a proper portion size—3 ounces of cooked lean meat, according to the American Heart Association (AHA)—will ensure you get the protein benefits of red meat without going overboard.
In fact, the BOLD (Beef in an Optimal Lean Diet) study, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, showed that 4 ounces of lean beef a day actually helped lower total and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels in study participants. The same results were found when participants consumed 5.4 ounces of lean beef a day.
“It is important to note than when you compare 3 ounces of chicken breast to 3 ounces of lean beef—like eye of round roast—chicken contains 3 grams of fat and 0.9 grams of saturated fat, and beef contains 4 grams of fat and 1.4 grams of saturated fat,” Goodson says. “It really boils down to choosing a lean cut of beef and eating an appropriate portion size.”
There are over 29 healthy cuts of red meat, according to Goodson, which usually have the words “round,” “loin,” or “sirloin” on the package. These lean cuts of red meat contain 10 essential nutrients including protein, iron, zinc, phosphorus, niacin, riboflavin, choline, selenium, and vitamins B6 and B12, Goodson points out.
“I think the main benefits are the protein, iron, and B12 content,” Rizzo says. “Most Americans get plenty of protein in their diet if they do eat meat, but red meat is a surefire way to meet your protein needs in a day.” Protein helps with muscle recovery after exercise, which can contribute to strengthening performance.
Plus, for athletes like cyclists, beef boasts a variety of nutrients that can help improve performance. Nutrients found in beef, like iron, help carry oxygen to the muscle cells, which may help you have higher energy levels during exercise. Selenium is a strong antioxidant that helps with recovery and helps the immune system flight off disease and illness, Goodson adds.
Iron and vitamin B12 are necessary for energy and growth, and the iron in meat is more absorbable than the iron in plants. For women who have iron deficiency issues, which is common in athletes, red meat is a good way to get easily absorbable iron, Rizzo says.
Keep in mind you can also get protein from poultry, fish, eggs, and plenty of plant-based proteins if you’re looking to cut down on your consumption for your personal health or an environmental standpoint.
Red meat isn’t inherently unhealthy and can be a part of an athlete’s healthy diet as long as you stick with the correct portion sizes and cuts. It’s important to note there can be negative effects to eating too much of any food, Goodson says. The AHA recommendation for daily saturated fat consumption is 5 to 6 percent or less of total calories, so the fat found in a serving of beef (about 4.5g in a cut of lean beef) fits in that range.
Various cuts of sirloin and round are the leanest, but you can also find lean ground beef, Goodson explains. And beef can be cooked in a variety of healthy ways such as roasting, sautéing, and grilling.
While you can get protein from a variety of foods, no other protein packs the nutrient package that beef does, Goodson says. Plus, in order to get the same amount of protein found in 3 ounces of red meat, you would have to consume 3 cups of quinoa or 6 tablespoons of peanut butter, which is more than three times the amount of calories found in a 3-0unce portion of red meat. “Most people cannot manage eating that many more calories on a regular basis.”
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The Mediterranean diet also supports eating red meat one to two times per week, and it’s always named one of the healthiest diets in the U.S., says Rizzo. “I think that’s a perfect way to practice red meat moderation.”
Overall, getting a variety of foods is key, Goodson says. Your best bet is to still get plenty of heme iron—or iron that comes from animal protein—vitamin B12, and protein from sources like red meat, chicken, turkey, or fish.