In gastronomy, red meat usually refers to darker-colored meat, like beef, bison, venison, lamb, duck, and goose. Nutritionally, the meat is red because it contains myoglobin, an iron-containing protein that carries oxygen from the blood to the muscles. The higher the concentration of myoglobin, the redder is the meat. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, pork and veal are also categorized as red meat, whereas chicken is considered a white meat.
In the last few decades, you have heard a boatload of bad press about red meat, in particular, beef, and how it is bad for your health. But watch out, haven’t the experts said the same about eggs and then they changed their minds? Likewise, they said that partially hydrogenated vegetable oils and a high carbohydrate diet were good, and then subsequently found that they were actually bad.
Beef has always been the most widely consumed red meat in America. In the following, you will learn about the good and bad of eating beef and whether the experts are right or wrong again.
Are There Nutritional Benefits From Eating Beef?
Beef is high in iron, something lacking in many teenage girls and women in their childbearing years. The heme iron in red meat is more easily absorbed by the body than the non-heme iron found in vegetable sources.
Beef supplies vitamin B12, which can only be found in animal products. B12 is vital for the normal functioning of nerve cells and the formation of red blood cells. It is also needed to make DNA, the genetic material in all cells. Vegetarians and the elderly often run the risk of B12 deficiency.
Beef contains zinc, which keeps the immune system healthy.
Beef provides a high quality protein, which builds bones and muscles.
Beef is rich in alpha lipoic acid, a powerful antioxidant which neutralizes free radicals in our bodies and protects our cells from damage.
Ounce for ounce, beef has three times the iron, seven times the B12, and five times the zinc of chicken.
What About The Saturated Fat In Beef?
First of all, I want to make it very clear that saturated fat from beef and other meats and dairy products does not increase your risk of heart disease and stroke. Instead, it is the industrially-produced trans fat found in margarine, vegetable shortening, and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils that is the true villain.
In a new analysis that pooled data from 21 studies and included nearly 348,000 healthy adults, researchers surveyed their dietary habits and then followed them for anywhere from five to 23 years. They concluded that there was no difference in the risks of heart disease and stroke between people with the lowest and highest intakes of saturated fat.
Here is something you should know about saturated fat. There are over a dozen different types of saturated fat, but in your diet, you predominately consume only three:
- Stearic acid has no effect on cholesterol levels and heart disease at all. Your liver converts it to a monounsaturated fat called oleic acid, which is abundantly found in olive oil.
- Palmitic and lauric acid do raise cholesterol, but they raise the “good” cholesterol more than the “bad” cholesterol. Therefore, you are still lowering your overall risk of heart disease and stroke.
Your Body Needs Saturated Fat
For thousands of years, humans have been eating saturated fat found in meats and eggs. If you avoid eating all saturated fats, your health will suffer serious consequences. Although some people may need more saturated fat in their diets than others (due to different body types and metabolic requirements), saturated fat is essential for your well-being.
- It is the preferred fuel for your heart.
- It provides a concentrated source of energy in your diet. It slows down absorption so that you can go longer without feeling hungry.
- It is the building block for cell membranes and many hormones.
- It is a carrier for important fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.
Are All Beef Good For You?
The answer is: it all depends on how the animal is raised. A growing body of research suggests that many of the health problems associated with eating beef are really problems with the commercially-raised, corn-fed beef.
Cattle have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years by grazing on grass in open pastures. Sixty years ago, America’s beef industry changed this natural method of raising cattle to concentrating them in feedlots where they are fattened on a steady diet of corn and soybeans. A corn-fed cow grows from 80 to 1,100 pounds in 14 months, whereas a grass-fed animal takes 18-24 months. As a result, corn-fed beef has become so much quicker and cheaper to produce.
Corn-fed cattle are given an arsenal of drugs (such as antibiotics) because they are constantly sick. Cattle are ruminants (mammals that chew cud – food regurgitated from stomach to mouth) and they are ill-adapted to eating corn. Studies show that corn-fed cows carry far more acid-resistant strains of E. Coli in their stomachs than grass-fed animals.
Corn-fed cattle are stuffed with growth-promoting hormones. It is believed that children are entering puberty earlier than ever before because of all the hormones they consume from commercial cattle and chicken.
There are vast differences in the nutrition profile between grass-fed and corn-fed beef. Grass-fed beef have:
- Significantly higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA). The ratios of Omega-3 to Omega-6 in grass-fed beef are about 1:1, whereas in corn-fed beef, 1:20. Remember, Omega-3 reduces inflammation and is essential for the brain and heart, while excessive Omega-6 promotes inflammation and is linked to obesity, diabetes, cancer, and immune disorders.
- Five times more Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA). In animal studies, CLA has proven to be a potent cancer-fighting substance. CLA is also sold as a supplement in health food stores for reducing body fat and weight loss.
- Higher levels of beta-carotene, vitamin E, and other powerful antioxidants. The fat in grass-fed beef is yellow in color due to the presence of beta-carotene, while that of corn-fed beef is a vitamin-deficient, pasty white.
If you buy “organic” beef, don’t automatically assume that the cattle are 100% grass-fed. “Organic” means the cattle have never received antibiotics and growth hormones and are raised on organic grains and grass without the use of pesticides and herbicides. Watch out for the so-claimed “grass-fed” beef that has been “grain-finished” (usually in small fonts on the packaging). Finishing refers to the last 90-160 days before slaughter. By feeding the cattle with corn/grain, they fatten and mature faster; unfortunately, the levels of vital nutrients like Omega-3 and CLA also decline drastically. Therefore, always look for organic beef that is 100% grass-fed.
Is Grass-Fed Beef Environmentally Friendly?
Grass-fed beef has a much lighter carbon footprint than conventional beef. Much of the carbon footprint of conventional beef comes from growing grain to feed the animals, which requires fossil-fuel-based fertilizers, pesticides, and transportation.
Grass is a perennial plant. When you rotate the cattle on grass, the grazing cuts the blades which spurs new growth, while the trampling helps work manure and other decaying organic matter into the soil, turning it into rich humus. The plant’s roots also help maintain soil health by retaining water and microbes, and healthy soil keeps carbon dioxide underground and out of the atmosphere. Through rotational grazing, land degradation can be reversed, turning dead soil into thriving grassland.
Further, farmers do not need to use fertilizers or pesticides to maintain their pastures, and need no energy to produce what their animals eat other than what they get free from the sun.
When you put the cow where it belongs – on grass, that cow becomes not just carbon-neutral but carbon-negative. Researchers estimate that with proper management, ranchers and farmers can achieve a 2% increase in soil-carbon levels on existing agricultural, grazing, and desert lands over the next two decades. (Note: It is estimated that a 1% increase over vast acreages can be enough to capture the total equivalent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions.)
The Bottom Line
Do not be afraid to include some beef in your diet. Beef has great nutritional benefits and there is no evidence of saturated fat intake and increased risk of heart disease and stroke. However, this is not your ticket to eating a 16-oz steak every night. Due to metabolic and genetic differences, many people will not do well on a diet high in saturated fat; in fact, majority needs only a small to moderate amount of saturated fat in the diet.
Whether beef is good or not depends immensely on how the animal is raised. Hence, avoid commercial, corn-fed beef. It doesn’t take rocket science to see that your health is inextricably linked to the health of the animals you eat. So why would you want to eat sick cattle injected with antibiotics and growth hormones and fed a diet of genetically modified grain/corn sprayed with pesticides and herbicides?
Buy organic, grass-fed beef that has never been corn- or grain-fed. Not only are they environmentally sustainable, they are also healthier and tastier. It is true that grass-fed beef is a lot more expensive but what is good health worth to you? We all set priorities in our lives, so what are yours?