Beef’s True Role in a Healthy Diet
Growing up on a central Illinois farm in Sangamon County and raising a small herd of Shorthorn cattle meant our freezer was always full of beef. Most of the time, Mom planned our meals around the beef in the freezer—a pot roast, hamburgers on the grill, steak, ground beef in spaghetti sauce or chili.
Fast forward to 2023 and my own family. We still have beef in the freezer that we get from my veterinarian who raises Hereford cattle on the side.
As a registered dietitian working at SIU School of Medicine, I’m often asked if eating red meat, including beef, is healthy.
A 3-ounce serving of lean beef meets the U.S. Department of Agriculture dietary guidelines as an excellent source of five essential nutrients—protein, zinc, vitamin B12, selenium and phosphorus. Lean beef qualifies as a good source of niacin, vitamin B6, iron and riboflavin.
The key, as with all foods, is moderation, balance and variety. A 3-ounce serving is much smaller than an 8-ounce ribeye served at your favorite steak place, and a 3-ounce filet is going to be much leaner than a ribeye or slice of prime rib. Likewise, the 90-10 ground beef is a better choice than the 70-10 or even 85-15 package of ground beef. Those choices make a big difference.
I emphasize to my patients and nutrition students at University of Illinois Springfield that eating healthy is a daily challenge filled with choices every time we eat.
I’m happy that today’s beef cattle are leaner, and the fat trimmed more precisely from cuts than it used to be. On average, cuts of beef are 20 percent leaner than they were in the 1980s. I’m not sure my mom had the option of even buying 90-10 ground beef at the grocery store. According to the USDA, a serving of beef qualifies as “lean” if it has less than 10 grams of total fat, 4.5 grams or less saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams cholesterol per 3.5-ounce serving. Perhaps surprisingly, there are at least 29 cuts of beef that qualify as “lean.” By comparison, they fall between a skinless chicken breast (3 g total fat and .9 g saturated fat) and a skinless chicken thigh (9.2 g total fat and 2.6 g saturated fat).
The lean cuts include round steak, sirloin tip, top round, bottom round, top sirloin, chuck shoulder pot roast, strip steak, flank steak, tri-tip roast, and steak and T-bone steak, just to name a few.
My daughter chases a 2 ½ year old, runs her own business and keeps a husband happy—and she’s often tired. She found out her iron levels were low and started eating more steak to boost those levels. It’s working.
As I researched for this article, one of the surprising things I learned about beef is that beef, like many foods, contains a package of different types of fat, including saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. About half the fat in beef is monounsaturated, the same type found in olive and canola oils. Monounsaturated fat is considered a healthy fat that doesn’t raise blood cholesterol levels and may help increase the HDL (good) cholesterol.
Chances are we’ve all heard mixed messages about beef—that beef can’t be part of a heart-healthy diet or that red meat causes cancer. Neither are true. A 3-ounce serving of lean beef supplies more than half the amount of protein most of us need daily; it helps fuel an active lifestyle and the iron in red meat is more completely absorbed in the body than iron found in bread, cereal or other plant products.
The key is to balance your plate. Besides a lean source of protein, fill your plate with fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy.
Here’s one of our family’s favorite recipes, adapted from The Healthy Beef Cookbook.
Szechuan Beef Stir-Fry
- 1 package (10 ounces) fresh or frozen vegetable stir-fry blend
- 2 tablespoons peanut oil, divided
- 2 beef shoulder center steaks (Ranch steaks), cut ¾-inch thick
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 dime-size round of fresh ginger, minced
- ½ cup prepared sesame-ginger stir-fry sauce
- ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper
- 2 cups hot cooked brown rice
- ¼ cup dry-roasted peanuts
Cut beef into ¼-inch thick strips (lightly freezing beef makes it easier to slice thin). Heat 1 tablespoon of oil over high heat. Add the minced garlic and minced ginger. Stir-fry beef until the outside surface of beef is no longer pink. Add the vegetables and stir-fry with the beef. Add the sesame-ginger stir-fry sauce and red pepper. Cook and stir for 1-2 minutes or until through. Serve over brown rice. Sprinkle with peanuts. Serves 4.
Per serving: 351 calories, 32 g protein, 29 g carbohydrate, 11 g fat (3 g sat), 64 mg cholesterol, 3 g fiber, 1147 mg sodium.