Red meat can be a good source of iron, magnesium, zinc and vitamin B-12. It's also loaded with saturated fat and cholesterol but don't despair.
Because of its high-fat content, red meat has been linked to heart disease, cancer and diabetes, not to mention the ever-expanding American waistline.
On the flip side, experts say you can have your steak and eat healthy too as long as you follow a few simple rules.
Number one: choose the leanest cuts of meat.
Registered Dietitian Jennifer Brennan says, "It's best that you choose your choice cuts and not the prime cuts. The prime cuts usually have more marbling in them and they’re higher in overall fat.”
Ask your local butcher to trim off any visible fat.
Butcher Michael Mulcahy says, "Go to some place that you can trust. That’s you’re biggest thing where you can talk to the people, tell them what you want and they’re willing to do what you need.”
Do your homework before you shop. For example: three ounces of beef eye of round has four grams of fat. Three ounces of dark chicken meat with skin has 13-and-a-half - more than triple the fat.
Rule number two: cut back on portion size.
Dr. Richard Rivlin says, "This whole concept of super-sizing I think is, is a real problem health-wise."
Dr. Rivlin, a nutrition researcher, recommends the new American plate cooked up by the American Institute for Cancer Research. Instead of meat as the main course, it super-sizes the veggie portion and adds the meat as a three-ounce side dish.
Dr. Rivlin says, "You should really eat meat that’s the size of your fist or a deck of cards.”
Rule three: use low-fat cooking methods and bake instead of fry. Grilling or broiling is also fine but avoid charring from a direct flame.
“There’s some evidence now that that forms carcinogens or cancer-causing chemicals very quickly,” says Dr. Rivlin.
You'll also want to keep processed meats like sausage, bacon, salami and hot dogs to a minimum in your diet.
Jennifer Brennan says, "The preservatives that are used for those processed meats, they're definitely linked with higher incidences of colorectal cancer."
Rule four: if there's one word all of our experts agree on, it's to eat red meat in moderation, especially if you already have health problems.
Dr. David Fischman says, "As a cardiologist, we're treating individuals with predominately coronary disease, so then, more importantly than ever you have to really modify your diet."
If your diet also includes fresh fish, low-fat poultry, whole grains and plenty of fruits and vegetables, that will also go a long way toward healthy living. Diet is part of a healthy lifestyle that should also include exercise.
For more information on the fat content of red meat, visit the United States Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Information Center Web site.
Fast Facts:Americans eat about 200 pounds of meat every year. Beef makes up about 60 pounds of that meat.
Red meat contains fat and cholesterol. Eating too much can increase the risk of elevated cholesterol, heart disease and stroke.
Grilled beef tastes great, but cooking at high temperatures can cause the formation of cancer-causing compounds.
With sensible selection and preparation, red meat can safely be included on the summer cook-out menu.
Beef as a Food Source
According to the USDA, Americans consume an average of 200 pounds of meat per person/year. About 60 pounds of that meat is beef.
There are more than 50 breeds of cattle used in beef production. In the U.S., the most common beef-producing cattle are the Angus, Hereford, Charolais and Brahman. Meat labeled as “beef” comes from a full grown cow (roughly two years old and weighing about 1,000 pounds). The average steer provides about 450 pounds of edible meat. “Baby beef” (sometimes referred to as calf), comes from younger cattle weighing only about 700 pounds. “Veal” comes from a calf weighing about 150 pounds. The typical veal calf is less than three months old and has been raised on a milk diet.
Beef prepared for market is divided into four “cuts”. Chuck cuts, like eye roast and pot roasts, come from the shoulder area. Round cuts, like top round roast or round steak, come from the rear of the animal. Chuck and round cuts are taken from areas where the muscles are heavily used and thus, tend to be less tender cuts of meat. Rib cuts, like rib roast and rib eye steak, are taken from the middle front (behind the chuck section). Loin cuts, like T-bone steak or tenderloin steak, are from the middle back of the animal (between rib cuts and round cuts).
Beef is often labeled by its fat content. “Lean” beef contains less than 10 grams of fat per 100 grams of beef, 4.5 g or less of saturated fat and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol. “Extra lean” beef contains less than 5 grams of fat, less than 2 grams of saturated fat and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol. Ground beef can come from any cut of the animal, but usually has been produced from less tender meat. Ground beef must not contain more than 30 percent fat.
Red meat (which also includes lamb) contains a lot of calories, saturated fat and cholesterol. Since many people tend to eat large portions of beef at one sitting, they may be taking in too many calories and getting an excessive amount of fat and cholesterol. The high-fat foods may lead to elevated levels of LDL cholesterol (the “bad” form) and increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.
With summer grilling approaching, health experts also issue a caution about another concern with red meat. High cooking temperatures cause the amino acids (building blocks of protein) and creatine (a chemical found in muscle) to react and form chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCAs). These HCAs have been shown to increase the risk of colorectal cancer. Researchers have also found red meat to be associated with an increased risk for pancreatic cancer and lung cancer. The higher the temperature the greater the amount of HCAs in the meat.
The risk of HCA formation is not limited to beef, and includes all muscle meat. Last year, a study by a group called the Cancer Project found grilled chicken to have the highest levels of HCAs. A 3.5 ounce portion of a boneless, skinless, grilled chicken breast had 14,300 ng (nanograms, or one-billionth of a gram) of HCAs. By comparison, a grilled, well-done steak was found to have 810 ng of HCAs. A serving of barbecued pork had 470 ng, while grilled salmon with skin had 166 ng of HCAs. A well-done hamburger had the lowest of amounts of HCAs – only 130 ng.
HCAs form as a result of cooking at high temperature. Therefore, pan frying and broiling can also lead to the formation of the potentially harmful chemicals. However, experts say grilling poses one other potential risk. When fats drip down onto the hot coals, they burn and create smoke. Some of the harmful chemicals in the smoke could end up on the meat. Hot dogs, sausages and some other processed meats have their own extra sets of concerns. These meat products contain N-nitroso compounds, which have been linked to cancer in animals.
Weighing the Risks and Benefits
Given the risks, some health-conscious consumers may be tempted to give up meat forever. However, nutrition advisers say it’s not necessary to make such a hasty decision. Meat is an important source of protein. Red meat is an excellent source of iron. (Dietary experts discourage use of organ meats because they are very high in fat and cholesterol.) Meat is also an important source of B vitamins (especially B-12, which is not found in plants) and minerals, like potassium, phosphorus and magnesium.
Two important aspects of a healthy meal are balance and moderation. Balance means getting a variety of foods, including grains, fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products and healthy oils. Moderation means eating sensible portions of foods. A single serving of meat is about three ounces. That’s about the size of a deck of cards. Health experts say meat should take up no more than one-third of a dinner plate. The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends following the “New American Plate” guide: consider meat as a small “side dish” and fill the rest of the plate with vegetables, fruit, whole grains and/or beans.
Tips for Choosing and Cooking Meat
Making smart choices in the selection and preparation of meat can provide a healthy meal and reduce some of the risks associated with certain forms of cooking. Here are some recommendations gathered from experts:
Make lean choices. Trim away any excess fat before cooking. For beef, look for round steaks, top round roasts, bottom round roasts, top sirloin, top loin, chuck shoulder and arm roasts. If you’re making hamburgers, look for the leanest ground beef you can buy. The best cuts of pork are pork loin, tenderloin and center loin. Use skinless chicken.
Eat smaller portions. A single serving of meat is about the size of a deck of cards. Fill the rest of the plate with healthy vegetables.
Use low-fat cooking methods. Oven roasting and baking are done at lower temperatures than grilling, so there are generally fewer HCAs produced. Before grilling, cook the meat in the microwave for a short period of time. Precooking reduces the amount of time the meat spends on the grill. According to the National Cancer Institute, two minutes of microwave cooking reduce the HCA content by 90 percent. Slow-cooking also heats meat at a lower temperature for a longer period of time. It is an especially good method for less tender cuts of meat. Instead of a high-fat barbeque sauce, marinate the meat in citrus juices. The vitamin C in the juice helps the body absorb iron even better.
Eat meat in moderation. Try other types of meat, like fish. Fish is a good source of protein and low in saturated fat. It also contains an important nutrient, called omega-3 fatty acids. Fatty fish, like mackerel, trout, sardines, albacore tuna, and salmon, contain higher levels of essential fatty acids. Better yet, consider a meatless meal.
The USDA maintains a toll-free meat and poultry hotline to answer questions about food safety. English and Spanish-speaking advisors are available on weekdays from 10:00 a.m. To 4:00 p.m., eastern time. Click Here for details.
For tips and information about meat and grilling:The cancer project Web site
The Cattlemen’s Beef Board Web site
The National Cancer Institute Web site
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Web site
USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service Web site
For information about the new food pyramid and nutrition guidelines, click here.