Many people believe red meat should not be eaten more than once a week. Voiced by the media and healthcare providers for years, this recommendation has led to the demonization of red meat. However, this guideline is unsubstantiated and has no scientific data to back it up. Further, both the American Heart Association (AHA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture My Plate (USDA 2010) say that lean beef can be part of a healthy diet.
According to the AHA, red meat can be part of a healthy diet as long as you keep an eye on portions. The AHA recommends eating no more than 6 ounces of skinless chicken, fish and lean meat per day.
The USDA’s MyPlate guidelines for protein are based on age and gender. They are appropriate for people who get fewer than 30 minutes of physical activity each day, beyond their daily activities. People who are more physically active may be able eat more lean protein while staying within their daily calorie needs. Most people consume enough protein, but they need to make leaner protein choices to lower their calories and reduce saturated fat and cholesterol intake. The following are the lean protein recommendations from the USDA’s MyPlate for men and women (USDA 2011).
Men, by Age
19-30: 6½ ounces per day
31-50: 6 ounces per day
51 and above: 5½ ounces per day
Women, by Age
19-30: 5½ ounces per day
31-50: 5 ounces per day
51 and above: 5 ounces per day
Go Lean with Protein
The USDA’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends choosing a variety of lean protein foods such as lean meat and poultry, eggs, beans and peas, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds (USDA 2010). The USDA also recommends replacing protein foods that are high is solid fats (that is, higher in saturated fat and cholesterol) with foods that are lower in solid fat and overall calories. As such, it is important to understand what constitutes “lean” to make healthier choices at the market.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines meat as “lean” if it has less than 10 grams of total fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per 3.5-ounce portion. Lean cuts of beef include top loin (strip) steak, top sirloin, tenderloin (filet mignon) and 93%-or-leaner ground beef with much of the fat coming from the unsaturated kind (USDA). But red meat goes beyond just beef. Lamb is another source of lean red meat with the leg, loin and shank providing the leanest cuts.
In addition to having a healthier fat and cholesterol profile, lean red meat also provides many essential nutrients, making it a nutrient-dense food. Three ounces of cooked beef is an excellent source of vitamins B6 and B12, niacin, zinc and selenium, while 3 ounces of cooked lamb is an excellent source of protein, vitamin B12, niacin, zinc and selenium, and a good source of iron and riboflavin.
So, which types of meats should be eaten sparingly? Higher-fat cuts of beef, lamb, hot dogs, sausages and any other protein that does not meet the “lean” criteria. These are all high in cholesterol and artery-clogging saturated fat; many processed meats and also high in sodium.
At the Market
Today, lean cuts of red meat are widely available at local markets or butchers. Some local farms and farmers’ markets also sell locally grown beef. To keep portions and expenses under control, purchase exact portions from your butcher or farmer. As a general rule of thumb, order 4 to 5 ounces of raw meat per person. For a family of four, this would be between 16 to 20 ounces (or 1 to 1¼ pounds). Once cooked, the beef usually shrinks by about one-quarter—so a 4-ounce portion of raw beef would shrink to 3 ounces. Alternatively, if meat is purchased in bulk, portion it out into resealable freezer-safe bags before freezing.
Bottom line: Lean red meat can absolutely be part of a healthy eating plan and be eaten more than once every week—as long as you keep portions in check.
Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is the founder of Toby Amidor Nutrition ( http://tobyamidornutrition.com) and the author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More than 130 delicious, healthy recipes for every meal of the day (Grand Central Publishing, May 2014). She is a blogger for FoodNetwork.com Healthy Eats and U.S. News Eat + Run, a nutrition advisor for Sears FitStudio.com and an adjunct professor at Teachers College, Columbia University.