Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and affects 1 in 3 Americans. As a cardiologist, I know that diet, exercise and overall lifestyle modification can play a big role in the prevention of chronic illness – and heart disease in particular. While the medical community still tends to focus on the treatment of disease, it is clear that much more of our focus today should be on prevention of disease through risk factor modification. Unfortunately, when it comes to diet, most of us struggle to make changes to our longtime eating habits. In fact, less than 1 percent of Americans meet the American Heart Association’s guidelines for a heart-healthy diet. For decades, we have been told that red meat is bad for your health. When physicians prescribe diets that are exclusionary and restrictive, the success and compliance rates can be quite poor. It is vital that when we use dietary modification as a tool for disease prevention, we work to include a wide variety of foods and limit absolute restrictions.
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit a family-owned and operated cattle ranch in the small town of Justin, Texas. I was amazed by the dedication of the rancher and his wife and kids – they are hardworking, dedicated people who see producing high-quality, healthy food for Americans as their life’s work. During my visit, I was able to speak with nutrition experts and obtain a better understanding of the improvement in beef’s nutritional profile over the years, as well as the role lean red meat can play in an overall healthy American diet. Registered dietitian Shalene McNeill, the executive director of nutrition research for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the beef checkoff program, says that “One of the things I find people – even my health professional colleagues – are most to surprised to learn about beef is how much leaner it has become over time. Today, many popular lean cuts of beef, like sirloin steak, top round roast and 95 percent lean ground beef, have only 150 calories on average and are important sources of protein, iron, zinc and B vitamins.”
Why Does Red Meat Have Such a Bad Rap?
It’s important to note that in the case of red meat, much of the evidence supporting the claim that red meat consumption cannot be a part of a healthy diet was actually derived from studies that were conducted in the 1990s and before. Now, there is new evidence that red meat – when taken in moderation – can be a part of an overall heart-healthy diet. Many of these studies have examined and modified older plant-based diets, such as the DASH Diet, and looked at how the addition of red meat to these plans affects health outcomes.
[See: The 38 Best Diets Overall.]
So What Exactly Is DASH?
The DASH Diet – which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension – was originally developed to lower blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease. A DASH Diet typically includes intake higher in fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and lean protein, mostly from plant sources. When most physicians discuss the DASH Diet, they recommend limiting red meat. However, when initially developed decades ago, the original DASH Diet actually called for 6 ounces of lean protein, including lean red meat, each day. Much of what we know about lean protein and the DASH Diet has been lost in translation over the years. In reality, the DASH Diet was not designed as a way to decrease red meat consumption – it was developed as a way to reduce saturated fats.
Let’s Look at the Facts About Red Meat
1. Most of the cuts of beef sold in grocery stores are lean. Nearly 70 percent of all red meat cuts sold today are considered lean according to criteria set forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This has evolved over the last 20 years, when ranchers and grocers realized they needed to take steps to improve the impact of red meat on overall health. Trimming practices have changed significantly, and breeding techniques have evolved in such a way as to change the fat composition of cattle.
2. Beef consumption can lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure. In the BOLD study – which stands for Beef in an Optimal Lean Diet – nutrition researchers at Penn State modified the DASH-style diet and included lean red meat as a protein source. In the end, they found that lean red meat could actually lower cholesterol levels as effectively (and in some cases to a greater degree) than DASH alone.
3. As a protein source, beef is better than most plant proteins. It contains far more protein than common plant proteins like quinoa or peanut butter when you compare it calorie for calorie. When eating plant foods, you have to consume more calories in order to obtain the same protein intake. This can be important for folks who are counting calories in order to maintain a healthy body weight.
4. The predominant fat in beef is monounsaturated fat. Believe it or not, most of the fat in today’s beef is monounsaturated. In fact, beef only accounts for 10 percent or less of the saturated fat in the typical American diet. Monounsaturated fat is a type of “healthy fat” found in olive oils and is considered an important component of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. Only 5 percent of the fat found in beef is polyunsaturated – the fat that most cardiologists and nutrition experts suggest we get from eating nuts and fish.
[See: The 38 Easiest Diets to Follow: in Pictures.]
Putting Red Meat in Perspective – What Does it Mean to Us?
- Today’s beef is leaner than ever before, and patients can eat lean cuts as part of an overall healthy lifestyle. Look for loin or round when purchasing meat in the grocery store, and always read labels on ground beef and choose at least 90 percent lean.
- Numerous clinical trials have demonstrated that eating a modest serving of beef (4 to 5.5 ounces) of lean beef can support heart health as part of a comprehensive strategy to lower blood pressure and cholesterol. This means adding portions of red meat to our diet can actually help lower cholesterol and maintain better blood pressure control. With any food and beverage choices we make, the key is moderation and portion control. It is also important to spread protein intake throughout the day – protein of some sort should be included in every meal.
- When we add variety to our diet, we can be more successful, and compliance with a healthy lifestyle increases. Lean beef can add variety to our diet. Diets that are based on restriction and exclusion are doomed to failure. Set reasonable goals and expectations in order to maximize your chances for success when making lifestyle and dietary changes.
- Beef is nutrient dense, and over half the fats in beef are monounsaturated. Data has made it clear that beef is an excellent source of protein and contains 10 vital nutrients, including selenium, iron and zinc. Beef can and should be a part of an overall healthy diet.
[See: 17 Ways Heart Health Varies in Women and Men.]
Just as with any type of lifestyle modification, we cannot focus only on one aspect in order to achieve better health. We must consider exercise, diet and smoking cessation as critical components to reducing our risk for heart disease. Moderation and variety are the keys to success when making dietary changes. When it comes to diet, we must continue to focus on healthy fruits and vegetables, but we should also make sure to incorporate multiple servings of protein – from a variety of sources, including red meat.
There remain some controversies surrounding red meat consumption, such as TMAO or trimethylamine-N-oxide content and its role in heart disease content, as well as some suggested pro-inflammatory effects of red meat. And it’s clear that more research is needed to better clarify these issues. However, even though red meat has gotten a bad rap in the last several decades, the most current evidence suggests we can follow an AHA heart-healthy diet and consume modest portions of red meat at the same time. When we allow ourselves to eat things we like, we’re much more likely to realize increased compliance and improved outcomes.