When it comes to starting (or restarting) your health journey, one of the first things many people opt for is modifying their meat intake — either by reducing it or deciding to cut it out completely. After all, meat has gotten a bad rep (some research has linked eating too much to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and other health issues).
But according to Jim White RDN, ACSM, an exercise physiologist, meat provides a wide array of nutrients utilized by the body for growth, maintenance, and repair.
“Meat as a whole category is an excellent source of protein, heme iron, and micronutrients such as B-12, zinc, and selenium. Even the bones, in creating bone broth and utilizing the marrow, have nutritional benefits like addition collagen and [they’re] rich in iron,” he says.
Fat can be healthy for weight lossOpting for leaner cuts of meat can help with your health journey, but the fat on meat isn’t unhealthy per se. It’s just that you can eat healthier sources of fat, such as in avocados, olive oil, salmon, nuts, and seeds. Ultimately, whether or not you should be eating less fat depends on your preferred diet.
The truth is, meat can be good for you — but the steak, chicken thigh, or pork chop you choose for dinner is more than just “meat.” There’s food labels, select cuts, fat content, and more to consider.
We’re about to break it all down for you, so you know exactly what to shop for at the grocery store.
A quick trip to the freezer section of your local grocery store and you’re sure to notice countless different labels on your meat products. Organic, grass-fed, free-range… do they have any real benefits as opposed to conventional meat?
Organic meats are said to have a slightly higher range of omega-3 fatty acids — which are natural anti-inflammatories. Grass-fed meat often goes hand in hand with organic. These animals generally have outdoor access.
But it’s a little more complicated, White notes. Grass-fed doesn’t always mean 100 percent grass-fed, as some can be grain finished — meaning prior to slaughter they consume grains.
Go organic, if possible Organic meats come from animals that are able to graze in an open pasture, are fed 100 percent organic feed and forage, and aren’t administered any hormones or antibiotics. Although organic meat can be more expensive, it’s a slightly healthier option.
Much like organic meats, grass-fed meat is much higher in omega-3 fatty acids as well as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) — a fatty acid that has been linked to weight loss and body composition, White says.
However, the amount of protein between grass- and grain-fed meat appears to be insignificant.
When it comes to chicken, a 2014 study performed by a Canadian research study group concluded that organic free-range chicken was lower in fat compared to caged chicken. However, when the skin was removed there was no difference in fat content.
Beef, or red meat, comes from cattle. It’s a complete, high-quality protein food that contains all the essential amino acids the body needs to support physical activity and a strong, healthy life.
Beef is a good source of:
- vitamin B-12
“In just one 3-ounce (oz.) cooked serving, you’re getting 10 essential nutrients, including about half your daily value for protein,” White says.
White went ahead and broke that down a little further: The dietary reference intake for protein is 0.8 grams per kilograms (g/kg) of body weight. This equals about 60 grams of protein for an average sedentary male weighing 160 pounds, and 50 grams for an average sedentary female weighing 140 pounds. In this case, half the ‘daily value’ for protein would be about 30 grams for men and 25 for women.
Of course, there isn’t a true “daily value” for protein as these numbers vary greatly depending on the size, activity level, and health of a person, he notes.
Choosing the leanest cut for weight loss...
According to White, “Sirloin steak tends to be one of the leanest cuts of beef making it a great option in a health-conscious diet. When comparing cuts of beef, look for [a] lower amount of saturated fats per serving.”
“If you are shopping at the butcher case, look for cuts of beef with less fat marbling throughout, and trim the fat from the edges of the meat prior to eating for a great protein serving with less fat. Also look for top round, loin and you can be sure it’s one of the leanest. Flank steak is lean also.”
Pro-tip: Fat adds flavor! Don’t cut the fat before cooking, only prior to eating.
Grass-fed beef is better for the environmentThe National Trust, a conservation nonprofit located in the United Kingdom, determined that grass-based beef production actually had reduced greenhouse gas emissions when the carbon sequestration and storage of grassland pasture was considered.
Chicken is high in protein and lower in fat compared to other animal sources like beef. When we think chicken, we often refer to white meat. The white meat, primarily chicken breast, is a wonderful addition for people who want a low-fat, high-protein diet.
However, we can’t forget the dark cuts. While white meat is lower in fat than dark meat, the dark meat is higher in iron, zinc, selenium, and B vitamins.
Benefits of chicken
- B vitamins
According to White, a 3-oz. serving of chicken breast (white meat) with no skin provides 25 grams of protein and about 130 calories. Three ounces of chicken is about the size of a deck of cards.
Choosing the leanest cut for weight loss...
“A skinless chicken breast is the leanest cut of chicken. It is lower in calories than other cuts of chicken while still providing a high-protein option,” says Jackie Sharp Womble, MS, RDN, LD, EP-C.
That being said, a fantastic lower-cost cut are drumsticks. Drumsticks are very close in value in terms of protein (to skinless chicken breast), and only slightly higher in saturated fat than the skinless breast meat, but have more monounsaturated fats.
Pro-tip: Look at the differences in saturated fats and monounsaturated fats in your chicken, but keep in mind that removing the skin, which often comes on drumsticks or thighs, can help reduce the fat content.
Buy happy chickens Another case for purchasing from cruelty-free farms: A chicken’s stress level at the time of its slaughter can actually affect its protein expression.
The BBC recently created a list of the 100 most nutritious foods and pork fat ranked eighth. Considering much of the other research that links fat to heart disease, this is pretty surprising news — but the research doesn’t lie.
Pork, or “the other white meat” is high in protein and minerals, and provides numerous cuts like tenderloin to bacon.
One serving of pork has...
- vitamin B-6 and B-12
A study analyzed the raw values of each product and compared them to the nutritional needs of the body. The fat in pork was found to contain more unsaturated fats than compared to lamb and beef — meaning more omega-3 fatty acids.
It’s also high in oleic acid, which is a monounsaturated fat that’s readily available for use by the body.
Choosing the leanest cut for weight loss...
Much like beef, some cuts of pork can be high in saturated fat. However, there are some great lean options that can be wonderful to incorporate into the diet. Tenderloin is one of the leanest cuts of pork available.
Pro-tip: When reading meat labels, consider the saturated fats compared to the serving size. Pork is a great source of protein and nutrients, but when processed and flavored can come with a high amount of added sodium such as in bacon and sausage.
Protein tends to digest faster than fat in the body, so leaner cuts of meat should digest more quickly. While fish and shellfish typically digest first. Chicken, beef, and then pork come after.
How protein breaks down in your body Protein is broken down by a process called denaturation. Your stomach produces certain enzymes that help break down proteins into amino acids, such as pepsin. Digestion of the amino acids continues in the intestines after leaving the stomach and can then be absorbed into the bloodstream and used throughout the body.
It also turns out that the process of digestion doesn’t change too much based on whether your meat was grain-fed or grass-fed, or if your chicken was caged or free.
But there may be a case for ground beef instead of steak.
According to a 2013 trial: “Older individuals generally experience a reduced food-chewing efficiency. Minced beef is more rapidly digested and absorbed than beef steak, which results in increased amino acid availability and greater postprandial protein retention.”
Womble notes that cooking pork and chicken to the proper temperatures kills bacteria and parasites like trichinosis and salmonella. When it comes to meat, proper cooking techniques can help mitigate most health risks.
It’s also important to pay attention to where your meat is coming from. As Womble says, “[What] pastured pork eats is better for the animal (since it is what they would eat naturally) and therefore leaves us eating healthier animals.”
Meat health risks
- Bacteria in meat: Free-range animals have the potential to carry more disease, particularly bacterial infections. Pay attention to where your meat is coming from.
- Mad cow disease (BSE) and beef: The chances of contracting BSE are highly unlikely, as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires that all brain and spinal cord materials be removed from cattle considered high-risk. These cow products don’t enter the U.S. food supply.
- Antibiotics and pork: The excessive use of antibiotics in pigs in factory farms is said to be a contributing factor to the growth of “superbugs” in humans, which are resistant to other antibiotics. Researchers have discovered antibiotic-resistant bacteria in hog farms in the United States and China.
- Salmonella and chicken: Salmonella is bacteria that can cause food poisoning. Typically, handling raw chicken incorrectly is where the risk of salmonella comes from. Cooking and maintaining good food hygiene can help lower your risk.
Fat can be healthy for weight lossMad cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is a neurological disease that damages a cow’s brain and spinal cord. It gets worse over time. The human equivalent is Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), which is believed to be caused by eating the contaminated brain and spinal cord beef from cattle infected with the disease.
According to White, eating a diet of whole foods — primarily plants and high-quality animal sources — seems to show the greatest benefit in terms of long-term health and longevity.
But it’s also undeniable that reducing meat intake can actually be helpful, too.
So when it comes to meat selection, make sure you’re getting the best cut of meat for the most benefits and nutrients. Given the nutritional value that can be gained from consuming meat, restricting your intake could potentially be unhealthy. So if you do decide to cut out meat, make sure you’re supplementing with the necessary nutrients.
But eating fattier cuts of meat every now and again, like pork belly, won’t hurt either. It’s about being intentional and balancing out your nutritional needs, depending on what your diet is.
Stephanie Barnes is a writer, front-end/iOS engineer, and woman of color. If she isn’t asleep, you can find her binge-watching her favorite TV shows or trying to find the perfect skin care routine.