You've probably been told for most of your life that eating fatty meat, particularly beef, is a highway to heart disease risk, stroke, and obesity. While it is true that consuming large quantities of fatty meat on a regular basis isn't a great idea, a lot of the most current research is starting to differentiate between the health risks of different types of fat. In fact, eating fatty red meat may even be a healthy diet choice you and your family can make.
Why the Fat on Your Steak Is So Important
There are two types of fat on your beef. Often, you'll hear us refer to the first type as a fat cap or external fat, while the other is intramuscular fat which we typically call marbling. Marbling is good for the flavor and texture of your meat and it is also a gold mine of important nutrients and minerals. On the other hand, external (or subcutaneous fat) may pose higher health risks.
The primary reason that marbled fat is important for your red meat is because the fat is what makes the meat tender, juicy, and delicious. For many years, scientists have published studies that indicate an increased risk of heart disease and various cancers, while advocating for people to eat significantly less red meat. In some cases, researchers concluded that people should eat no more than one serving of red meat per week.
Modern Research that Contradicts Established Science
A recent international study examined the body of research available which concluded that eating red meat is a health risk. The findings indicate that the research out there almost universally draws conclusions that the evidence does not support.
"These recommendations are, however, primarily based on observational studies that are at high risk for confounding and thus are limited in establishing causal inferences, nor do they report the absolute magnitude of any possible effects," wrote Bradley C. Johnson, Ph.D, one of the authors of the study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. "Furthermore, the organizations that produce guidelines did not conduct or access rigorous systematic reviews of the evidence, were limited in addressing conflicts of interest, and did not explicitly address population values and preferences, raising questions regarding adherence to guideline standards for trustworthiness."
The Problems with this Research
The reason these researchers call into question the earlier findings is due to the way most studies are conducted. Primarily, these studies use polling to ask people about their habits and compare the findings against the rates of heart disease, cancer, and other health problems. What these studies fail to do is take into consideration other factors – such as drinking lots of soda or smoking cigarettes – and how those factors influence the results.
These studies also have no way of differentiating between lean beef cuts and fattier cuts, nor does it take into full account the consumption of ground beef which can vary in fat content, quality of beef consumed, and how the beef was prepared.
What researchers are finding is that average Americans probably don't need to change the amount of red meat they eat based on a desire for healthier lifestyles. Currently, the United States Department of Agriculture claims that the average American consumes a little more than 40 pounds of beef every year.
Health Benefits of Beef Fat
When we are discussing the health benefits of fat as part of a balanced diet, we will be talking about marbling which contains many healthy fats. When we are preparing fatty cuts, we typically will remove almost all of the external fat, leaving about one-quarter inch to help protect the meat, but this fat contributes very little to the flavor, tenderness, or health benefits of your meal. Let's face it, most people aren't eating fat from the outside of beef anyway.
Types of Fats
There are two types of fat we will discuss – saturated fats and unsaturated fat. Both types are found in beef and both can have health benefits and risks. Fat is the primary source of calorie intake when eating meat. Current dietary guidelines indicate that an acceptable portion of red meat is about three ounces.
Saturated fat has gotten a bad reputation for raising LDL (or bad cholesterol) while reducing HDL (or good cholesterol). The truth is much more complicated, as there are numerous studies that indicate the composition of saturated fat varies from breed, sex, and diet of the cow. Further, one of the most common saturated fats, stearic acid, has been shown to have a neutral effect on cholesterol levels.
Other fatty acids in beef have been shown to have a link to colon cancer, heart health and cardiovascular disease, and other health concerns when consumed in large quantities. Stearic acid makes up about 16 percent of the total fat in lean beef cuts. Much of the research that says you should avoid saturated fat does not fully capture the reality of eating beef and is geared toward promoting the health benefits of a low-fat diet.
Unsaturated fats are considered to be the "good" fats and have a reputation for lowering cholesterol and improving cell function. The good news is that about half of all fat in beef is unsaturated fat, mostly oleic acid. Intramuscular fat varies greatly based on the type of cow, the cut of beef, and most importantly, the diet the cow consumed. Researchers with the Korean Journal identified that Hanwoo beef had higher levels of unsaturated fats when fed a grain-based diet than either American Angus or Australian Angus beef. The study they completed showed that many of the previous studies relating beef fat to health risks were incorrect and failed to account for a number of factors. Health experts writing for the American Journal agree and the Korean study is now published by the American academic press.
Benefit #1: Rich in Vitamins and Minerals
Iron and zinc are two of the most important minerals you'll get from beef. There are variances in the mineral content of cows fed grain-based diets versus those fed on grass. Grass-fed cattle tend to be higher in many important minerals and have lower fat content overall.
Other vitamins and minerals include Vitamin B12 which is an essential nutrient found primarily in meat, niacin which reduces the risk of heart disease, and Vitamin B6 which also improves blood formation.
Beef is also an excellent source of a wide variety of trace minerals and nutrients, including all nine of the essential amino acids.
Benefit #2: Grass-fed Versions Contain more Omega-3s
The omega-3 fatty acid composition of grass-fed beef has been found to be higher than that of grain-fed beef. Omega-3 is a healthy fatty acid that is found in animals, particularly fish. Fatty acids are a key part of a healthy diet and are sometimes called dietary fat.
Benefit #3: Appropriate for Keto Diets
The Keto diet relies on the idea that you can force your body to burn fat by entering a state of ketosis. When eating on a keto diet, most people avoid almost all processed foods and focus on a meat-based diet to get calories and nutrients. Beef is higher in calories, healthy fats, and nutrients than chicken breast.
Saturated Fat and Cholesterol aren't as Harmful as Once Thought
As we pointed out earlier, the science behind beef fat and cholesterol has begun to change as researchers identify differences in types of fats and draw conclusions through research that casts doubt on the reliability of earlier studies that found fat to be carcinogenic.
Choose Fattier Steaks for Taste, Texture, and Nutrition
The next time that you are steak shopping and find yourself drooling over a finely marbled ribeye, don't let decades of bad science tell you that you can't eat fatty steaks. As part of a balanced and healthy diet, eating red meat isn't as dangerous as people once thought. You may even find that your cholesterol levels improve, you won't gain weight, and you'll have more energy.