Where’s Your Beef?

By Katherine Ingle
Dietetic Intern

The dilemma over whether you should eat beef has been the controversy of the 21st century. Millions of people worldwide enjoy beef, but findings in research are leaving people puzzled and scratching their heads. The current information may be confusing, misleading and absent of conclusion. Several studies have observed that eating beef will have positive and/or negative outcomes on health and the environment, concurrently. If you are a carnivore and do not want to put the fork down, you may be interested in learning how to select healthier and leaner cuts of beef to improve your health.

Dietary Fat, Cholesterol, and Your Body

Beef is an abundant source of iron, B12, zinc, protein, and fat. Fat isn’t so bad—it is actually an important part of a healthy, balanced diet. However, fat contributes to a large amount of calories and different types of fat vary in the effects on health. The type of fat found in beef is saturated fat. Intake of saturated fat comes predominately from animal sources including meat and dairy products (Harvard). Plant-based sources also contain saturated fat but in lower quantities. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends individual consume less than 10% of calories per day from saturated fats. The American Heart Association recommends a stricter limit with 5-7% of total daily calories from saturated fat. The amount of saturated fat in beef varies by cut and style. Overall, meat should be limited to 5-oz a day, 3-oz per serving—regardless of saturated fat content. If you are a visual learner, a 3-ounce portion of cooked meat is about the size of a deck of cards.

If you have concerns about your cholesterol levels, a high intake of saturated fat is associated with elevated levels of LDL cholesterol, or “bad” cholesterol. LDL cholesterol can cause a buildup of plaque which can increase your risk for heart disease or stoke. Generally, foods high in saturated fat should be limited while sources of unsaturated fat (monounsaturated or polyunsaturated), abundant in non-animal sources are encouraged to be consumed. Sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat are liquid plant based oils, avocados, nuts, seeds, and fish.

Sources of unsaturated fat have been linked to increase HDL cholesterol, or “good” cholesterol, and they positively impact health and lower overall disease risk. Monounsaturated fat can be found in nuts and high fat fruits such as olives and avocados. Red meat and whole milk products also contain monounsaturated fat. You may have heard about omega-3 fatty acid found in nuts, seeds, vegetable oils, fish, and leafy vegetables. Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat that have been observed to decrease heart disease risk. There is evidence that eating up to 15 percent of daily calories from polyunsaturated fat in place of saturated fat can lower heart disease risk (Harvard). The American Heart Association suggests that 8-10 percent of daily calories should come from polyunsaturated fats.

Click to view the full-size chart (PDF).

Fat Content of Beef: How Can You Select The Best Kind?

Life is a little simpler because beef is now required to be labeled AND there is strict regulation on claims made about fat content. Labels on beef are considered nutrition claims and are subject to government regulation. Claims of “extra lean” and “lean” are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) based on its fat and cholesterol content. Leaner cuts of meat have less overall fat than its higher fat counterpart. The USDA defines a lean cut of beef as a 3½-oz per serving containing less than 10 grams total fat, 4.5 grams saturated fat, and 95 milligrams cholesterol. The USDA defines an extra-lean cut of beef as a 3 ½-oz per serving with less than 5 grams total fat, 2 grams saturated fat, and 95 milligrams cholesterol. Ground beef is labeled similarly and includes a percentage of lean beef, representing the lean meat-to-fat ratio. For example, ground beef is commonly identified as “70% lean/30% fat” or “80% lean/20% fat”. A leaner ground beef will have more than 93% lean/7% fat. Over 20 cuts of beef now qualify for USDA’s regulations as lean or extra lean. Some examples of the leanest cuts include:

  • Eye round roast or steak
  • Sirloin tip side steak
  • Top round roast and steak
  • Bottom round roast and steak
  • Top sirloin steak
  • Brisket
  • 95% lean ground beef

You can also determine if a meat is lean by evaluating color. Reddish color with less white deposits, or marbling, is generally leaner. Marbling is the fatty pockets interspersed in the beef that increases tenderness, flavor, and appeal of beef. Grading of beef is based on the evaluation of several factors that affect palatability including amount of marbling, color of lean, firmness, texture, and carcass maturity. Taste appeal of high fat meat (or a lot of marbling) is valued as opposed to nutrition quality. So what does high quality mean in this case?

The categories for grading are Prime, Choice, and Select. USDA prime beef is a lavish cut served mostly at restaurants and hotels. USDA Prime has plentiful marbling and is the highest in fat, regarded as the highest quality. Choice beef is also high quality but has less marbling and less fat than Prime. Select beef is the leanest with the least amount of marbling. Clearly there is a reason they named this grade Select because, truthfully, consumers should select this beef, over the higher scored competitors. Lower graded beef is lower in fat and overall better for you—shouldn’t this cut deserve an A++ grade?

2.5. - Image 2Grass Fed Vs. Grain Fed Beef

Grass fed cows are higher in polyunsaturated fat and lower in saturated fat than their grain fed cousin by about three times as much! Overall, it is pretty difficult to think of a reason why you wouldn’t consume grass fed beef. To paint a picture, the grass-fed cow eats from a pasture on a diet free of grains, supplements for rapid weight gain, and antibiotics. This standard practice is better for the cow as it is claimed to be more humane.

So what’s the problem? Cost and availability. It can be very expensive to purchase grass-fed beef because it is generally more expensive to feed cows grass. Industrial farming has become extremely efficient and cost-effective which is why commercial meat is cheaper. From a nutritional standpoint, grass-fed beef is lower in fat– if you are concerned about your lipid profile, grass-fed beef might be a good alternative.


When preparing beef, keep in mind healthy ways to cook the meat. Always monitor the internal temperature to avoid foodborne illnesses (155°F for 15 seconds ground beef, 145°F for 15 seconds for steaks and chops, and 145° for 4 minutes for roasts of beef). Also, keep in mind the fat content of marinades by selecting a plant-based olive oil or vegetable oil marinade. When seasoning beef, use herbs and spices instead of salt to increase the overall nutrition value of the dish.

Beef is a great source of many important micronutrients and macronutrients. Saturated fat intake should be monitored and limited to no more than 10% per day, regardless of the source. However, you can still incorporate beef into a healthy diet by selecting leaner cuts and styles. Want to know how? This healthy recipe can be a helpful headstart to incorporate beef into a diet that honors these recommendations.

The following recipe is low in saturated fat and a good source of unsaturated fat. Also, the nutritional value is heightened with a heart healthy, low fat and low sodium marinade.


Spice-Rubbed Steak with Sautéed Mushrooms and Peppers

Servings: 4 servings; 1 serving= 3 oz. steak & 1/2 cup mushrooms and peppers 

Active Time: 50 minutes

Total Time: 50 minutes


  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper plus 1/8
  • teaspoon, divided
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 2 8- to 10-ounce New York strip (top loin) steaks, trimmed
  • 5 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup chopped shallots
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 pound sliced mushrooms
  • 1 bell-pepper chopped (any color)
  • 1/3 cup Madeira (or sherry)
  • 1/2 cup low-sodium beef broth
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley


  1. Preheat oven to 325°F.
  2. Mix paprika, cumin, oregano, 1/2-teaspoon salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Rub the spice mixture evenly over both sides of steaks.
  3. Heat oil in a large ovenproof skillet, such as cast iron, over medium-high. Add the steaks and cook just until browned, 1 to 2 minutes per side.
  4. Transfer the pan to the oven and roast the steaks 5 to 7 minutes for medium-rare, depending on thickness.
  5. Transfer to a clean cutting board. Tent with foil and let rest for 5 minutes.
  6. Meanwhile, combine shallots, garlic, and bell pepper in a sauté pan and cook on medium high– stirring occasionally, until starting to soften, about 1 minute.
  7. Stir in mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms begin to brown, 8 to 10 minutes.
  8. Pour in Madeira (or sherry) and cook, stirring, until absorbed, about 1 minute. Add broth and cook, stirring occasionally, until almost absorbed, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in parsley and remaining 1/8 teaspoon pepper; cover to keep warm.
  9. Carve the steak into thin slices. Serve with mushroom and bell pepper topping.


  • Per serving: 305 calories; 10.3 g fat (3.1g sat, 2.6g mono, 0.7g poly); 68.8 mg cholesterol; 13.2 g carbohydrates; 37.6 g protein; 2.2 g fiber; 300 mg sodium; 484.2 mg potassium.


  1. “Cuts of Beef: A Guide to the Leanest Selections.” Nutrition and Healthy Eating. Mayo Clinic, 21 Feb. 2014. Web. 27 Jan. 2016.
  2. “Mississippi Beef Counsel; 29 Lean Beef Cuts.” Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, 2005. 25 Jan. 2016.
  3. “Meat Science.” USDA Beef Quality and Yield Grades. Texas A&M University, n.d. Web. 27 Jan. 2016.
  4. Cross, Kim. “Grass-Fed Beef versus Grain-Fed Beef.” Cooking Lite. Time Inc., n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2016
  5. Recipe: http://www.eatingwell.com/recipes/spice_rubbed_steak.html

One thought on “Where’s Your Beef?

  1. Thank you Katherine! This was very informative and well written. Your clear understanding of the topic, use of research and references backed up the whole piece. I also particularly liked the images you chose to use and placed throughout the article. It made it easier or follow along. I’m definitely going to be sure to show this to my friends and family, although it might upset grandpa come thanksgiving. Health comes first!

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