Healthy hearts love lean beef

Cheryl Mussatto | MS, RD, LD

Traditionally, February is the month for lovers and all things heart related. To celebrate that fact, this month is designated as American Heart Month, educating the public about heart disease reminding us to take care of our one and only ticker. The goal is to help everyone live longer, healthier lives enjoying life to its fullest.
Since American Heart Month is all about heart health and the color red, a perfect red food many of us love and which loves our heart back is lean beef. Yes, lean beef can be part of a heart healthy diet.

Lean beef and heart health

According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death in the United States contributing to more than 22,000 deaths each day. Reaching a healthy body weight, not smoking, and getting in regular physical activity are all good lifestyle choices reducing our risk for developing heart disease. Another important lifestyle choice is to follow a heart-healthy diet yet few at-risk individuals do. Food choices matter and this is where choosing lean beef can be one way to promote heart health.

The role of red meat is often debated, leaving consumers confused with misunderstandings about beef. They may want to include lean beef as a protein source but could be unnecessarily restricting it for fear that its fat composition increases the risk of heart disease. However, in the last several years, a growing body of evidence is showing lean beef’s positive role in promoting heart health.

Many Americans know that cholesterol levels play a significant role in determining risk for CVD. Increased levels of low-density lipoprotein or “bad” cholesterol are associated with an increased risk of heart disease. Studies have shown that particular types of saturated fat can further contribute to high cholesterol levels.

This has led to the misperception of beef as being a leading contributor to CVD by oversimplification and advice from the dietary guidelines stating “reduce intake of red meat” or “eat less beef” without taking into consideration the role of lean beef. Not all red meat is created equal and there is no scientific evidence indicating that lean beef contributes to increased CVD risk.

By the way, beef is called a “red” meat because it contains more myoglobin than chicken or fish. Myoglobin is a protein in meat, which holds oxygen in the muscle. Other red meats are veal, lamb, and pork.

What the science says

Beef is a naturally nutrient-rich source of many nutrients, including high-quality protein, iron, zinc and many B-vitamins. It is one of the best sources to help individuals meet their nutrient needs as well as providing variety and flexibility to their diet.

A 2012 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that people who consumed four to 5.5 ounces of lean beef daily as part of the heart-healthy diet in the Beef in an Optimal Lean Diet study experienced a 10 percent decline in LDL or “bad” cholesterol as well as a reduction in total cholesterol. These results were similar to what has been observed for the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension diet. The DASH diet is a premier heart-healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean protein, extensively studied in both observational as well as clinical trials.

Part of this study shows that half of the fatty acids in a serving of beef are heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids, the same type found in olive oil. In addition, nearly one-third of the saturated fat in beef is stearic acid, a fatty acid shown to have neutral effects on cholesterol levels.

Getting the best from beef

The beef of today is different than the beef of yesteryear. Improvement in cattle breeding, production practices, feed type and amounts, as well as improved trimming practices, have led to more than 60 percent of beef cuts found in the supermarket to be lean when cooked with visible fat trimmed.

If we want people to enjoy and stick to a heart-healthy diet long term, adding more variety of protein choices like lean beef will help support this. To be considered lean as defined by the government, a three ounce serving of cooked beef must have less than 10 grams of total fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol
Today, consumers have a choice of 38 lean cuts of beef to choose from.

Choosing lean cuts of beef

The next time you are purchasing beef, here are examples of lean beef to look for promoting heart health.

• Look for cuts with “round” or “loin” in the name, such as Eye of Round, Top Sirloin and Tenderloin.

• For ground beef, choose 96 percent extra lean, four percent fat. Trim off any excess fat before cooking.

• Enjoy small portions. An appropriate portion size for lean beef is about three to four ounces or the size of a smart phone or the size and thickness of the palm of your hand.

Keep your heart healthy by choosing lean beef along with plenty of fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains and low-fat dairy.

For more information on beef, visit for recipes, beef nutrition and how beef is raised from farm to fork.


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