Beef Issues Quarterly Archive

The Importance of Including Red Meat in a Healthy Dietary Pattern

by Brandi Buzzard Frobose, Manager, Issues Communication, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff; and Shalene McNeill, PhD, RD, Executive Director, Human Nutrition Research, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff

The study of the human diet’s role in health has moved beyond a focus on individual nutrients or even single foods to an emphasis on the overall dietary pattern. Characterizing dietary recommendations as healthful or unhealthful has become an important focus in the development of Dietary Guidelines for Americans that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) jointly issue every five years. Red meat can be associated with an unhealthful dietary pattern and lifestyle (i.e. low consumption of fruits, vegetables and lower levels of physical activity) and this limits appreciation for beef’s positive role in health. Disentangling red meat, or beef, from this overall pattern can be challenging but the science shows that today’s beef is a high quality nutrient rich source of protein that supports a healthful dietary pattern. Shalene McNeill, PhD, RD, Executive Director, Human Nutrition Research, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff, provides insight and comments on red meats advantages in healthy dietary patterns.

Q: How do consumer preferences affect the inclusion of beef in today’s dietary pattern?
Shalene McNeill (SM): Red meat (beef, pork, mutton and veal) represents the largest proportion of meat consumed in the U.S.; however, recently consumers are reporting that they consumed less red meat in 2013 than in 2012. Global food analysts have noted that trends motivating consumers to cut fat and cholesterol intake are the dominant factors affecting the red meat market and, consequently, are contributing to the decline in red meat consumption.
Today’s consumer prefers a leaner, healthier product. This demand has led to leaner cuts of red meat and, additionally, a change in meat production and merchandising is producing meats with 80 percent less external fat. For example, approximately two-thirds of the beef sold in retail in the U.S. meets the government guidelines for lean. Beef’s flexibility as an entrée or ingredient in recipes, coupled with the wide variety of lean beef available, increases the ease with which consumers can incorporate red meat, beef specifically, into their diet. 

Q: Recently, protein has been in the spotlight and seems to be the new leading factor in food purchasing decisions. What is the role of protein in a healthful dietary pattern?
SM: Our body uses protein to grow, develop and repair itself. Recently, a large body of research has been conducted on the ability of high quality protein to promote weight loss and prevent weight gain. In fact, weight loss diets that contain higher amounts of protein have been shown to be more effective compared to standard protein diets that contain higher amounts of carbohydrates. A key factor in the incorporation of high quality protein is the increased feeling of satiety, which leads to an improvement in appetite control and may lead to decreased food consumption at later meals. It has been shown that dietary protein increases satiety to a greater extent than carbohydrates or fat and also increases thermogenesis, which may influence appetite signals.

Protein intakes higher than the recommended daily allowance may reduce the risk for chronic diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis and may also assist with maintaining lean muscle mass that is of particular importance for the elderly and those who lead a physically active lifestyle. Furthermore, studies specific to U.S. children and adolescents have shown that the inclusion of red meat is significantly associated with intakes of protein and essential vitamins and minerals (O’Neil et al., 2011).1 

Q: Can you please explain the predisposition of so many influential nutrition recommendations to encourage the restriction of red meat intake?
SM: The root of many recommendations to limit red meat consumption stems from red meat’s saturated fatty acid (SFA) content. Although red meat’s contribution to total and saturated fat has declined over the last three decades, historically it has been a top contributor to saturated fat intake in the American diet, making it a target for a food to reduce as a means of reducing saturated fat intake. For years, observational evidence has suggested SFA to be associated with heart disease, although recent data challenges this. For example, a recent meta-analysis of 20 observational studies by Chowdhury and colleagues (2014)2 demonstrated that there were no significant associations between SFA and heart disease. The relationship between SFA and heart disease is very complex, and the observational evidence regarding the association between SFA and heart disease appears to be inconsistent.

Q: What evidence is there of lean beef’s role in a healthy diet?
SM: Several studies have shown that lean red meat can be successfully included in recommended heart-healthy dietary patterns without detriment to blood lipids such as cholesterol levels. The Beef in an Optimal Lean Diet (BOLD) study (Roussell et al., 2012)3 demonstrated the successful incorporation of lean beef in a Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH)–like diet with the same beneficial effects on blood lipids and furthermore a decrease in low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. LDL-cholesterol is known for collecting in the walls of blood vessels, which in turn can increase the risk of a heart attack. Similarly, an analysis of the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination data found that women over the age of 50 who adhered closely to a dietary pattern that included beef as the primary source of protein had the lowest probability of being obese and a greater likelihood of having normal blood pressure (Lopez et al., 2008).4 These studies, in addition to many others, provide support for beef’s role in a healthful diet.

Q: Do you have any final points about lean beef’s role in a healthy diet?
SM:  There is a strong case for the positive role of lean red meat in a healthy dietary pattern. Lean red meat is an important source of high quality protein and essential nutrients. It is a frequently consumed food people enjoy and may help people stick with healthier diets over the long term. Our charge as farmers, ranchers, beef nutrition experts and nutrition communicators is to help more consumers explore the benefits of enjoying beef as part of healthy diet and lifestyle to experience for themselves how it can help support a healthy body weight and improve vitality and stamina. 

Additional Resources

  1. O'Neil, C. E., Zanovec, M., Keast, D. R., Fulgoni, V. L., III, & Nicklas, T. A. (2011). Nutrient contribution of total and lean beef in diets of US children and adolescents: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 1999–2004. Meat Science, 87(3), 250–256, 
  2. Chowdhury, R., Warnakula, S., Kunutsor, S., Crowe, F., Ward, H. A., Johnson, L., …, & Di Angelantonio, E. (2014). Association of dietary, circulating, and supplement fatty acids with coronary risk: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Annals of Internal Medicine, 160(6),  
  3. Roussell, M. A., Hill, A. M., Gaugler, T. L.,West, S. G., Heuvel, J. P., Alaupovic, P., …, & Kris- Etherton, P. M. (2012). Beef in an Optimal Lean Diet study: Effects on lipids, lipoproteins, and apolipoproteins. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 95(1), 9–16,
  4. Lopez, E. P., Rice, C., Weddle, D. O., & Rahill, G. J. (2008). The relationship among cardiovascular risk factors, diet patterns, alcohol consumption, and ethnicity among women aged 50 years and older. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 108(2), 248–256,

Tags: Beef Issues Quarterly, Fall 2014, Questions and Answers

October 1, 2014