Where’s The Beef?
Seriously, is there anything more iconic in the American diet than beef? Okay, maybe apple pie- but the first foods that come to mind when American cuisine is mentioned are big, juicy hamburgers and thick, sizzling steaks. Yum!
And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Americans have a different perception of beef than just about any other country in the world. Partially this is due to space: USA has lots suited to cattle ranching. We have a huge beef cattle industry in the US, and it makes beef easily accessible on a daily basis. Other countries are limited by political or geographical barriers, or are simply not in a suitable environment for cattle to do well.
More often you see sheep, goats, pigs, or chickens as the primary source for farmed protein in smaller countries- cows need a great deal of pasturage that these smaller creatures do not. These other farm animals can deal with less optimal food sources. It’s common to see sheep and goats having no problems with rocky, mountainous pasturage and a diet of weeds. They also don’t have the amazing dietary quality that beef has.
Beef is incredibly nutritious. A rich source of protein and iron, it’s a fantastic go-to meal for growing children, athletes, women of childbearing age, and those suffering from anemia. It’s loaded with vitamin B12, which is essential for nerve and blood cell health, and contributes to the healthy replication of DNA.
So what’s the problem here? Why does red meat in general and beef in particular have such a bad reputation?
So Good…But So Bad
This would partially be a case of too much of a good thing. Protein and nutrients are well and good, but varied diet is universally considered the best plan for good health. The government Mypyramid standards dictate 5-6.5oz of protein a day from multiple sources- meaning that it’s important to include fish, chicken, and plant proteins into a daily routine.
In combination with regular exercise, the American Institute For Cancer Research recommends no more than 18oz of cooked red meat weekly. This lumps together beef and pork along with sausage, deli meats, bacon, and hot dogs.
Americans in general eat a lot of food, and a lot of meat specifically, both processed and unprocessed. This leads to what are called the ‘diseases of affluence’: obesity, heart disease, and type II diabetes. There is no argument that this is a massive problem in America right now- and one that could be prevented.
The second part of the problem with red meat is that many studies do not differentiate between lean red meat and processed meats. The difference between the two is blatantly obvious- calorie count aside, processed meat contains numerous food additives and preservatives, many of which are proven to be unhealthy.
It is true that there are many connections between frequent consumption of red meat and chronic disease; that doesn’t mean that all red meat is necessarily bad. You just have to look deeper into the details to figure out the real truth.
The Statistics Say…
This is a case of causation vs correlation. A classic example of causation would say that the primary cause of divorce is marriage (you have to be married to get a divorce) but that doesn’t mean that all marriages end in divorce. It would be more accurate to say there is a correlation between divorce and, say, marrying at a young age.
In this way, yes, there is a relationship between eating red meat and contracting chronic disease- but other variables like what kind of red meat, specific lifestyle choices, and heredity factor into the equation as well.
What Are Good Choices?
It’s already been established that a varied diet rich in fruits and vegetables is optimal. Fiber- both soluble and insoluble- has undeniable health benefits. Protein sources should be as widely varied as possible too- and in sensible portions. In the case of processed red meats like deli slices, bacon, and hot dogs, servings should be limited to one or less per week.
There is a direct link between these protein sources and chronic diseases and inflammation issues. Lean red meat is another story.
Cut and Grade
In general, cuts from the loin (sirloin, tenderloin, loin chops) are the healthiest ones to incorporate into your diet. In addition, look for round steaks and roasts (eye and bottom), chuck shoulder steaks, filet mignon, flank steak, and arm roasts.
Ground beef should preferably be 95% lean. The grading of your meat is important here, too. The top grade cuts are rated as ‘prime’ and should be restricted to special occasions due to the marbling.
While tender and flavorful, prime cuts of meat carry a high percentage of unhealthy saturated fat. More sensible are ‘select’ cuts of meat, which are the leanest, or ‘choice’ which lies in the middle ground.
Cooking Technique Counts!
While few people can brag of professional- quality chef skills, there are some simple guidelines to keep in mind when preparing your carefully chosen red meat. Grilling is a wonderfully low-fat method to cook your meat; however, it can produce carcinogens.
Even better, partially cook your meat in the oven inside and finish it on the grill. Don’t forget your veggies here- grilled kabobs are delicious and help with rounding out a delicious, carefully chosen piece of meat.
Proceed With Caution
Don’t get me wrong here- I’m a huge fan of red meat. The more tender, the rarer, the better. That being said, it is a glorious, beautiful food that deserves careful consideration during both choice and preparation.
It isn’t a food for every day. Not all red meat is created equal. And when that gorgeous cut of meat does grace your plate, do it justice. Don’t just shove it in your head- this is important, delightful fuel for your body and your mind; both of you deserve to enjoy the process.
Mindfulness is a key aspect to good health. Be mindful of the right lean cut, of how it is prepared, and take the time to appreciate the simple beauty of a good meal- with good people, if possible. It makes all the difference in the world.