UW assistant professor discusses the benefits of having meat in the diet
The hard-working producers in the state may describe the value of meat in multiple different contexts. Similarly, consumers may describe value in several different ways, including the value meat has on the diet.
Decades of research have been invested towards understanding and improving eating experiences for consumers along with how meat products contribute to optimal nutrient targets among different life stages. This discussion will focus on what meat contributes to the human diet.
Classification of meat in a diet
Several nutrition reviews published in the last two decades have classified lean, unprocessed red meat as being nutrient rich. This description generally refers to the amount of beneficial nutrients provided in a food product at a relatively low calorie and negative nutrient components.
In other words, the caloric cost of these foods is low and multiple beneficial or essential nutrients are provided simultaneously.
High-quality protein has been a major discussion point for lean, unprocessed red meat products in the diet. Approximately 25 grams of protein (range may be 21 to 26 grams depending on the cut) is available in a three ounce portion of many cooked lean, unprocessed beef, pork or lamb cuts. To put this into context, some of these cooked portions of lean, unprocessed beef, pork or lamb provide this level of protein at calorie levels in the neighborhood of 180 to 220.
Amino acids are arranged to build protein and more focus on amino acid composition continues to drive how foods are categorized for protein quality. The essential or indispensable amino acids which cannot be produced within the human body have to be provided by the diet.
Individually, previous research has considered many lean, unprocessed beef, pork and lamb cuts to be considered high-quality due to the essential amino acid composition. However, a continued research area focuses on the digestibility of amino acids in a meal and how foods can complement deficiencies for certain life stages.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), cuts of meat considered ‘lean’ have less than 10 grams of total fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat and less than 100 mg of cholesterol in a 3.5 ounce (100 gram) portion. Over time, changes to animal genetics, feeding strategies, fabrication styles and fat trimming have resulted in 38 cuts of beef and several cuts of pork and lamb meeting this definition of lean. Collectively, total fat in many lean red meat cuts has reduced over time due to these factors.
Fats in meat
Fat content in meat is still a major focus area in nutrition research, especially when considering how fat impacts health outcomes. In general, the predominate class of fatty acids in lean, red meat products are monounsaturated fatty acids.
The next predominate class of fatty acids found in these products is saturated fatty acids, but stearic acid makes up approximately one-third of the saturated fat content. Several studies have found stearic acid has a neutral effect on blood lipids. Perhaps another important factor to point out is the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) continues to recommend no more than 10 percent of calories originate from saturated fat in the diet and the saturated fat content of lean red meat cuts (three ounce portion) can fit this recommendation, depending on what else is consumed in the diet.
Beyond protein, amino acid composition and level of fat delivered in cooked, lean, unprocessed meat products, there are several essential vitamins and minerals provided to support growth and physiological function across the human lifespan. Lean, unprocessed red meat cuts generally provide iron, zinc, vitamins B6, B12, riboflavin and niacin.
Some lean, unprocessed red meat products are considered good or excellent sources of phosphorus, selenium, thiamin or choline in the diet. Lean, unprocessed red meat products are also generally low in sodium (approximately 70 to 100 mg in a three ounce portion), which is certainly important to consider with continued DGA recommendations for the U.S. population to focus on following a daily target of 2,300 mg of sodium. It is important to note processed meat products often differ from the above unprocessed discussion because processed meat products can have variable levels of total fat and sodium.
For consumers choosing to include lean, unprocessed red meat in their diet, several nutrient rich cuts exist to help individuals across the lifespan consume a safe, flavorful product while simultaneously achieving optimal nutrient targets in a healthy dietary pattern. Most people consume more than one food ingredient in a meal, so it is important to consider how all foods complement one another to reach optimal, beneficial nutrient goals while remaining cognizant of those which should be limited (i.e., total fat, saturated fat, sodium and cholesterol).
Available resources and research
An online, publicly available resource available to anyone interested in referencing nutrient information for specific foods is the USDA Food Data Central Database found at fdc.nal.usda.gov/.
This database houses nutrient information for thousands of foods, including beef, pork and lamb prepared using different cook methods or preparation styles as well as nutrient information for brands of retail foods.
Often dietitians, researchers or medical professionals will also reference this nutrient data in addition to consumers who may be interested in nutrient levels of specific foods for their own interest or to ask questions to dietitians or medical professionals.
We have learned a lot from decades of research focused on what lean beef, pork and lamb can contribute to the diet. However, meat in the diet continues to be controversial among scientists engaged in diet and health outcome research, which will continue to fuel current and future research in this area as well as consideration of how the entire diet (all foods consumed) impact diet quality.
Another component of this complex area includes how much red meat we are consuming as a U.S. population. Many researchers have been working to estimate population-based intake of many foods, including red meat, recently and in the past decade. Part of this is fueled by questions in the scientific human nutrition community about whether current red meat consumption is too high in the context of negative human health outcomes.
Several research trials are ongoing to understand how meat plays a role in human health in specific scenarios in both human randomized control trials and using animal models.
Part of the research I am engaged in focuses on evaluating the intake of red meat from the dietary data reported in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2015-2016 and 2017-2018. Part of this work has focused on estimating intake of red meat consumed as individual meat items in a meal, in mixed dishes and considers the varied definitions individuals use to describe meat in a meal.
For example, breaking apart red unprocessed meat intake from those which might be considered on a spectrum of minimally processed to processed may offer additional data to reference in the nutrition community about consumption trends and provide future insight about future research. In an upcoming article, I will share some of the highlights of our work about intake.
Cody Gifford is an assistant professor in the University of Wyoming Department of Animal Science. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.