• Photo for A Protein Primer: Part 2 of 4—Red Meat
    Photo Credit: Nicolas Smith

A Protein Primer: Part 2 of 4—Red Meat

By H.K. Jones

This is the second in a four-part series on protein, an essential building block behind muscle growth and human health. Get started with an introduction to protein in A Protein Primer: Part 1 of 4—Poultry, which outlines the body's uses of protein, provides guidelines for getting your protein, and explores the benefits of our fair-feathered (and edible) friends. Parts 3 and 4 will cover fish and vegetarian protein options, respectively.

Where's the Beef?
Ah, red meat. Since the dawn of history, nothing has inspired drooling as much as a big slab of mammal seared over a hot fire. Big taste, big protein. Yum.

Then came the health craze. And science. To hear some of these MDs talk, red meat seems to be the equivalent of eating asbestos smothered in tobacco juice with a side of napalm. Now it's big clogs in your arteries and the big C. Pass the Omega-3 enriched soybeans, please.

But wait! Ongoing improvements in the meat industry over the past century have led to increasingly lean cuts of red meat, with some red meat now as lean or even leaner than many cuts of poultry. And with many organizations moving toward hormone-free and grass-fed varieties of beef, the red meat industry has spent countless millions of dollars asking us to lighten up a little and actively pursue our big-game eating past.

Well, should we listen to their hype? The short answer: Yes and no. Read on for the good and bad of eating red meat, plus tips on consumption and preparation to help maximize its positives—and minimize its negatives.

The Good News: A Complete Protein
Protein is an important nutrient in the body used to build and repair body tissues, synthesize enzymes and hormones, and facilitate muscle contractions, and red meat provides a concentrated and potent source of this important nutrient. More good news: The protein in red meat including beef, pork, lamb, and veal, as well as processed meats like sausage, ham, and bacon, is considered "complete" protein because it contains the nine essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) needed by humans. And that's not all. Red meat is also rich in iron, zinc, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12. Sounds like a must-eat-regularly food, right?

The Bad News: Heart Attacks, Cancers, Etc.
Unfortunately, regular consumption of red meat poses several health risks that make eating too much of it dangerous to your long-term health. For one, red meat is often high in saturated fat and bad cholesterol, factors long associated with cardivascular disease. And for another, several studies indicate a strong link between eating large amounts of red meat and an increased cancer risk. In fact studies have linked eating read meat with several types of cancer, including colorectal cancer, bladder cancer, and prostate cancer. Not all studies support a link between red meat and cancer, but what scientists consider the "preponderance," meaning a convincing majority, do. We'll go with the majority.

The Solution: Moderation, Moderation, Moderation
The American Institute for Cancer Research's expert panel report, Food, Nutrition and the Prevention of Cancer, recommends limiting red meat consumption to three ounces (about the size of a deck of cards) a day or less. That small portion size is hugely important; many American restaurants serve much larger cuts of meat, and you'll be hard pressed to find such small servings in the pre-packaged meat section of your local grocer. Solution: Ask your butcher to cut a smaller portion of meat for you, or, if you buy it pre-packaged, freeze the rest for later. If you're eating red meat at a restaurant, either ask for a very small portion, leave the rest of the meat on the plate, or, if you don't have the willpower, avoid ordering red meat at restaurants entirely.

When you do eat red meat, make sure you make it a complete meal with vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans, which provide many protective nutrients and phytochemicals that will help keep your arteries clean and your body healthy.

Below, learn some important facts for picking and preparing your protein-rich red meat.

What to Look For
Lean cuts of red meat like round, chuck, sirloin or tenderloin, and lean pork including tenderloin and loin chops offer the best low-fat options. Look for USDA Choice or USDA Select grades of beef rather than USDA Prime, which tend to have a higher fat content.

Also try to buy organic 100-percent grass-fed beef, free of artificial growth hormones and antibiotics, like meat from Niman Ranch, a network of independent family farms with the slogan "raised with care." These types of farms supply concerned consumers with a healthier (lower in both total and saturated fat than grain-fed beef) and more humane final product.

What to Watch Out For
All meat products that are cooked, processed, or have more than one ingredient must carry a Nutrition Facts panel under Federal regulations. However, single-ingredient raw meat and poultry products are not required to have a Nutrition Facts Panel on packages but are covered by a voluntary nutrition-labeling program. This should change in the near future, but for the time being, ask your butcher for nutrition information so you can make informed choices. Many grocery stores provide this information by posting signs or by having the information readily available in brochures, notebooks, or leaflet form.

How to Prepare
Always trim away visible fat from beef or pork before cooking and be sure to drain off all fat drippings after cooking. Also use low-fat cooking methods to prepare meat including baking, broiling, roasting, braising, grilling or stir-frying.

About H.K. Jones: H. K. Jones is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, and nutrition professional based in Washington, D.C.