Beef It Up
If meat suits your fancy, learn how to select the healthiest cuts

By Dena Nishek

Sizzling steak fajitas. Hearty vegetable-beef stew. Have you sworn off these juicy dishes because of beef's bad reputation? True, people often shun beef because of its saturated-fat content, but savvy cut selection and portion control can put red meat back on your dinner table. With grocers now offering leaner cuts of organically raised and even grass-fed meat, beef can be a healthy part of an "everything-in-moderation" diet.

What makes beef worth considering is its strong nutritional profile. A 3-ounce serving of lean beef provides more than 20 percent of the daily requirements for protein, vitamin B12, selenium, phosphorus, and zinc, and 12 percent to 18 percent of the daily values of iron, niacin, vitamin B6, and riboflavin. And beef is a complete protein source, providing all the amino acids necessary to maintain tissues and build new cells, according to Marilyn Sterling, RD, of Trinidad, California.

Some forward-thinking ranchers are raising cattle entirely on grass—a system that's better for the cows—and you.

However, alongside those health benefits lurks beef's bad side: saturated fat, a well-known dietary culprit that raises cholesterol levels and promotes heart disease. But the truth is that eight cuts of beef meeting government labeling guidelines for lean or extra-lean contain between 0.9 grams of saturated fat (the same amount as in a skinless chicken breast) and 2.6 grams (the same as in a skinless chicken thigh) per 3-ounce cooked serving. In fact, one study suggests that comparably lean beef and chicken have similar effects on cholesterol levels (Archives of Internal Medicine, 1994, vol. 154, no. 11).

To make healthy choices, learn which cuts are the leanest, including eye round and top round (see "Making the Cut," below). Also, check meat labels for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grades. Prime, the highest grade, has the most marbling, which makes the meat flavorful, tender, and juicy, but also higher in fat. Choice indicates a moderate to small amount of marbling. Select is the lowest grade; these cuts are best suited for pot-roasting and stewing because the slow, moist cooking process turns a tough, lean cut into a juicy piece of meat.

Grass Is Greener
With beef, nutrition awareness nowadays goes beyond fat marbling. A conscious consumer today should also consider grain- versus grass-fed and organic versus nonorganic beef.

In recent decades, ranchers have raised cattle on pasture for the first few months, then transported the animals to feedlots, where they're "finished" on corn and grain, a technique that bulks up the cattle quickly for slaughter. The problem with this process is that cows are ruminants, built to eat grass, not grain. Eating the unnatural diet makes cows sick, necessitating antibiotics and hormones to keep them healthy and gaining weight. Even though researchers believe that little hormone residue remains in the meat you eat, runoff from hormones as well as the pesticides used in grain production pollutes waterways and fields—a serious environmental hazard.

Now, some forward-thinking ranchers are raising cattle entirely on grass, a system that's better for the cows—and you. Grass-fed beef's nutritional profile is surprising and significant. The meat is naturally leaner, containing fewer calories and one-half to one-third the saturated fat of grain-fed beef. A grass diet provides the animals with more nutrients than grain or corn, a healthy difference that shows up in your food. Grass-fed beef has roughly two to six times more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, three to five times more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), four times more vitamin E, and more beta-carotene than grain-fed beef has, according to Jo Robinson, principal researcher for Eat Wild, a nonprofit group that researches and promotes the benefits of grass feeding. In one recent study, researchers comparing grain- and grass-fed beef concluded that the latter is similar to wild game, provides a better ratio of healthy fats, and, from a health perspective, is "probably superior to meat from grain-fed cattle" (European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2002, vol. 56, no. 3).

Does organic grain make a difference in the debate? Yes and no, says Robinson. "The gold standard is products from animals raised on organic pasture," she says. With organic-grain-fed beef, "the meat does come from animals that are not fed hormones and antibiotics and are less stressed, and that's all very important." But you don't get the beefed-up nutrients you find in grass-fed meat, she explains, because "organic grains have the same effect on [beef's] nutritional profile as ordinary grains."

The grass-feeding trend is gaining momentum, but this "better beef" still costs more, and you may have difficulty finding it. If you choose to eat beef, it's worth asking your butcher to order grass-fed, or check Eat Wild's Web site (www.eatwild.com) to find a local producer.

Moderation Matters
Once you've considered the source and cut of your beef, portion control is critical. Always keep in mind that a serving size is 3 ounces. "That's a small amount—about the size of a deck of playing cards," Sterling says. She suggests including small amounts of lean beef in stir-fries and casseroles to gain flavor and satisfaction without overloading on it. Many nutritionists recommend using meat as an accompaniment, rather than as a main dish.

Beef gets a bad rap for numerous reasons, but from a purely nutritional perspective, it can have a place in a healthy diet. By choosing lean cuts and eating them in moderation as part of a diet that favors vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, you get a dose of beef's meaty benefits.

Dena Nishek, a freelance writer and editor, specializes in health and home topics.