Red meat is quite controversial. Apart from the often-cited health concerns, there are ethical and environmental concerns surrounding red meat, too.
So, it’s time to step back and look at the health benefits red meat has, and how you can make sure you’re getting the best red meat for your diet.
What is red meat?
This may sound like a completely ridiculous question, but just so we’re all on the same page, red meat is red when raw, and this includes beef, pork, lamb, and less popular meats, like bison and venison.
Although red meat gets a bad rep in conversations about cholesterol and saturated fats, red meat is actually very nutritious.
And when it’s part of a balanced diet, it can be a healthy choice.
Health benefits of red meat
Red meat has been part of the human diet for millennia, and it can still be a healthy food for people today. Research shows that red meat is a top source of protein and essential nutrients – “some of which are more bioavailable than in alternative food sources.” What are some of these essential nutrients?
In a report from the University of Wollongong Australia, we learn that lean red meat is a great source of:
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin B6
- Amino acids / bioactive compounds
Let’s explore each one in turn, and why they’re important for health and wellbeing.
100 grams of red meat (about the size of a hamburger) contains close to two-thirds of your daily requirement of Vitamin B12, which is crucial for red blood cell formation, brain function, metabolism, and energy.
100 grams of red meat also provides 25 percent of your daily Vitamin B6 requirement. We need Vitamin B6 for a strong and resilient immune system, good energy levels, and for healthy skin and nerves.
When it comes to this important mineral, beef and lamb are considered to be the richest sources. Again, 100 grams of either beef or lamb meat provide 25 percent of your daily iron requirement.
What’s more, the iron within these two types of red meat is easily absorbed by the body. Plus, they also boost your body’s ability to absorb iron from other meat sources.
Iron is necessary to prevent anemia, which is marked with symptoms like fatigue, pale skin, pica, cold hands and feet, headaches and more.
As is the case for iron, beef and lamb meat are also very rich in zinc. And these sources of zinc are more readily absorbed by the body compared to plant sources.
What do we need zinc for? For one thing, it helps fight off infection, but it’s also used to create DNA, support cell production and support growth.
Amino acids / bioactive compounds
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and there are several found in red meat that are powerful nutrients for overall health and wellbeing.
Taurine, for example, is particularly abundant in red meat, and it supports the immune system and can help protect the body against oxidative stress.
Conjugated linoleum acid (CLA) is another powerful compound found in red meat. It has antioxidant properties and it can help manage weight, too.
Red meat includes other amino acids, including L-carnitine and creatine, both of which are necessary for many key physiological processes.
Comparing nutrition in red meats
Above, we broadly explored several important nutrients in red meat, however, how do different types of red meat, like beef, pork, lamb and bison, measure up? Is one better than the other?
Ground Beef: 100 grams
• Calories: 176
• Fat: 10 grams (15 percent DV)
• Protein: 20.0 g (40 percent DV)
• Vitamin B12: 2.2 mcg (37 percent DV)
• Vitamin B6: 0.4 mg (18 percent DV)
• Iron: 2.2 mg (12 percent DV)
• Zinc: 4.8 mg (32 percent DV)
Pork center cut chops: 100 grams
• Calories: 167
• Fat: 9.6 grams (15 percent DV)
• Protein: 18.7 grams (37 percent DV)
• Vitamin B12: 0.7 mcg (3 percent DV)
• Vitamin B6: 0.5 mg (2.6 percent DV)
• Iron: 0.6 mg (3 percent DV)
• Zinc: 1.5 mg (10 percent DV)
Lamb shoulder: 100 grams
• Calories: 137
• Fat: 5.8 grams (9 percent DV)
• Protein: 19.9 grams (40 percent DV)
• Vitamin B12: 3.0 mcg (50 percent DV)
• Vitamin B6: 0.3 mg (15 percent DV)
• Iron: 1.5 mg (9 percent DV)
• Zinc: 4.2 mg (28 percent DV)
Bison, ground: 100 grams
• Calories: 146
• Fat: 7.2 grams (11 percent DV)
• Protein: 20.2 grams (40 percent DV)
• Vitamin B12: 1.9 mcg (32 percent DV)
• Vitamin B6: 0.4 mg (19 percent DV)
• Iron: 2.8 mg (15 percent DV)
• Zinc: 4.6 mg (31 percent DV)
What are the best sources of red meat?
From this basic nutritional breakdown of the four most popular types of red meat (beef, pork, lamb, and bison), it appears that bison might be your best bet.
It’s low in calories and fat, while high in protein and essential nutrients, like Vitamins B12 and B6, along with iron and zinc.
However, it’s important to remember that there are a lot of variables to take into consideration when selecting red meat. Here are just a few things to ask yourself when selecting red meat.
Does the meat contain additives, hormones or medicine?
Farming practices often include giving animals growth hormones to fatten them up more quickly. Due to poor living conditions, animals often contract diseases, and therefore, are treated with antibiotics and other medicine. You want to make sure the meat you’re eating does not include any of these things.
What was the animal's diet?
It’s always better to seek out meat that is pasture-raised and grass-fed. Unfortunately, most cattle are fed soy because it’s inexpensive and it fattens the animal more quickly. Additionally, animals are fed GMO grains and yes, even bakery waste.
However, cows, along with bison and lamb, are foragers and do best with pastures. Therefore, always look for animals that ate an appropriate diet.
Did animals spend time outside?
Farming practices can be downright appalling, keeping animals in crowded and dirty conditions for most of their lives.
This has a negative impact on meat quality. Ideally, the animal should have free access to the outdoors and spend the majority of its time outside.
Buy from the butcher or a farm
We can readily buy red meat from the grocery store, but it may be difficult to know where the meat is coming from, or what kind of life the animal led. If you find a local butcher or even a nearby farm, you can have direct access to meat suppliers and understand the quality of the meat, too.
Red meat can be an excellent source of essential nutrients. It just depends on the farming practices, the cut of the meat and how you balance the rest of your diet. Do you include red meat in your diet?