You might be surprised to know that beef can actually be considered a superfood, but there is a lot of confusion around whether or not red meat is healthy, and the different types of beef available. Not all beef is created equal, so let’s take a look at the differences between the two types of beef you’ll find: grass and grain-fed.
We’ve all heard the expression: “you are what you eat.” Now, take that a step further and consider: “you are what the animals you eat, eat.” The way that cows are fed makes a huge difference in the nutritional value of their meat. Most cattle today in industrial farming practices are fed grains, while the cattle people used to eat throughout history ate grass (their natural diet) and roamed free.
Calves (baby cows) all begin life similarly, whether grass-fed or grain-fed. For the first 6-12 months of
their lives, pretty much all cows roam free and eat grass, but the rest of their lives vary greatly. 100% grass-fed cows continue this pattern, and grain-fed, feed-lot cattle are moved to Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO), which have disturbing conditions and exist to fatten up the animals as quickly as possible for slaughter and increased profits.
Unfortunately, CAFO raised cattle are usually given drugs and hormones to accelerate their growth, along with antibiotics to avoid bacterial infections that are common due to highly unsanitary conditions. After several months, the cattle are then moved to a slaughterhouse. A range of living conditions can exist for both grain-fed cows, but this is a typical pattern.
100% grass-fed cows are a different story. While red meat in general has been labeled as unhealthy, this myth is slowly but surely being debunked. Grass-fed beef offers a long list of important vitamins and minerals, such as beta-carotene, lutein and omega 3 fatty acids (among others).
Nutritional Differences Between Grass and Grain-Fed Beef
A main difference between grass and grain-fed beef is the fatty acid composition. While grass-fed beef will usually offer less fat overall (not to mention fewer calories), it also is higher in omega 3 fatty acids and lower in omega 6’s. It also has slightly less monounsaturated and saturated fats. Grass-fed beef also contains double the amount of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) as
grain-fed, which has been shown to reduce body fat (1).
Grain-fed beef is high in important vitamins and minerals, and grass-fed is even higher. Regular, grain-fed beef offers B vitamins (especially vitamin B12, which is key for brain health), along with zinc, iron and selenium. Grass-fed beef offers those same nutrients, along with high levels of beta-carotene (essential for producing vitamin A), vitamin E (a powerful antioxidant), along with potassium, sodium and phosphorus (2).
Is Red Meat Actually Healthy?
Fortunately, the nutrition myth that red meat is unhealthy has been debunked through various research and studies, but many people still hold on to the belief that beef and other red meat and saturated fats are the root cause of heart disease and cancer. While the type of red meat makes a big difference (grass-fed and pasture raised meats are far superior to their grain-fed and conventionally raised counterparts), it has been shown that the real culprit for heart disease are refined sugar and carbohydrates, much more-so than meat.
Interestingly, it has been found that high meat consumption is often accompanied by less veggie and fruit consumption (and therefore, less fiber), and a greater likelihood of leading a sedentary lifestyle (4).. These other factors are more to blame than the consumption of red meat.
Processed meats have been connected with heart disease (3), so always choose your meats wisely and always be sure that half of your plate is filled with vegetables and some fruits. Balance is key.
Health Benefits of all Beef
While grass-fed beef definitely offers great health benefits, both grain and grass-fed varieties are highly nutritious. Check out some of the reasons to include beef in your diet (along with plenty of veggies):
Beef Supports Muscle Mass
Beef is one of the best protein sources for maintaining muscle mass. It is a complete protein, meaning that it contains all of the essential amino acids (those that you must obtain from foods). Low protein intake can lead to wasting away of muscles, especially in special populations like the elderly (5), and it is also very important for pregnant and breast feeding mothers and children.
Beef Prevents Anemia
Anemia is a fairly common condition that causes decreased red blood cells, therefore making it difficult for the blood to carry oxygen. Iron deficiency is one of the primary causes for anemia, and beef is one of the best dietary sources of this crucial mineral. Symptoms of anemia usually present as extreme fatigue and muscle weakness, and is common is vegetarians and vegans.
Beef Improves Athletic Performance
Beta-alanine is an amino acid found in beef that creates carnosine, a dipeptide that is a key player in muscle function. Studies have shown that high levels of this amino acid are responsible for decreased muscle fatigue during exercise (6), along with overall improved athletic performance. In fact, supplementing with beta-alanine is sometimes recommended to athletes, and a vegetarian or vegan diet is likely to be low in this important amino acid.
Grass-Beef is Excellent for Decreasing Inflammation
Going back to omega 3 fatty acids, grass-fed beef is highly anti-inflammatory for this reason. While grain-fed beef is higher in omega 6 fatty acids (which can be inflammatory when consumed in high amounts, as is common with a typical American diet), grass-fed beef is five times higher in anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids. Grass-fed beef also contains twice as much conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which has been linked to lowered body fat (7).
Grass-Fed is More Expensive, is it Worth it?
Without a doubt, grass-fed beef is harder to find in many places, and is almost always a bit more expensive. If you live in a city with a Whole Foods Market or other health food store that carries meat, you can probably find it easily. Or, you can research if there is a cow-share in your area. Grain-fed, conventional beef also offers a lot of health benefits, but leaner cuts should be chosen, as animals (humans included) store toxins in our fat cells. If you can find grass-fed, it certainly is the healthier option.
Do I Cook with Grass-Fed Beef in the Same Way?
Yes, grass-fed beef can be used in the same recipes that conventional, grain-fed beef is prepared (except it will taste even better). However, since it generally contains less fat, you’ll want to cook it on a lower temperature for a longer time. Be careful not to overcook it, as it can become quite dry and tough.
There you have it! Remember that beef can be a very healthy part of your diet, but always balance it out with at least half of your plate filled with veggies and/or fruit (but more veggies).