Beef is the meat of cattle (Bos taurus).
It is categorized as red meat, a term used for the meat of mammals, which contains higher amounts of iron than chicken or fish.
Usually eaten as roasts, ribs, or steaks, beef is also commonly ground or minced. Patties of ground beef are often used in hamburgers.
Processed beef products include corned beef, beef jerky, and sausages.
Fresh lean beef is rich in various vitamins and minerals, especially iron and zinc, and is therefore recommended as part of a healthy diet ().
Beef is primarily composed of protein and contains varying amounts of fat.
The table below presents information on all the nutrients in beef ().
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Meat, such as beef, is mainly composed of protein.
The protein content of lean, cooked beef ranges from 26-27% ().
Animal protein is usually of high quality, containing all 8 essential amino acids needed for the growth and maintenance of our bodies ().
The buildings blocks of proteins, the amino acids, are very important from a health perspective. Their composition in proteins varies widely, depending on the dietary source.
Meat is one of the most complete dietary sources of protein, the amino acid profile being almost identical to that of our own muscles.
For this reason, eating meat, or other sources of animal protein, may be of particular benefit after surgery and for recovering athletes, or during other conditions where muscle tissue is being built ().
Bottom Line: Protein is the main nutritional component of meat. Beef protein is highly nutritious and may promote muscle maintenance and growth.
Beef contains varying amounts of fat, also called beef tallow.
Apart from adding flavor, fat increases the calorie content of meat considerably.
The amount of fat in beef depends on the level of trimming and the animal's age, breed, gender, and feed. Processed meat products, such as sausages and salami, tend to be high in fat.
Meat with low fat content, often called lean meat, is generally about 5-10% fat ().
Beef is mainly composed of saturated and monounsaturated fat, present in approximately equal amounts. The major fatty acids are stearic acid, oleic acid, and palmitic acid ().
Bottom Line: Beef contains varying amounts of fat (mainly saturated and monounsaturated), which contributes substantially to its energy content.
Ruminant Trans Fats
Food products from ruminant animals, such as cows and sheep, contain trans fats known as ruminant trans fats ().
Unlike their industrially-produced counterparts, naturally-occurring ruminant trans fats are not considered unhealthy.
The most common of these is conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is found in beef, lamb, and dairy products (, ).
Conjugated linoleic acid has been linked with various health benefits, especially with regard to weight loss, but large doses in supplements may have harmful metabolic consequences (, , , , ).
Bottom Line: A part of the fat content of beef is made up of ruminant trans fats, including conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Ruminant trans fats have been linked with several health benefits, such as weight loss.
Vitamins and Minerals
The following vitamins and minerals are abundant in beef:
- Vitamin B12: Animal-derived foods, such as meat, are the only dietary sources of vitamin B12, an essential nutrient that is important for blood formation and the function of the brain and nervous system.
- Zinc: Beef is very rich in zinc, a mineral that is important for body growth and maintenance.
- Selenium: Meat is generally a rich source of selenium, an essential trace element that has a variety of functions in the body ().
- Iron: Found in high amounts in beef, meat iron is mostly in the heme form, which is absorbed very efficiently ().
- Niacin: One of the B-vitamins, also called vitamin B3. Niacin has various important functions in the body. Low niacin intake has been associated with increased risk of heart disease ().
- Vitamin B6: A family of B-vitamins, important for blood formation.
- Phosphorus: Widely found in foods, phosphorus intake is generally high in the Western diet. It is essential for body growth and maintenance.
Beef contains many other vitamins and minerals in lower amounts.
Processed beef products, such as sausages, may contain particularly high amounts of sodium (salt).
Bottom Line: Meat is an excellent source of various vitamins and minerals. These include vitamin B12, zinc, selenium, iron, niacin, and vitamin B6.
Other Meat Compounds
Like plants, animals contain a number of non-essential bioactive substances and antioxidants, which may affect health when consumed in adequate amounts.
- Creatine: Abundant in meat, creatine serves as an energy source for muscles. Creatine supplements are commonly taken by bodybuilders and may be beneficial for muscle growth and maintenance (, ).
- Taurine: Found in fish and meat, taurine is an antioxidant amino acid, which is a common ingredient in energy drinks. It is produced by our own bodies and is important for heart and muscle function (, , ).
- Glutathione: An antioxidant found in most whole foods, glutathione is particularly abundant in meat. It is found in higher amounts in grass-fed beef than in grain-fed (, ).
- Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA): A ruminant trans fat that may have various health benefits when consumed as part of a healthy diet (, ).
- Cholesterol: A sterol found in animal fats, and also produced by the human body where it has many functions. Dietary cholesterol has little effect on blood cholesterol and is therefore not considered a health concern ().
Bottom Line: Animal meat contains a number of bioactive substances, such as creatine, taurine, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and cholesterol.
Health Benefits of Beef
Beef is a rich source of high-quality protein and various vitamins and minerals, and can be an excellent component of a healthy diet.
Maintenance of Muscle Mass
Like all types of meat, beef is an excellent source of high-quality protein.
It contains all of the essential amino acids and is referred to as a "complete" protein source.
Many people, especially elderly people, do not consume enough high-quality protein.
Inadequate protein intake may accelerate and worsen age-related muscle wasting, increasing the risk of an adverse condition known as sarcopenia ().
Sarcopenia is a serious health issue among elderly people, but can be prevented or improved with strength exercises and increased protein intake.
The best dietary sources of protein are animal-derived foods, such as meat, fish, and milk products.
In the context of a healthy lifestyle, regular consumption of beef, or other sources of high-quality protein, may help preserve muscle mass, reducing the risk of sarcopenia.
Bottom Line: As a rich source of high-quality protein, beef may contribute to the maintenance and growth of muscle mass.
Improved Exercise Performance
Carnosine is a dipeptide important for muscle function (, ).
It is formed in the body from beta-alanine, a dietary amino acid found in high amounts in fish and meat, such as beef.
In human muscles, high levels of carnosine have been linked with reduced fatigue and improved performance during exercise (, , , ).
Supplementation with high doses of purified beta-alanine for 4-10 weeks leads to a 40-80% increase in carnosine levels in muscles (, , , ).
In contrast, following a strict vegetarian diet may lead to lower levels of carnosine in muscles over time ().
This indicates that eating meat and fish regularly, or taking beta-alanine supplements, may improve exercise performance.
Bottom Line: Beef is high in carnosine, which may reduce fatigue and improve performance during exercise.
Prevention of Anemia
Anemia is a common condition, characterized by decreased amount of red blood cells and reduced ability of the blood to carry oxygen.
Iron deficiency is one of the most common causes of , the main symptoms of which are tiredness and weakness.
Beef is a rich source of iron, mainly in the form of heme-iron.
Only found in animal-derived foods, heme-iron is often very low in vegetarian diets, especially vegan diets ().
Heme-iron is absorbed much more efficiently than non-heme iron, the type of iron found in plant-derived foods ().
Not only does meat contain a highly bioavailable form of iron, it also improves the absorption of non-heme iron from plant foods, a mechanism that has not been fully explained and is referred to as the "meat factor."
For this reason, including meat in a meal can increase iron absorption from other meal components.
A few studies have shown that meat can increase absorption of non-heme iron, even in meals that contain phytic acid, an inhibitor of iron absorption (, , ).
Another study found that meat supplements were more effective than iron tablets for maintaining iron status in women during a period of exercise ().
Put simply, eating meat is one of the best ways to prevent iron deficiency anemia.
Bottom Line: Beef is an excellent source of iron, and may help prevent anemia when eaten regularly.
Beef and Heart Disease
Heart disease (cardiovascular disease) is the world's most common cause of premature death.
It is a term for various adverse conditions related to the heart and blood vessels, such as heart attacks, strokes and high blood pressure.
There are mixed results from observational studies on red meat and heart disease.
Some studies find an increased risk for both unprocessed and processed red meat (), whereas others find an increased risk for processed meat only (, ).
Other studies find no significant effects ().
Keep in mind that observational studies can not prove causation. They can only show that meat eaters are either more or less likely to get a disease.
Many health conscious people avoid red meat because it has been claimed to be unhealthy (), and people who eat meat are also less likely to eat fruits, vegetables and fiber, less likely to exercise, and more likely to be overweight (, , ).
Therefore, it is possible that meat consumption is just a marker for unhealthy behavior, and that this is not caused by the meat itself.
Of course, most observational studies try to correct for these factors, but the accuracy of the statistical adjustments may not always be perfect.
Bottom Line: It is unclear whether meat consumption increases the risk of heart disease or not. Some studies have found a link, but not others.
Beef Contains Saturated Fat
Several theories have been proposed as a possible link between meat consumption and heart disease risk.
The most popular of these is the diet-heart hypothesis, the idea that saturated fats raise cholesterol in the blood and increase the risk of heart disease.
However, many recent high-quality studies have not found any significant link between saturated fat consumption and heart disease (, , ).
Lean meat should definitely not be feared. It has been shown to have positive effects on cholesterol levels (, , ).
In the context of a healthy lifestyle, it is unlikely that moderate amounts of unprocessed lean beef have any adverse effects on heart health.
Bottom Line: Fatty beef is a rich source of saturated fats, which may increase blood cholesterol. However, the link between saturated fats and heart disease has been disputed in several recent high-quality studies.
Beef and Cancer
Colon cancer is one of the most common types of cancer worldwide.
Many observational studies have linked high meat consumption with increased risk of colon cancer (, , ).
However, not all studies have found a significant association (, ). Several components of red meat have been discussed as possible culprits:
- Heme-iron: Some researchers have proposed that heme-iron may be responsible for the cancer-causing effect of red meat (, , ).
- Heterocyclic amines: A class of cancer-causing substances, produced when meat is overcooked ().
- Other substances formed during curing and smoking, or added to processed meats.
Heterocyclic amines are a family of carcinogenic substances formed during high-temperature cooking of animal protein, particularly when frying, baking or grilling. They are found in well-done and overcooked meat, poultry, and fish (, ).
These substances may partly explain the link between red meat and cancer.
A large number of studies indicate that eating well-done meat, or other dietary sources of heterocyclic amines, may increase the risk of various cancers ().
These include colon cancer (, , , , ), breast cancer (, ) and prostate cancer (, , ).
One of these studies found that women who ate well-done meat regularly had a 4.6-fold increased risk of breast cancer ().
Taken together, there is clearly some evidence that eating high amounts of well-done meat may increase the risk of cancer.
However, it is not entirely clear whether it is specifically due to heterocyclic amines, or other substances formed during high-temperature cooking.
Increased cancer risk may also be related to unhealthy lifestyle factors often associated with high meat intake. These include low consumption of fruit, vegetables, and fiber.
For optimal health, it seems sensible to limit the consumption of overcooked meat. Steaming, boiling, and low-heat frying are probably the healthiest cooking methods.
Bottom Line: High consumption of well-done (overcooked) meat may increase the risk of several types of cancer.
Adverse Effects and Individual Concerns
Beef has been linked with a few adverse health conditions.
The beef tapeworm (Taenia saginata) is an intestinal parasite that can sometimes reach a length of several meters ().
It is rare in most developed countries, but relatively common in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia.
Consumption of raw, or undercooked (rare), beef is the most common route of infection.
Beef tapeworm infection (taeniasis) usually does not cause symptoms. However, severe infection may result in weight loss, abdominal pain, and nausea ().
Bottom Line: In some countries, raw (or rare) beef may contain beef tapeworm, an intestinal parasite that may lead to weight loss and stomach pain.
Beef is one of the richest dietary sources of iron.
In some people, eating iron-rich foods may cause a condition known as iron overload.
The most common cause of iron overload is hereditary hemochromatosis, a genetic disorder characterized by excessive absorption of iron from food ().
Excessive iron accumulation in the body can be life-threatening, leading to cancer, heart disease, and liver problems.
People with hemochromatosis should limit their consumption of red meat, such as beef and lamb ().
Bottom Line: As a rich source of iron, high beef consumption may contribute to excess iron accumulation in people with hemochromatosis.
Grain-Fed vs. Grass-Fed Beef
The nutritional value of meat depends on the feed of the source animal.
In the past, most cattle were grass-fed. In contrast, most of today's beef production relies on grain-based feeds.
Differing from grain-fed beef in several ways, grass-fed beef has ():
- A higher antioxidant content (, ).
- Fat that is more yellow in color, indicating higher amounts of carotenoid antioxidants ().
- Higher amounts of vitamin E (especially when pasture-raised) ().
- Lower amounts of fat.
- A healthier fatty acid profile.
- Higher amounts of ruminant trans fats, such as conjugated linoleic acid ().
- Higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.
Put simply, grass-fed beef is a healthier choice than grain-fed.
Bottom Line: Beef from grass-fed cows is higher in many healthy nutrients than beef from grain-fed cows.
Beef is one of the most popular types of meat.
It is exceptionally rich in high-quality protein, vitamins and minerals.
For this reason, it may improve muscle growth and maintenance, as well as exercise performance. As a rich source of iron, it may also cut the risk of anemia.
High consumption of processed meat and overcooked (burned) meat has been linked with increased risk of heart disease and cancer.
On the other hand, unprocessed and mildly cooked beef is probably healthy in moderation, especially in the context of a healthy lifestyle.