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Nutrition: The Real Beef About Red Meat

Nancy Clark, M.S., R.D.

Fifty-plus years ago, most athletes were meat-eaters who believed that beef was the best foundation for a sports diet. Steak at dinner converted into bigger biceps by breakfast. Red meat instilled toughness and aggressiveness. But today's athletes have changed their tune:

"I'm repulsed by the idea of eating an animal."

"I want to eat less fat and cholesterol."

"I'd rather eat more carbs to fuel my muscles."

"I want to avoid the hormones added to meats."

"Meat is fattening."

"I don't like the taste."

"I don't cook meat. It leaves a mess to clean up."

"I don't like to kill animals."

Despite these reasons, red meat is indisputably an excellent source of high quality protein. It is rich in iron and zinc, two minerals important for optimal health and athletic performance. Given this, confusion abounds regarding the pros and cons of eating beef, pork and lamb. Perhaps you have wondered if you or your players should eat or avoid red meat.

The answer is not a simple yes or no but rather a weighing of nutrition facts, ethical concerns, personal values and dedication to making appropriate food choices. Yes, you can get the nutrients needed to support your sports program from vegetarian food sources... but are you? The following facts can help you decide if eating small (three- to four-ounce) portions of red meat two to four times per week would enhance your sports diet.

Heart health

Cholesterol is a part of animal cells and is found in all animal products. Beef, pork and lamb have cholesterol similar to chicken, fish or turkey: 70 to 80 mg cholesterol per four-ounce serving. Given that the American Heart Association recommends less than 300 mg of cholesterol a day, small portions of red meat can certainly fit those requirements.

Fatty meats such as greasy hamburgers, pepperoni, juicy steaks and sausage are the dietary no-no's. Lean meats such as London broil, extra-lean hamburgers and top-round roast beef have only six to 12 grams of fat per four-ounce serving and can appropriately fit into a heart-healthy 25 to 30 percent fat diet. (Most athletes are allotted 45 to 70 grams of fat per day.)


Beef, pork and lamb are excellent sources of high quality protein. So are chicken, turkey, fish, tuna and lowfat dairy foods, such as yogurt, cheese and milk. Vegetarian sources in proper combinations can also offer the protein needed to build and repair muscles. However, athletes have to be sure to eat enough beans, peanut butter and tofu. Men with big appetites can do this more easily than calorie-conscious women. A skimming of peanut butter on a lunchtime sandwich and a sprinkling of garbanzo beans on a dinner salad fall short of meeting the approximate 50 to 70 grams of protein needed by female athletes and the approximate 70 to 90 grams needed by males.

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Adequate iron in athletes' sports diets is important in preventing anemia. Without question, the iron in red meats is more easily absorbed than that in popular vegetarian sources (eg., beans, raisins, spinach). Even 50 mg of iron from pills is less effective than 15 mg of iron from meat. Studies have shown that even athletes meeting the RDA of iron are may have depleted iron stores because the iron just isn't absorbed well enough. Sometimes eating chicken and fish isn't good enough.


Important for healing both the minor damage that occurs with daily training as well as major injuries and ailments, zinc is best found in iron-rich foods (i.e., red meats). Diets deficient in iron are probably also deficient in zinc. Like iron, the zinc in animal products is absorbed better than that in vegetable foods or supplements.


Athletic women who have stopped getting menstrual periods commonly eat no red meat, as studies have shown. The question remains: Are these amenorrheic athletes simply protein deficient, or is there a meat variable that affects hormones involved with menstruation? Given that amenorrhea is a sign of poor internal health, athletes who do not menstruate should carefully evaluate the adequacy of their diets and acknowledge that red meat may reduce the higher risk of stress fractures that coincides with the loss of menses.

Hormones in meat

Fears abound regarding hormones given to cattle to enhance their growth. The USDA claims the amount of hormones used is far less than one might get in the birth control pill -- or even in a cup of coleslaw for that matter. Athletes can always buy all natural meats to be on the safe side.

Making your choices

Athletes who carefully select a vegetarian diet -- as compared to those who simply abstain from eating meat and make no effort to include alternate sources of protein, iron and zinc in their diets -- can satisfy their nutritional needs. However, athletes who grab hit-or-miss meals without thinking about nutritional value may benefit from the convenient nutrition found in small portions of lean meats (e.g., a thin roast beef sandwich, flank steak stir-fried with broccoli, extra-lean hamburger added to spaghetti sauce). The fat in meat -- not the meat itself -- is the health culprit.

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