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 contains various vitamins and minerals, especially iron and zinc. Therefore, a moderate beef intake can be recommended as part of a healthy diet.
This article tells you everything you need to know about beef.
- Vitamins & minerals
- Meat compounds
- Heart disease
- Other downsides
- Grain-fed vs. grass-fed
Beef nutrition facts
Beef is primarily composed of protein and varying amounts of fat.
Here are the nutrition facts for a 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving of broiled, ground beef with 10% fat content:
- Calories: 217
- Water: 61%
- Protein: 26.1 grams
- Carbs: 0 grams
- Sugar: 0 grams
- Fiber: 0 grams
- Fat: 11.8 grams
Meat — such as beef — is mainly composed of protein.
The protein content of lean, cooked beef is about 26–27%.
Animal protein is usually of high quality, containing all nine essential amino acids needed for the growth and maintenance of your body.
As the building blocks of proteins, 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, its amino acid profile is almost identical to that of your own muscles.
For this reason, eating meat — or other animal protein — may be particularly beneficial after surgery and for recovering athletes. Combined with strength exercise, it also helps maintain and build muscle mass.
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.
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, oleic, and palmitic.
Food products from ruminant animals — such as cows and sheep — also harbor trans fats known as ruminant trans fats.
Unlike their industrially-produced counterparts, naturally-occurring ruminant trans fats are not considered unhealthy.
The most common is conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) in beef, lamb, and dairy products.
CLA has been linked to various health benefits — including weight loss. Still, large doses of supplements may have harmful metabolic consequences.
Summary: Beef protein is highly nutritious and may promote muscle maintenance and growth. Beef contains varying amounts of fat, including CLA, which has been linked to health benefits.
Vitamins and minerals of beef
The following vitamins and minerals are abundant in beef:
- Vitamin B12. Animal-derived foods, such as meat, are the only good dietary sources of vitamin B12, an essential nutrient important for blood formation and your brain and nervous system.
- Zinc. Beef is rich in zinc, an important mineral for body growth and maintenance.
- Selenium. Meat is generally a rich source of selenium, an essential trace element that serves various bodily functions.
- Iron. Found in high amounts in beef, meat iron is mostly in the heme form, absorbed very efficiently.
- Niacin. One of the B vitamins, niacin (vitamin B3) has various important functions in your body. Low niacin intake has been associated with an increased risk of heart disease.
- Vitamin B6. A family of B vitamins, vitamin B6 is important for blood formation and energy metabolism.
- Phosphorus. Widely found in foods, phosphorus intake is generally high in the Western diet. It’s essential for body growth and maintenance.
Beef contains many other vitamins and minerals in lower amounts.
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Processed beef products like sausages may be particularly high in sodium (salt).
Summary: Meat is an excellent source of vitamins and minerals. These include vitamin B12, zinc, selenium, iron, niacin, and vitamin B6.
Other meat compounds
Like plants, meat contains several bioactive substances and antioxidants, which may affect health when consumed adequately.
Some of the most prominent compounds in beef include:
- Creatine. Abundant in meat, creatine serves as an energy source for muscles. Bodybuilders commonly take creatine supplements that may benefit muscle growth and maintenance.
- Taurine. Found in fish and meat, taurine is an antioxidant amino acid and a common ingredient in energy drinks. It’s produced by your body and is important for heart and muscle function.
- Glutathione. An antioxidant found in most whole foods, glutathione is particularly abundant in meat. It’s found in higher amounts in grass-fed beef than in grain-fed.
- Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). CLA is a ruminant trans fat that may have various health benefits when consumed as part of a healthy diet.
- Cholesterol. This compound serves many functions in your body. In most people, dietary cholesterol has little effect on blood cholesterol and is generally not considered a health concern.
Summary: Animal meat like beef contains several bioactive substances, such as creatine, taurine, CLA, and cholesterol.
Health benefits of beef
Beef is a rich source of high-quality protein and various vitamins and minerals. As such, it can be an excellent component of a healthy diet.
Maintaining 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.
Many people — especially older adults — don’t consume enough high-quality protein.
Inadequate protein intake may accelerate age-related muscle wasting, increasing your risk of an adverse condition known as sarcopenia.
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Sarcopenia is a serious health issue among older adults but can be prevented or reversed with strength exercises and increased protein intake.
The best dietary protein sources 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 your risk of sarcopenia.
Improved exercise performance
Carnosine is a compound important for muscle function.
It’s formed in your body from beta-alanine, a dietary amino acid in high amounts of fish and meat, including beef.
Supplementing with high doses of beta-alanine for 4–10 weeks has led to a 40–80% increase in muscle carnosine levels.
In contrast, following a strict vegetarian diet may lower muscle carnosine levels over time.
In human muscles, high levels of carnosine have been linked to reduced fatigue and improved performance during exercise.
Controlled studies suggest that beta-alanine supplements can improve running time and strength.
Anemia is a common condition characterized by a decreased number of red blood cells and reduced ability of the blood to carry oxygen.
Iron deficiency is one of the most common causes of anemia. The main symptoms 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 — and especially vegan — diets.
Your body absorbs heme iron much more efficiently than non-heme iron — the type of iron in plant-derived foods.
Thus, meat not only contains a highly bioavailable form of iron but 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.”
A few studies indicate that meat can increase the 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 at maintaining iron status in women during exercise.
Therefore, eating meat is one of the best ways to prevent iron deficiency anemia.
Summary: Rich in high-quality protein, beef may help maintain and grow muscle mass. Its beta-alanine content may reduce fatigue and improve exercise performance. Plus, beef may prevent iron deficiency anemia.
Beef and heart disease
Heart disease is the world’s most common cause of premature death.
It’s a term for various conditions related to the heart and blood vessels, such as heart attacks, strokes, and high blood pressure.
Observational studies on red meat and heart disease provide mixed results.
Some studies detect an increased risk for unprocessed and processed red meat, a few showed an increased risk for processed meat only, and others reported no significant association.
Keep in mind that observational studies cannot prove cause and effect. They only show that meat eaters are more or less likely to get a disease.
Meat consumption may be just a marker of unhealthy behavior, but the meat itself does not cause negative health effects.
For example, many health-conscious people avoid red meat because it is considered unhealthy.
Additionally, people who eat meat are more likely to be overweight and less likely to exercise or eat a lot of fruits, vegetables, and fiber.
Of course, most observational studies try to correct these factors, but the accuracy of the statistical adjustments may not always be perfect.
Saturated fat and heart disease
Several theories have been proposed to explain the link between meat consumption and heart disease.
The most popular is the diet-heart hypothesis — the idea that saturated fat increases your risk of heart disease by raising cholesterol levels in your blood.
The diet-heart hypothesis is controversial, and the evidence is mixed. Not all studies observe a significant link between saturated fat and heart disease.
Still, most health authorities advise people to limit their saturated fat intake — including beef tallow.
If you’re worried about saturated fat, consider choosing lean meat, which has been shown to affect cholesterol levels positively.
In the context of a healthy lifestyle, it’s unlikely that moderate amounts of unprocessed lean beef adversely affect heart health.
Summary: Whether meat consumption or saturated fats in beef increase your risk of heart disease is unclear. Some studies observe a link, but others don’t.
Beef and cancer
Colon cancer is one of the most common types of cancer worldwide.
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Many observational studies link high meat consumption to an increased risk of colon cancer — but not all studies find a significant association.
Several components of red meat have been discussed as possible culprits:
- Heme iron. Some researchers propose that heme iron may be responsible for the cancer-causing effect of red meat.
- Heterocyclic amines. These are a class of cancer-causing substances produced when meat is overcooked.
- Other substances. It has been suggested that other compounds added to processed meats or formed during curing and smoking may cause cancer.
Heterocyclic amines are a family of carcinogenic substances formed during high-temperature cooking of animal protein, particularly when frying, baking, or grilling.
They’re found in well-done and overcooked meat, poultry, and fish.
These substances may partly explain the link between red meat and cancer.
Many studies indicate that eating well-done meat — or other dietary sources of heterocyclic amines — may increase your risk of various cancers.
These include colon, breast, 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, some evidence suggests that eating high amounts of well-done meat may increase your risk of cancer.
Still, whether it’s specifically due to heterocyclic amines or other substances formed during high-temperature cooking is not entirely clear.
Increased cancer risk may also be related to unhealthy lifestyle factors often associated with high meat intakes, such as not eating enough fruit, vegetables, and fiber.
For optimal health, it seems sensible to limit your consumption of overcooked meat. Steaming, boiling, and stewing are healthier cooking methods.
Summary: High consumption of overcooked meat may increase the risk of several types of cancer.
Other downsides of beef
Beef has been linked to a few adverse health conditions — other than heart disease and cancer.
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The beef tapeworm (Taenia saginata) is an intestinal parasite that can sometimes reach a length of 13–33 feet (4–10 meters).
It’s 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 — or taeniasis — usually doesn’t cause symptoms. However, severe infection may result in weight loss, abdominal pain, and nausea.
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 iron absorption from food.
Excessive iron accumulation in your 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.
Summary: In some countries, raw or rare beef may contain beef tapeworm. Plus, as a rich source of iron, high beef consumption may contribute to excess iron accumulation — especially 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 in Western countries were grass-fed. In contrast, most of today’s beef production relies on grain-based feeds.
Compared to grain-fed beef, grass-fed beef has:
- a higher antioxidant content
- more yellow fat — 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 CLA
- higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids
Put simply, grass-fed beef is a healthier choice than grain-fed.
Summary: 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’s exceptionally rich in high-quality protein, vitamins, and minerals.
Therefore, it may improve muscle growth and maintenance and exercise performance. As a rich source of iron, it may also cut your risk of anemia.
High consumption of processed and overcooked meat has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease and cancer.
On the other hand, unprocessed and mildly cooked beef is healthy in moderation — especially in the context of a healthy lifestyle and balanced diet.