The Physician and Sportsmedicine
Menubar Home Journal Personal Health Resource Center CME Advertiser Services About Us


Animal Proteins and Active People: What's Your Beef?

Nancy Clark, MS, RD


Vegetarian diets have become popular among active people because of the belief that meats are bad for health and performance. The fact, though, is that beef, pork, lamb, chicken, and turkey can be a healthful part of your diet.

The Goods on Meat

Red meats and poultry are excellent sources of protein. They also can supply iron and zinc, as well as B vitamins and many other nutrients that can enhance a high-performance diet (table 1: not shown).

Protein. Most active people need about 0.5 to 0.75 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. You don't need to eat large meat portions to satisfy this requirement, even if you're trying to build muscle. (It's strength training, not extra protein, that builds muscles.) A 150-pound man can get the recommended 75 to 115 grams of protein from two 8-ounce servings of low-fat milk (20 grams), 3 ounces of turkey in a sandwich at lunchtime (25 grams), 4 ounces of red meat at dinner (30 grams), plus the protein in the rest of the day's foods.

Iron and zinc. Vegetarians can get iron and zinc from plant sources, but in smaller amounts and in a form less easily absorbed. Animal proteins also contain a compound known as "MFP factor" that enhances absorption of iron and zinc in plant foods. MFP factor in lean beef in chili, for example, improves absorption of iron from the beans.

The iron in meat will help you avoid the fatigue associated with iron-deficiency anemia; active people who eat red meat tend to have better iron stores than do non-meat eaters. In particular, active people who are at risk of anemia can benefit from eating lean red meats 2 to 4 times per week. Those at risk include menstruating women, who lose iron through menstrual blood; growing teenagers, who need iron for their expanding blood volume; endurance runners, who can damage blood cells through the pounding of their feet on the ground; and athletes in general, who lose small amounts of iron in sweat.

A guideline for choosing iron-rich foods is that darker-colored foods generally have the most iron. For example, a 4-ounce serving of beef supplies about 4 milligrams of the 15-milligram recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of iron; a 4-ounce chicken breast has only 1 milligram, and milk contains even less.

Zinc promotes healing, helps strengthen immunity, and is part of many enzymes that help your body function. Animal foods are the richest source of easily absorbed zinc. Four ounces of beef provides about 6 milligrams—over a third of the 15-milligram RDA.

The Dark Side

The chief disadvantage of animal proteins is saturated fat, the main culprit in heart disease. Although improved breeding and trimming have made lower-fat meats available, the fattier cuts are often the most tempting.

You can learn how to eat meats healthfully. At a restaurant, a lean roast beef sandwich is a good red meat choice. If you order a hamburger, ask for an extra roll; use one to absorb the grease, and eat the other with the degreased burger. At home, you can buy the leanest ground beef, but even 90% lean ground beef gets 10% of its weight—50% of its calories—from fat. Drain the ground meat in a colander after cooking, then rinse it well with hot water to remove even more of the fat. You can stretch it by adding it to spaghetti sauce. Stretch other lean meats by cutting them into strips, stir-frying until just cooked, and using them in oriental dishes or fajitas.

Consumers sometimes wonder about potential health dangers from meats. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) maintains that USDA-inspected meats are safe. The greatest dangers stem from mishandling. Follow these guidelines to keep meats safe:

  • Store meat and poultry on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator so raw juices won't reach other foods.
  • Cook cuts of meat within 4 days after purchasing, and ground meats, which carry greater risks because surface bacteria are distributed throughout the meat, within 2 days.
  • If packaged meat looks or smells suspicious, throw it out even if the "use by" date has not expired.
  • Rinse poultry before cooking.
  • When marinating, refrigerate meats or poultry. And don't baste with the marinade during the last 10 minutes of cooking.
  • Cook beef or lamb until it's no longer pink (160°F), and pork until just pink (160°F). Making sure pork is well done to avoid trichinosis is an outdated practice, and well-done pork is tough and dry.
  • When you are barbecuing, place the cooked meat on a clean platter.

Balancing the Beef

Active people who eat a lot of meat are likely to consume too few carbohydrates and may have unnecessary fatigue as a result. At dinner, some people eat up to twice the recommended protein serving, but only half the starch. The recommended 3- to 4-ounce portion of meat (about the size of a deck of cards or a woman's palm) provides adequate protein and leaves room for carbohydrate-rich foods that replace the glycogen that muscles use up during workouts.

You need protein every day, so you should include protein-rich foods even with a "carbo-loading" diet. Some athletes avoid meats before competing, fearing digestion problems. A few slices of turkey on a roll or lean beef in sauce with spaghetti can be an easily digested and satisfying pre-event meal.

It's no baloney: Meat is an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, and protein. You'll be dining in good health as long as you eat small portions of the leanest cuts and fill up on carbohydrates.

Remember: You, your physician, and your nutritionist need to work together to discuss nutrition concerns. The above information is not intended as a substitute for appropriate medical treatment.

Ms Clark is director of Nutrition Services at SportsMedicine Brookline in the Boston area. She is a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, a fellow of the American Dietetic Association, and a member of its practice group, Sports and Cardiovascular Nutritionists (SCAN).



The McGraw-Hill Companies Gradient

Copyright (C) 1997. The McGraw-Hill Companies. All Rights Reserved
Privacy Policy.   Privacy Notice.