Beef in the balance
A healthy lifestyle includes foods of all kinds, enjoyed guilt-free
Cattle and wheat fields line the dirt road leading to the Glazier home in central Oklahoma. The nearest town is Loyal, population 79, about 5 miles away. The closest grocery store is 30 minutes. But the family—Kyle, Sheri and their children, Kol, 8, and Gentri, 5—enjoys a fresh supply of home-raised beef.
Beef has always played an important role in life for Kyle and Sheri, both of whom grew up farming and raising cattle in their community, served by Cimarron Electric Cooperative. Sheri Glazier’s family came to the region in 1892, making her the fifth generation to tend land and livestock.
Glazier’s involvement in 4-H food and nutrition projects, and her experiences as a collegiate basketball player, put her on the path to becoming a registered dietitian. But as she entered the field, she saw disconnects between people and their food—specifically their understanding of how food is produced. Equally disconcerting was how they view food itself—often as “good” or “bad.”
Too frequently for Glazier’s tastes and nutritional understanding, beef became the “bad guy” and a source of guilt for people who enjoy it.
“It’s unfair, really,” Glazier says, adding that a restrictive approach to any food or component of nutrition is counterproductive to overall health. “What we really need is to seek out a solid nutritional foundation so we can have confidence about feeding ourselves and our families.”
As a mom, rancher and registered dietitian, Glazier now makes it her mission to build this nutritional confidence in people—especially rural women—as the Dirt Road Dietitian.
“You may not have access to a grocery store within five minutes, but you can be successful in feeding your family and yourself,” Glazier says.
The Beef on Red Meat
Beef and other red meats typically receive negative attention in heart health conversations because of their saturated fat content. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 5-6% of daily calories from saturated fat, or about 120 calories (13 grams) in a 2,000-calorie day.
Saturated fat, which is found in animal-based products as well as in tropical oils like coconut and palm oil, affects the amount of cholesterol in the blood. Higher levels of LDL cholesterol are connected to higher risks of heart disease and stroke.
More recently, an American Heart Association study found high levels of trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO), which is produced by gut bacteria to digest foods high in choline (an essential nutrient found in animal proteins), may also explain links between red meat and cardiovascular disease. In this 2022 study, high blood sugar and inflammation were also found to potentially contribute to high cardiovascular risk. Blood pressure and cholesterol were not associated.
The difficulty in nutritional sciences, Glazier says, is studies—including the TMAO study—are often built on self-reported observational data. Studies do not always control all risk factors for heart disease (like physical activity levels, smoking and alcohol or other food consumption). Some foods are easier to report than others, and studies often lump fresh and processed (potentially high-sodium) beef together.
“The world I live in is challenging,” Glazier says. “It’s not black and white. Everybody says different things. In the 1980s, we were fearful of fat. Now we know we need fat in the diet, but we’re still learning about what types of fat are best for us. There is a lot we’re still learning.”
“Life is hard enough. Food doesn’t have to be such a guilt-driven piece of our lives.” – Sheri Glazier
Good News for Beef
She points to three studies showing beef can be part of a heart-healthy diet. These studies were funded, in part, by the Beef Checkoff but were conducted independently by university researchers and published in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
The first, Beef in an Optimal Lean Diet, from 2012, found lean beef could be added to the “gold-standard” DASH diet. Adding a daily serving of up to 5.4 ounces of lean beef to the DASH diet reduced total and LDL cholesterol just as effectively as the traditional DASH diet, which emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, poultry and fish. Saturated fat was limited to 6% of daily calories for each test group.
Studies in 2018 and 2021 found lean beef could be added to a heart-healthy Mediterranean-style eating pattern, which typically is considered low in red meat as well as in sugar and sodium and high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and olive oil.
The 2018 study found adults who were overweight or moderately obese were able to improve heart health by adopting this eating pattern, with or without reducing red meat intake. The study compared Mediterranean eating with three ounces of red meat (lean, unprocessed beef and pork) per day versus the commonly recommended three ounces twice per week.
“Overall, heart health indicators improved with both Mediterranean-style eating patterns,” says Lauren E. O’Connor, lead author. “Interestingly, though, participants’ LDL cholesterol, which is one of the strongest predictors we have to predict the development of cardiovascular disease, improved with typical but not lower red meat intake.”
More to the Health Journey
Most beef eaters like to eat beef simply because it tastes good, Kiah Twisselman Burchett says. She was working for the Kentucky Beef Council in 2018 when her health journey began.
Burchett grew up as the sixth generation on her family’s ranch in central California, where she developed a deep appreciation both for raising and enjoying beef. But, in her role with the Beef Council, she felt like a hypocrite.
Part of her responsibilities included representing Kentucky beef producers in front of dietitians and nutritionists. She talked about the research and the benefits of beef. She believed the message. However, she felt like she may be doing more harm than good because she did not look like someone who was physically healthy.
“I realized I’d given all my power to everyone outside of me instead of accepting that if I’m unhappy and unsatisfied in my life then it’s my job to make choices to get me somewhere else,” Burchett says. “It allowed me to mentally put myself back in the driver’s seat of my own life instead of just playing victim to my circumstances.”
In just over a year, Burchett lost almost 125 pounds. But she’s quick to say the journey has been more about personal development than weight loss. She came to understand food was her comfort, her way to escape difficult situations and emotions. She needed to find new tools to rebuild her relationship with food, and with herself.
“I had to learn to change the conversation in my mind around food and my body from negativity and shame to compassionate curiosity and gratitude,” Burchett says.
She started learning to eat intuitively, noticing what foods made her feel satisfied and strong, both physically and mentally.
“Beef does feel good for me and my body,” Burchett says. “It keeps me full throughout the day. I love the versatility of it. I can eat it in so many different ways with so many of my other favorite foods, and it just fits in a lot of different places—fuel, culture, family, community, connection—for me.”
Laying the Foundation
Sheri Glazier spreads a cup of Greek yogurt onto a cutting board, adding apples and graham crackers for dipping. The snack—which contains protein, carbohydrates, fat and fiber—will be ready for when her third grader and kindergartener get off the school bus.
Not every meal in the Glazier home includes beef, but the cattle producer laughs, saying, “Chicken is sometimes a treat for my kids because we do eat a significant amount of beef. And I know it’s providing them a fantastic source of protein, iron, vitamin B12, zinc and nutrients they need for brain development.”
She admires son Kol’s problem-solving mind and daughter Gentri’s love of life, and she aims to help them grow without the hindrance of society’s tendency to vilify or glorify individual foods.
“I want to lay a solid foundation for them so they’re able to use their God-given gifts to their full potential and not have to be weighed down by something like not knowing how to fuel themselves,” Glazier says. “Life is hard enough. Food doesn’t have to be such a guilt-driven piece of our lives.”
Beef’s Nutritional Benefits
The National Academy of Medicine recommends adults get about 7 grams of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight. A 3-ounce serving of beef packs 25 grams in just about 175 calories. It also provides all the essential amino acids needed by the body.
In addition to being a nutrient-dense source of protein, beef provides nine more essential nutrients: vitamins B6 and B12, zinc, selenium, niacin, riboflavin, phosphorus, iron and choline. These nutrients play roles in the brain, muscles, bones and teeth, energy and metabolism, and the nervous and immune systems.
Lean Cuts of Beef
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines “lean beef” as 100 grams of beef with less than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol.
“Extra lean” beef has less than 5 grams of fat, less than 2 grams of saturated fat and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol.
Nearly 40 cuts of beef available at the grocery store are considered lean. A quick tip is to look for cuts that include the words “round” or “loin.” Other lean cuts include chuck shoulder steak, flank steak, flat-half brisket, T-bone steak, top blade steak and some ground beef.
Extra lean cuts include:
- Bottom round roast
- Top round roast/steak
- Eye round roast/steak
A beef eye of round roast or steak is leaner than a skinless chicken breast (100 grams of round roast has 2.48 grams total fat and 0.9 grams saturated fat compared to 3.24 grams total fat and 1.01 grams saturated fat), according to the USDA FoodData Central database.