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Beef - Options for a Healthy Meal

There are days when I can't stand the thought of eating one more chicken breast. I know they're low in fat. I understand they're high in protein. I realize it's one of the healthiest meats I can choose. But some days I just want to eat beef.

The other day I had one of those cravings. So I called some friends and we went out to a local restaurant for steak. When the waiter came by I started asking questions about the various cuts to choose the healthiest option. The waiter had no idea. He knew all about the different ways of preparing steak, the various grades of beef and even the marinades that were used. But which cut of steak was healthier? No idea.

It turns out there's a huge difference in beef cuts. The ones lowest in fat and calories are the Rounds (Eye Round, Top Round, Bottom Round) and Chuck Mock Tender. In each 3-ounce serving, none of them have more than 5.5 grams of fat and 178 calories.

Middle of the road steaks have 7.5 grams of fat or less and under 170 calories. They include the strip, t-bone, and flank steak.

Unless it's a very special occasion, you should avoid the porterhouse, skirt steak (outside) and rib-eye. These steaks can pack up to 16 grams of fat and 198 calories or more per 3-ounce serving.

To help you the next time you're going out, use the following chart. It shows the major cuts of meat along with the fat, calories and protein per 3-ounce serving. Cuts in GREEN are the healthiest options; YELLOW indicates caution, while those in RED should be avoided or saved for a special occasion.

Chart showing nutritional values of beef.

What about filet mignon?

"Filet Mignon" is French. The literal translation is small (mignon) boneless meat (filet). It's a cut from the short loin of a cow. It's also referred to as Chateaubriand, Filet de Boeuf, Medallions or Tournedos. We've listed it on our chart by its most common name, Tenderloin.

To round out a healthy meal, skip the appetizers and fries. Instead, opt for steamed vegetables and get any sauces on the side.

Where Cuts Come From

Where beef cuts come from on a bull.

Buying Beef at the Supermarket

Just knowing the cut isn't enough. Beef is also divided into grades by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Those grades have nothing to do with food safety; they're a measure of taste. PRIME is the fattiest cut, followed by the more lean CHOICE and the one with the least fat SELECT.

Skip steaks with a lot of "marbling." That's just a fancy word for fat.

If you have a butcher cutting your meat, ask to have as much fat removed as possible. If you're going to trim it yourself, put it in the freezer for 20 minutes, so the fat gets harder, then it's easier to cut off.

While you're trimming, cut the steaks down to about 3 ounces each. That's about the size of a deck of cards. 3-ounces is also what's considered a single serving by the USDA. When combined with vegetables and complex carbs like brown rice, whole grain bread or sweet potatoes, it makes a complete meal of 350 to 500 calories.

The color of steak you buy should be a deep red. The deeper red it is, the leaner the meat. If you're worried that the meat is being secretly dyed red for cosmetic purposes, relax. The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) standards require that all ingredients or additives other than the actual food source be listed on the package label. Steaks may appear bright red because the plastic they're wrapped in is permeable, letting oxygen in and changing the color.

Avoid meat that has grayish or brown blotches.

Use your finger and see how the steak feels. If it's mushy or soft, pass. Steak that's firm to the touch is a better choice.

Skip packages that have a lot of excess juice in them. That might indicate poor temperature control for the meat or that it's been stored too long. Either one can harm the flavor of the meat.

If you've got a lot of shopping to do, pick up the meat last. You want to make sure it stays cold until you get it home.


The best way to tell if your steak is cooked thoroughly is by using an instant-read thermometer. Insert the thermometer through the side of the steak at the thickest point. Avoid touching bone or the reading will be off. If you don't have a thermometer, test your steak by pressing it. If the meat bounces right back, it's rare to medium-rare. If you press and it doesn't give, it's well done.

Rare 120° F to 135° F
Medium-Rare 135° F to 145° F
Medium 145° F to 155° F
Medium-Well 155° F to 165° F
Well-Done 165° F to 170° F

Special Note if you're cooking GROUND BEEF.

To make sure it's safe from harmful bacteria, it should be cooked to between 160 and 165° F. The centers should not be pink and the juices should run clear.

Tip From the Cattlemen's Beef Board and National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

Cook roasts to 10°F below the recommended internal temperature for doneness. The temperature will continue to rise about 10°F during standing time. (Allow 15 minutes.)

Cooking Tips

  • Beef should be at room temperature when you cook it. The meat will stay juicier and cook more evenly.

  • Never pierce or turn a steak with a fork; it allows the juices to escape. Instead, turn the steak with a pair of tongs.

  • Avoid cross-contamination. Don't re-use leftover marinade or add sauce with a brush you've already used on raw beef.

  • If you have leftover marinade that you want to use, bring it to a rolling boil for one minute. Then it will be safe to use on cooked meats.

  • If you're roasting beef, make sure the oven temperature is 325°F or above. Temperatures lower than that may allow bacterial growth before cooking is complete.

  • Prepare side dishes first. Steak only takes a few minutes to cook. You don't want it getting cold while you're waiting for the vegetables, yams or rice.

Which is better, beef or vegetables?

In an interesting study conducted at the University Hospital of the Saarland in Germany, it was found that "Decreasing or eliminating animal products from the diet decreases the intake of some essential nutrients, such as vitamin B(12), which may lead to hyperhomocysteinemia."

Hyperhomocysteinemia is a high blood level of the sulfur-containing amino acid, homocysteine. Homocysteine is an amino acid that damages arteries, so having high levels can put you at risk of cardiovascular disease.

So which is better?

Vegetables. While beef is a good source of B12, you can get that vitamin in other ways. Shitake mushrooms, kimchi, sauerkraut and nutritional yeast all contain B12. You can also get B12 in grains and breakfast cereals that have B12 added to them. They are "fortified" with B12.

If you are going to eat meat, follow this rule. Fill at least 3/4 of your plate with fruits, vegetables and grains. Limit meat to 1/4 of your plate or less.

Is there a steak that's leaner than chicken?

Yes, it's true. It's called Belgian Blue beef, and ounce for ounce, it has less fat and cholesterol than skinless chicken breast. Belgian Blue meat averages 3% or less fat, skinless chicken breast averages about 4%. The cholesterol is low too, with less than a quarter of that found in regular beef. For more information, below are two organizations dedicated to Belgian Blue.

International Association of Belgian Blue Cattle Breeders

American Belgian Blue Breeders, Inc.

(Be careful when cooking Belgian Blue. It's so low in fat; it can cook in as little as 1/3 the time as regular beef.)

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Updated 9/14/2009
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