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January 7, 2021 | | Nutrition

Beef: A Game Changer for Building Muscle

This post is a collaboration with Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner, managed by National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff, as part of my role as a member of the Beef Expert Bureau.

“Too much beef causes heart disease.” “Consumption of beef leads to high cholesterol.” “Do not eat beef more than once a week.”
Sound familiar? Let’s take a dive into the research surrounding some of these common myths.

Beef’s Role in Heart Health

To understand what the science is telling us, we need to look at the total body of evidence, rather than single studies, which can often be inconsistent. Many of the research studies that get media headlines are observational studies that provide  associations or correlations between variables , rather than research studies that  are designed to help determine cause and effect. The highest quality studies– randomized controlled trials are the gold standard for clinical research.  Well designed randomized controlled trials that examine  lean beef consumed as a part of a healthy diets show that beef can be a part of heart-healthy dietary patterns.

For example, the BOLD study found that between 4 different diets, the healthy American diet (HAD), Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension (DASH), Beef in an Optimal Lean Diet (BOLD), and BOLD+ (extra protein), total cholesterol and LDL improved in the DASH, BOLD, and BOLD+ diets, compared to the HAD. Apolipoproteins decreased after both BOLD and BOLD+ consumption compared to the HAD. These results showed that in a low-saturated fat diet, lean beef consumption does not lead to higher blood lipid levels and instead can lower both total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol producing positive results in the fight against cardiovascular disease.4, 5, 6 Additional research from randomized controlled trials also demonstrate that lean beef, as part of a balanced, heart-healthy diet, can support cardiovascular health.

So, where do we go from here? Choose mostly lean sources of protein to decrease the total intake of saturated fats, which in excess, are more closely correlated with cardiovascular disease. Individuals might be pleasantly surprised to learn there are nearly 40 lean cuts of beef available including favorites like NY Strip Steak, Tenderloin Steak/Roast, Flank Steak and 93% Lean Ground Beef (and leaner). This means, according to USDA standards, lean cuts must contain less than 10g total fat, 4.5 or less grams of saturated fat, and less than 95 mg cholesterol per 3.5 oz (100g) cooked serving.

Beef: A Delicious-Tasting Protein Powerhouse

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 1.0 g/kg of protein for recreational athletes, 1.2-1.4 g/kg for endurance athletes, 1.2-2.0 g/kg for ultra-endurance athletes, and 1.5-2.0 g/kg for strength athletes. For a 215 lb (97 kg) male weightlifter, this means consuming between 146-194 grams of protein per day. Consuming adequate amounts of protein helps maintain and promote muscle synthesis by allowing the body to be in a state of positive nitrogen balance. When protein is consumed in the diet it gets broken down into amino acids, which are then available for muscle hypertrophy.

When it comes to protein, timing is everything. While consuming 20 g of protein after a workout is important, having adequate protein stores (meaning the body is in a state of positive nitrogen balance) throughout the day is best for building and maintaining muscle. In a study conducted by Mamerow et al. it was discovered that distributing high-quality protein intake evenly across three meals was more effective in stimulating 24-hour muscle protein synthesis when compared to consuming the majority of one’s protein at the evening meal.2 Achieving adequate protein intake can be difficult, especially for athletes who have considerably higher protein needs than the general population. Therefore, spreading protein intake across meals and snacks is most manageable in order to achieve optimal protein status. Consuming 75% of your protein needs at meals and 25% at snacks is a good rule of thumb for protein distribution.

In addition to the favorable lipid profile of lean cuts, beef offers an abundance of nutrients that are especially important in athletes looking to build muscle. A 3-ounce serving of cooked lean beef provides 10 essential nutrients, including high-quality protein, iron, zinc, and B vitamins. This 3-ounce serving provides 25 g of protein in just 170 calories. If an athlete preferred to only consume plant-based sources of protein, there would be several tradeoffs, including that of caloric density. A few examples of plant-based foods that contain 25 g of protein include: 3 cups of quinoa, which equates to 666 calories, 6.5 tbsp peanut butter for 613 calories, 1 ⅔ cup black beans for 379 calories, and 1 ⅓ cup edamame for 249 calories.1

Besides caloric differences, the nutrients found in beef provide a pretty impressive lineup: one, 3 oz serving of cooked, lean beef is an excellent source of high-quality protein, zinc, B12, niacin and B6, and a good source of iron, riboflavin and choline.7 Nutrients like iron are very concentrated in beef and are more readily absorbed than their plant-based counterparts. Iron is a nutrient of particular concern when it comes to recreational and elite female athletes, where iron-deficiency anemia is prevalent. There are two sources of iron: heme and non-heme. Heme, derived from hemoglobin in the blood of the animal, is the most easily absorbed form of iron as it is absorbed directly into the small intestine. There are plenty of non-heme iron-rich plant sources, however these need a carrier in order to be absorbed. With beef being one of the strongest heme sources of iron , it is an ideal addition to any athletes’ balanced diet.3

Utilizing beef as a protein source for building muscle is a strategic way to improve nutrient intake, meet protein needs, and promote variety in the diet. Not only is beef a protein powerhouse, but it also tastes great and pairs well with other nutrient-dense foods, making it the ultimate complement to any plant-based meal.


  1. It’s What’s For Dinner – Beef Nutrients. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.beefitswhatsfordinner.com/nutrition/beef-nutrients
  2. Mamerow, M. M., Mettler, J. A., English, K. L., Casperson, S. L., Arentson-Lantz, E., Sheffield-Moore, M., … Paddon-Jones, D. (2014). Dietary Protein Distribution Positively Influences 24-h Muscle Protein Synthesis in Healthy Adults. The Journal of Nutrition, 144(6), 876–880. doi: 10.3945/jn.113.185280
  3. Volpe, S. L. (2010). Iron and Athletic Performance : ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal. Retrieved from https://journals.lww.com/acsm-healthfitness/fulltext/2010/09000/iron_and_athletic_performance.11.aspx
  4. Roussell, M., Hill, A., Gaugler, T., West, S., Heuvel, J., Gillies, P., & Kris-Etherton, P. (2011). Beef in an Optimal Lean Diet study: Effects on lipids, lipoproteins, and apolipoproteins. SciVee. doi:10.4016/37777.01
  5. A Mediterranean-style eating pattern with lean, unprocessed red meat has cardiometabolic benefits for adults who are overweight or obese in a randomized, crossover, controlled feeding trial.O’Connor LE, Paddon-Jones D, Wright AJ, Campbell WW. Am J Clin Nutr. 2018 Jul 1;108(1):33-40. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/nqy075.
  6. Substituting Lean Beef for Carbohydrate in a Healthy Dietary Pattern Does Not Adversely Affect the Cardiometabolic Risk Factor Profile in Men and Women at Risk for Type 2 Diabetes. Maki KC, Wilcox ML, Dicklin MR, Buggia M, Palacios OM, Maki CE, Kramer M. J Nutr. 2020 Jul 1;150(7):1824-1833
  7. USDA Food Data Central (NDB#13364)