Red meat often gets a bad rap. In my expert opinion, critics are too hard on beef. First of all, steak is delicious. So are burgers, and eating burgers makes you more American; that’s just science.
Red meat does have trans fats, but naturally-occurring trans fats are not as dangerous as synthetic trans fats (1), nor are they present in very large quantities overall. Red meat also has saturated fats, but the argument against saturated fats is very weak under a critical lens (2).
But there’s so much data correlating red meat with disease – what gives! The culprit may actually not be related to fat at all, but that is a different topic for a different day. Nonetheless, the fatty acid profile of beef can be pretty drastically improved when the cow is eating healthy. We’re talking about cows that eat grass, so we don’t have to – at least, not exclusively!
Grass-Fed Steak is arguably more delicious than regular steak – a different type of delicious – but delicious all the same. It also has considerable upside, and it is definitely a better choice than corn-fed, “normal,” beef. Grass-fed beef has more omega-3 ALA and CLA, while typically having less total fat, potentially reducing calorie intake.
Not all Trans Fats are Bad for You
The difference between normal and grass-fed cows for ALA (an omega-3 that may be converted to EPA or DHA) is not life-changing if you’re a diligent eater of omega-3 supplements containing EPA and DHA or fatty fish. However, if you’re slacking in this department, ALA can be pretty important, as it may be your only decent source of omega-3.
Today, however, we’re going to focus on CLA and a new study just published in the journal, Nutrients. CLA is a trans fat, make no mistake about it. If the label on your ground beef indicates more than 0g trans fat (even if it says 0g, it’s very likely more than 0), know that some of it is CLA. If it’s grass-fed, know that it has as much as 5 times as much CLA as regular beef (3). Here’s why that’s a big deal.
First up, the study, “10,12 Conjugated Linoleic Acid-Driven Weight Loss is Protective Against Atherosclerosis in Mice and is Associated with Alternative Macrophage Enrichment in Perivascular Adipose Tissue,” which if you can’t tell from the title found both weight loss and heart protective effects of CLA (4). The difference between diet groups consisted of just a measly 1% change of fat source to CLA, so this is a very practical change. Some of you may want to write this study off immediately because it is not in humans. First, you’re wrong; second, when you and thousands of others are willing to have your entire aorta excised for science, we can forgo the mice!
The study found that not only did CLA help weight loss to the same extent as calorie restriction, mice preferentially lost weight as fat and not muscle, whereas simple calorie restriction typically produces equal weight lost from both compartments. Not only did CLA improve blood lipid profiles, it – and this is very, VERY important for cardiovascular disease – CLA reduced atherosclerotic plaques along the aorta, which was ABSENT with calorie restriction despite calorie restriction having GREATER reduction in blood lipids.
If you’re interested in the macrophage portion of the title, that’s more a mechanistic and scientific explanation of the WHY beyond the scope of the present article. Basically, macrophages come in and “clean up” the lesions.
Why is this so important? I thought this article was about grass-fed beef…
What You Eat Can Be More Important Than How Much
In the hierarchy of dieting, it’s very easy to point the finger at overconsumption as the source of problems. It often is, but hand-in-hand is the type of food being eaten. Unfortunately, simple calorie reduction can just be a veil of good health – nothing more than a façade.
Calorie restriction can help with weight loss and reducing blood lipids, and at face value, individuals will think, “oh wow, I’m in great health now,” but that’s only marginally true, and perhaps only to a negligible extent, as atherosclerotic lesions are much more tightly linked to heart disease than weight or cholesterol.
That’s evident with the research at hand. A small, 1% modification in the type (not amount) of fat consumed made a world of difference for risk of heart disease. Plus, weight loss without eating less – sign me up for that every time!
Mentioned earlier, grass-fed beef can have as much as 5 times more CLA than regular beef. That’s a 500% difference. Compare that to the 1% substitution in the study. Obviously, this is only so dramatic a change if you eat nothing but beef. However, this can still be a 10% change even if you eat beef only occasionally.
Small Changes. Big Benefits.
What’s beautiful about it is it’s the smallest change to the diet as well. It’s not even a different food. Most recommendations for health are in the “eat this, not that” format and referring to different foods entirely. Such as, “don’t eat ground beef, eat ground turkey.” Turkey can get lost – I’ll take the better benefits and taste from grass-fed beef.
No matter how you slice it, it’s just a better option. If you avoid red meat most of the time, you can still make the choice to go with grass-fed when you do eat it. If you eat red meat frequently or even semi-frequently, which you should be if you are an endurance athlete for the iron, it’s instant benefits.
There’s no need to eat mor chikin. When your food is healthy, you can be too.
- Chardigny, J. M., Destaillats, F., Malpuech-Brugère, C., Moulin, J., Bauman, D. E., Lock, A. L., ... & Combe, N. (2008). Do trans fatty acids from industrially produced sources and from natural sources have the same effect on cardiovascular disease risk factors in healthy subjects? Results of the trans Fatty Acids Collaboration (TRANSFACT) study–. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 87(3), 558-566.
- Malhotra, A., Redberg, R. F., & Meier, P. (2017). Saturated fat does not clog the arteries: coronary heart disease is a chronic inflammatory condition, the risk of which can be effectively reduced from healthy lifestyle interventions.
- Daley, C. A., Abbott, A., Doyle, P. S., Nader, G. A., & Larson, S. (2010). A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Nutrition journal, 9(1), 10.
- Kanter, J., Goodspeed, L., Wang, S., Kramer, F., Wietecha, T., Gomes-Kjerulf, D., ... & den Hartigh, L. (2018). 10, 12 Conjugated Linoleic Acid-Driven Weight Loss Is Protective against Atherosclerosis in Mice and Is Associated with Alternative Macrophage Enrichment in Perivascular Adipose Tissue. Nutrients, 10(10), 1416.