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Lean Beef Can Be Part of a Heart-Healthy Mediterranean Diet, Study Shows

Beef with a Mediterranean Diet Table

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Key Takeaways

  • Following the Mediterranean Diet can support heart health as well as overall health. 
  • Including lean beef and extra-lean beef can be a part of a Mediterranean-style diet and can support heart health, according to a new study. 
  • Following a Mediterranean-style diet that included lean beef resulted in lower LDL cholesterol levels when compared to eating a standard American diet. 

Following a Mediterranean-style diet that includes lean beef can offer heart-health benefits, according to a new study.

Researchers aimed to challenge the assumption that a heart-healthy diet, like the popular and largely plant-based Mediterranean diet, can't include red meat.

“This study demonstrates that we can incorporate lean beef into a Mediterranean-style dietary pattern by replacing some of the traditional protein sources with lean beef and see beneficial health effects on markers associated with cardiovascular disease risk,” study author David J. Baer, PhD, a supervisory research physiologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, tells Verywell.

Previous observational studies suggest that red meat, like beef, does not support heart health. However, because these results were not based on controlled trials, but rather founded on observations, their results may not be as reliable. Many studies also classified all red meats, including processed meats and fatty choices, in the same group as lean choices.

“Beef is a source of some important nutrients that are not readily available from some other protein sources,” Baer explains. “Beef can provide these nutrients, and when consumed as part of Mediterranean-style dietary pattern, there is potential to benefit from the other healthful components of that dietary pattern.” 

This study was published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in April and was funded by the Beef Checkoff. 

Can You Eat Beef When Following a Mediterranean-Style Diet?

Following a Mediterranean diet can support heart health. This diet is heavily plant-based, including nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans, fruit, and vegetables.

On this diet, red meat should be a much smaller proportion of your weekly food intake than plants—about 2.5—ounce protein equivalents per week, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 

But researchers sought to find whether eating more than the weekly “permitted” amount would negatively impact cholesterol levels.

To do this, each group of participants was provided with one of four diets:

  • Mediterranean (MED) diet with 0.5 oz. of beef a day
  • Mediterranean (MED) diet with 2.5 oz. of beef a day
  • Mediterranean (MED) diet with 5.5 oz. of beef a day
  • An average American diet with 2.5 oz. of beef (used as a control diet)

All three Mediterranean diets included olive oil as the predominant fat source, three to six servings of fruits, and six or more servings of vegetables a day. The beef included in these diets was either lean or extra-lean.

Each group consumed all four diets for four weeks each. Blood samples were taken before and after each session to evaluate changes in blood lipid levels. 

Researchers found that after following any of the Mediterranean diets that included beef, participants had lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad” cholesterol) levels compared to when they followed the average American diet. This difference was only statistically significant for the groups who ate the lowest amounts of lean beef.

Mike Roussell, PhD, a nutrition strategist based in New York, explains that this statistical difference may be due to the researchers' need to replace other foods with beef in order to “fit” the right amount of beef into this experimental diet, potentially causing this effect.

This data reiterates that there isn't just once food that causes LDL cholesterol to increase.

“When thinking about our health, we need to continue to consider our whole dietary pattern and all of the combinations of foods that we consume," Baer explains. "It’s not just one food but it’s all the foods that matter."

This isn't the first time researchers say that lean beef can be a part of a healthy eating pattern. In 2012, Roussell led a study evaluating the consumption of different amounts of lean beef in conjunction with the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet. His team found that following this dietary pattern and eating lean beef offered positive effects on cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk. 

What This Means For You

If you are following the Mediterranean Diet, lean or extra-lean beef can be a part of your diet. Research suggests you can eat up to 5.5 oz of lean or extra-lean beef every day without increasing your LDL cholesterol levels.

How to Include Beef in a Mediterranean-Style Diet

Beef is a source of high-quality protein and key nutrients like iron and zinc. While certain choices can be high in sodium and saturated fat, there are plenty of lean options that can be a part of an overall healthy diet. 

Some lean choices of beef include:

  • Eye of round roast and steak
  • Sirloin tip side steak
  • Top round roast and steak
  • Bottom round roast and steak
  • Top sirloin steak
  • Flank steak

When shopping for beef: 

  • Choose cuts that are graded "Choice" or "Select" instead of "Prime," which may have more fat.
  • Choose cuts with the least amount of marbling
  • When selecting ground beef, opt for the lowest percentage of fat

When preparing dishes with beef, combine them with other foods incorporated in the Mediterranean diet. Try eating baked lean-beef meatballs over a bed of quinoa drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and crushed walnuts—served with a side of mixed greens. You can also experiment with homemade meat sauce over whole grain pasta and sauteed spinach.

Bottom line: If you are trying to support your heart health and you love the taste of beef, incorporating lean options in a Mediterranean-style diet that is rich in nutrient-dense foods appears to be a safe bet.

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Article Sources
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