Grass-Fed Beef: Is It Good for You?

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on September 30, 2020

Beef is the meat people probably think of the most when they hear the term “red meat.” It’s also widely believed to be unhealthy, but eaten in moderation and taken from the right sources, it can provide some benefits. 

Beef contains higher amounts of iron than white meat like chicken. It’s usually consumed as roasts, ribs, or steaks, and it’s also commonly ground and cooked into patties. 

Generally, grass fed beef is considered to be a healthier option than grain-fed beef. Pound for pound, it has less total fat, and therefore less calories.

The nutritional content of that fat is also different. For example, grass fed beef has as much as five times the amount of omega-3 fatty acids as regular grain fed beef.

Grass-fed beef, as the name implies, comes from cows that eat mostly grass. Grain-fed cows eat a diet supplemented with soy and corn and other additives. Grain-fed cows can also be given antibiotics and growth hormones to fatten them up more quickly.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has created a grass-fed beef program for small and very small producers. Approved producers are included on the official USDA SVS Grass Fed Program list.

Nutrition Information

A 100-gram (3.5 oz.) serving of raw grass-fed beef contains: 

  • Calories: 198
  • Protein: 19.4 grams
  • Fat: 12.7 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 0 grams
  • Fiber: 0 grams
  • Sugar: 0 grams

Grass-fed beef is also abundant in: 

  • Vitamins A and E
  • Vitamin B12 and B6
  • Selenium
  • Iron
  • Zinc

Potential Health Benefits of Grass-Fed Beef

Grass-fed beef — and conventional grain-fed beef — is a source of several vitamins and nutrients that help your cells fight damage and your body build stronger muscle and cartilage tissue.

In addition to being packed with B vitamins, grass fed beef has been found to be higher in vitamins A, E, and other antioxidants compared to grain fed beef.

Grass-fed beef has many of the same health benefits as grain-fed beef, but research has found a few added perks:

Heart Health

Grass-fed beef has significantly lower levels of saturated fat compared to grain-fed beef. In fact, the fat content of grass-fed beef can be compared to skinless chicken. Replacing saturated fat in grain-fed beef with the unsaturated fat in grass-fed beef has been proven to reduce your risk of heart diseases.

 Lean meat, such as grass-fed beef, has been shown to actually have a positive effect on cholesterol levels.

Disease Prevention

Studies have found that grass-fed beef contains two to six times more Omega-3 fatty acids than feed-lot beef. Omega-3 fatty acids have been found to help prevent and treat many diseases including, heart disease, stroke, autoimmune responses such as lupus, eczema, and rheumatoid arthritis, and a number of other conditions.

Studies have also found that grass-fed beef contains more antioxidants than grain-fed beef. Antioxidants help prevent cell damage that can lead to serious diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer's disease.

Building and Maintaining Muscle Mass

Beef contains every amino acid your body needs to make a complete protein building block. As such, it’s a source of high-quality protein. 

As part of a healthy lifestyle that incorporates good diet and exercise practices, the protein from grass-fed beef can help prevent sarcopenia — a loss of muscle mass that develops from a deficiency in protein over time.

Improving Performance During Exercise

Beef contains beta-alanine, an amino acid that helps your body form a compound called carnosine. Carnosine is important for muscle function, perhaps increasing your capacity and performance in high-intensity exercise.

Studies have shown that high doses of beta-alanine supplements taken for 4 –10 weeks lead to a 40–80% increase in carnosine levels in muscles.

High levels of carnosine have also been linked to lower fatigue and higher muscle performance in humans.

Preventing Anemia

A deficiency in iron can cause anemia — a condition in which the blood has a reduced number of red blood cells and capacity to carry oxygen. The main symptoms of anemia are tiredness and weakness. 

Beef is rich in iron, specifically, a type called heme iron which the body absorbs very easily. 

Meat not only contains a form of iron that humans can absorb very efficiently, it also helps the body absorb non-heme iron present in plant-based foods. One study even found meat supplements more effective than iron tablets at maintaining iron levels in women during exercise.

Potential Risks of Grass-Fed Beef

Although grass-fed beef has lower levels of saturated fat than grain-fed beef, it may have higher levels of fat and cholesterol than other meats. As with all foods, grass-fed beef should be eaten in moderation.

Here are some potential health risks of grass-fed beef:

Colon Cancer

Observational studies have linked eating high amounts of meat to an increased risk for colon cancer — one of the most common types of cancer in the world. 

Several components of beef have been discussed as the culprit for this increased risk, including high amounts of heme iron and a class of cancer-causing substances produced when meat is overcooked.

Parasite Infection

Eating raw or undercooked beef carries a risk of infection by Beef Tapeworm, an intestinal parasite. This is more common in underdeveloped countries, but can happen anywhere with improper preparation of beef.

Iron Overload

Since beef is rich in iron, some people who are prone to it can experience iron overload from eating too much beef. Excessive iron in the body can lead to cancer, heart disease, and liver problems.

Iron overload is most commonly the result of the genetic condition called hereditary hemochromatosis, which causes excessive iron absorption from food. People with this condition should limit their consumption of red meat to avoid iron overload.

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