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Carol Harrison

Registered Dietitian

As Canadians, we all know that we need to eat well for good health. For most of us, that means switching over to more of our foundational foods in minimally-processed forms. According to a health report published by Statistics Canada in November 2020, consumption of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) in Canada, approximately 50 percent of our daily diet is made up of UPFs — high-calorie, high-sugar, high-salt, and nutrient-poor foods.

Alarming? Very, because many of the foods we find on this list are items we might not think of as poor in nutrition. For instance, a frozen pizza falls under the UPFs definition, as do many baked goods.

But before you throw in the towel and never eat again, there are some foods, like beef, that are so nutritionally packed that they may just help save the day, or at least dinner.

Protein-rich, calorie-light

Most of us can remember learning in biology class that protein is the building block of life. Every cell in our bodies contains it so, yes, it’s important. As a foundational food, beef delivers a quality protein – in a compact package — a portion size. Beef gives you a lot of protein in a little amount.

Carol Harrison, a registered dietitian, says, “Many foods contain protein but the amounts can really vary. For example, to get 35 grams of protein, you would need 100 grams of cooked beef (which is 250 calories), or over 9 tablespoons of peanut butter at 860 calories. Both are nutritious choices, but this really highlights how much more protein we typically get from animal-based foods.”

Consider nutrition facts when it comes to beef

But here’s the thing: red meats, specifically beef, contain many other key nutrients. “So many people are familiar with beef as one of nature’s most protein-rich foods, but what they might not realize is the fantastic nutrient package that comes with beef,” says Harrison.

Beef provides heme iron, a vital nutrient needed by our bodies to store and shuttle oxygen.

“Beef is one of nature’s best sources of this type of iron — and heme iron is more easily absorbed by our bodies than non-heme iron, (the type found in plant food sources)” adds Harrison. “Infants, teenage girls, women, and athletes are all at risk for low iron and can benefit from the type of iron that beef provides. It’s important to point out that low iron is the stage before anemia. With even a low iron level, you can already start to feel very weak, run down and may even have difficulty concentrating.”

Some of the other key nutrients beef provides are zinc, important for a healthy immune system, and vitamin B12, for brain health.

The big beef myth: are we eating too much beef?

According to Statistics Canada’s Canadian Community Health Surveys (Nutrition) 2015, Canadians get about five percent of our calories from fresh red meat — that includes beef, pork, and lamb. Further to this, if we eat 21 meals a week, on average only three of those meals are red meat meals and beef makes up two of those three meals.

“The data makes it clear with five percent of our calories coming from nutrient-rich fresh red meat and almost 50 percent from calorie-rich, nutrient-poor UPFs our priority should be to cut back on UPFs. The nutrition contribution of wholesome foundational foods like beef shouldn’t be dismissed. Beef provides a rich source of protein for a modest number of calories along with zinc for healthy growth, vitamin B12 for brain health, and one of nature’s best sources of easy-to-absorb iron,” says Harrison.

“Replacing whole animal-based foods with whole plant-based foods, for example an egg for walnuts, is like replacing one healthy choice for another. Both are good for you, but for different reasons,” says Harrison. “Beef is rich in protein, zinc and vitamin B12 and is one of nature’s best sources of easy-to-absorb iron, while foods like beans provide the value of fibre, folate, and potassium. I suggest eating them together to get the benefits of both — like in a beef and bean burrito or nourishing beef and bean combo bowl.

When it comes down to good nutrition, beef is a single-ingredient foundational food. “There’s nothing added, and nothing taken away,” says Harrison. “There are no fillers, no binders, and no colours — just one ingredient: beef.” Follow Carol @GreatMealIdeas.

beef butchers infographic
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