When Americans try to decrease their fat intake, they refrain from red meat or eliminate meat entirely, said Linda Snetselaar, associate professor of epidemiology. A recent study by Snetselaar and colleagues suggests that lean red meat can actually benefit those on a decreased-fat diet.
The study, published in the March 2004 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, looked at iron and cholesterol levels in 86 Iowa seventh and eighth graders throughout a three-month period. All participants ate a diet low in saturated fat while specifically incorporating increased amounts of either lean beef, or poultry and fish.
Results showed teens eating increased amounts of lean beef were able to maintain higher levels of "ready to use" iron (heme iron), while also lowering low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels. The teens eating increased amounts of poultry and fish lowered LDL levels but did not see the same results with iron.
High levels of heme iron are especially important for teenagers who participate in sports, and who are experiencing growth spurts and other changes during puberty.
"A common misconception is that if you're eating more turkey and chicken, you are eating healthier, when in reality some cuts of beef are going to be leaner than certain ground turkey and poultry products," said Snetselaar.
The scientist chose to focus on teenagers, she said, because many teens have low levels of iron in their diets. Meats and plant products both contribute iron to the diet, but heme iron (found in meat) is more readily absorbed by the body when compared to iron from plant products.
Snetselaar also targeted a younger group with the ultimate aim of establishing and maintaining good, balanced eating habits.
"Even if they don't constantly practice good habits now, if they learn them early in life they are more likely to come back to them and help their own kids form good dietary habits," Snetselaar said.
The meal plans used in the study included increased amounts of fruits and vegetables along with the increased number of lean beef, fish or poultry servings.
"We really wanted to introduce these teens to new fruits, vegetables and whole grains. We wanted to show them that food can taste good and be healthy," added the researcher.