Beef or No Beef: Red Meat and Exercising

Fresh raw red meat at the butcher

Key Points

  • Red meat is an excellent source of iron, which is necessary for your body to produce hemoglobin.

  • One of the best red meat benefits is the large amount of protein found in red meat.

  • Reap the most red meat benefits and avoid some of the hazards with leaner cuts.

Every time you scroll social media, it seems like there's more and more nutrition advice — don't eat breakfast, eat a big breakfast, consume a high-fat diet, don't consume a high-fat diet, carbs are from the devil, carbs are a great source of energy. It's a lot of mixed messages, but the commentary on red meat, in particular, stands out. While the keyboard doctors have a lot to say about the pros and cons, you're intrigued by the newest release about red meat benefits.

One side of the argument would have you believe the solution to soothe your ailments lay with eating meat with not much else to go with it. The other camp demands you eschew all meat in favor of a vegan diet or something similar. Regarding the controversy, red meat is and has been a loyal bedfellow. Are there any real red meat benefits?

What Exactly Is Red Meat?

This is a good yet confusing question because there isn't a unanimous agreement on what makes certain meats red. The scientific definition of red meat involves muscle fiber content. However, the culinary definition lumps certain meats as red and others as white, which may confuse those not skilled in the kitchen.

Unless you have the dietary acumen of Hannibal Lecter — everything but the cannibalism, that is — you're not making and eating a myriad of animals. You can classify the following as red meat examples:

  • Beef

  • Lamb

  • Pork

  • Venison

  • Most meats that are, when raw, red

If you're a Luddite, you also have the pleasure of being oblivious to every single headline decrying the consumption of red meat. If not, there's a high chance you think you'll keel over and die if you eat it. You can be happy knowing that isn't the case.

Woman holds plate of red meat, dairy, nuts, and milk in kitchen

Red Meat Benefits

Despite the fear-mongering headlines, red meat has merit. Red meat contains iron, and your body needs it to produce the hemoglobin in your red blood cells so you can oxygenate your lungs. Every 100-gram portion of sirloin includes nine percent of your recommended daily allowance (RDA) of iron and the 27 grams of protein provided.

Of course, red meat isn't the only source of iron. Every 100-gram portion of spinach yields 15 percent of your RDA of iron. That's not to say one food is better than the other. The 100-gram portion of sirloin yields iron, 30 percent of your daily B6 vitamins, and five percent of your daily magnesium. Spinach yields vitamin C and B6 as well.

Red meat also provides a natural source of creatine. After having a gym membership for a day, you'll suddenly find yourself imbued with questions about creatine since it's heavily researched and ubiquitous among gym goers, along with a few other supplements.

Through an omnivorous diet and supplementation, you attain creatine, and your body regulates the levels of it via the excretory system, all while providing energy to the working muscles.

On your next grocery trip, look at the nutrition labels of beef and compare it to chicken. In addition to the iron and B6, beef and other red meats tend to have more protein per serving. Whether your goal is to preserve lean mass as you get ripped or to build muscle, protein is critical.

The combination of vitamin B6, iron, and the extra protein will be valuable in your fitness endeavors. Vitamin B6 is crucial for many enzymatic reactions in your body; iron keeps your hemoglobin levels where they need to be, oxygen provided to your lungs helps with cardio performance, and the protein helps build muscle and other tissues via muscle protein synthesis.

Not a bad trade-off for having a steak now and again, is it?

Heart Work

This is where novices and intermediates alike choke on their protein shakes while they scroll through their phones on the couch, reading various news headlines about meat. Go to your search bar, type in "red meat," and watch as the autocomplete feature guesses your question.

Inevitably, something involving the words "heart," "disease," or "bad" will come up in various combinations. These concerns are valid, and everyone should worry about the health of their heart. Nobody wants to go to a doctor year after year with high cholesterol as that will amplify your risk for cardiovascular disease.

Woman picks up packaged red meat at grocery store


Cholesterol is a lipid, so it needs other stuff to help it float through your bloodstream. So your body packages it and other lipids inside particles covered in proteins, so when you see your blood work, it's called a "lipoprotein."

These vary in density — which is why people have both low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins, as well as others, like the cleverly named "very low-density lipoproteins" and "intermediate density lipoproteins."

The main focus is the LDL, which has most triglycerides removed and is more pure cholesterol than its higher-density counterparts. Common vernacular might also refer to LDL as "bad cholesterol."

Ideally, to avoid heart disease, you have certain risk factors to watch for. Overeating can increase your saturated fat intake, high blood pressure, smoking, insulin resistance, and a sedentary lifestyle. If you live with these risk factors, your LDL blood markers will likely read higher than usual, indicating a risk for heart disease.

Diabetes can also elevate that risk, and overeating is an associated factor that can increase the risk for diabetes. Of course, your doctor can review the totality of your blood work with you. High cholesterol doesn't have "symptoms" as is commonly thought, so a heart attack serves as the warning, and at that point, it's beyond preventative maintenance.

To mitigate these risks, don't overeat, which reduces your insulin resistance over time, lose weight if needed, stay active, and stop smoking. Of course, age and genetics are factors, but they aren't the only things that do. While you can't control your age and genetics, you can control everything else. Monitor your cholesterol by getting your bloodwork done at the doctor's office.

Finally, your body produces its own cholesterol, and it comprises your cell membranes and is a precursor to synthesizing your steroid hormones like testosterone. If you eat cholesterol, your body regulates that consumption by slowing your endogenous production down, thereby self-regulating your cholesterol levels.

Cuts of red meat on a wooden plate

Saturated Fat

There are two broad categories of naturally occurring fats: unsaturated and saturated. The former is liquid at room temperature, and the latter is solid. Think about the difference between butter and olive oil; the butter on your toast, before the heat melts it is solid, and the olive oil you greased your skillet with is liquid, and both are sources of dietary fat.

Within the unsaturated category, there are mono and polyunsaturated fats. In the saturated category, there are acids with different molecular structures which yield a different flavor, so to speak, of saturated fat. An example would be coconut oil (stearic acid) compared to palm oil (palmitic acid).

Saturated Fat and LDL

In some animal research, the uptick in LDL via saturated fat works with a high dietary cholesterol intake, inhibiting the LDL receptors and raising LDL. Not only that, the recommended saturated fat intake is less than 10 percent of your total caloric intake.

If you eat 2,300 calories a day, 230 calories or fewer from saturated fat is the goal. All dietary fats yield nine calories per gram, so in this example, your goal would be a rough maximum of 25 grams of saturated fat in a day.

The Pitfalls

If you're paying attention, you see that red meat has a higher saturated fat content and levels of dietary cholesterol in each serving than other meats. That being the case, getting a majority of protein from red meat while monitoring your saturated fat intake might present a conundrum that only escalates. Eating a lot of red meat gains you a ton of protein, but potentially the harmful effects of all the saturated fat as well.

That's why the recommendation is always for lean proteins. This means avoiding the ribeyes in favor of the sirloin or even leaner cuts of red meat. If you're a fan of burgers, the packaging makes this easy to figure out, as it lists how lean the ground beef is directly on the package.

Depending on your dietary goals, you may consider opting for 96 percent lean ground beef, where a four-ounce serving yields eight grams of fat, compared to 80 percent lean beef, where the fat content in a four-ounce serving tops out at 23 grams of fat.

A variety of supplement containers, dumbbells and food

An Easy Solution

While red meat isn't inherently bad, all these considerations help make a case for various protein sources in your diet instead of limiting yourself to having red meat as your primary protein source. With that in mind, adding poultry, fish, and whey protein will balance out your meat sources. In addition, if your red meat is lean, your saturated fat intake won't skyrocket.

Do Bodybuilders Eat Red Meat?

First, consider what bodybuilding entails. Building and showing muscle is the essence of bodybuilding; to that end, nearly every gym goer is a bodybuilder.

Every gym goer isn't a competitive bodybuilder, however. They don't pay exorbitant fees to compete in a competition and win a sword, put on the bronzer, and nearly starve themselves in pursuit of taking the stage the way a competitor does.

Aside from the fake tans and posing, the biggest difference between a gym goer who wants to look good and a competitor is the length of time spent on the goal and the utter dedication. In the beginning, both reduce calories to lose body fat; the competitor keeps going until they start to look like an anatomy chart.

Regardless, dieting is tricky; if you do it long enough, you'll deprive yourself of nutrients — iron, for example, or vitamin B6. The higher protein yield from red meat might also be helpful since, in the dieting stage, the goal is to keep all the muscle mass you worked so hard to build. So, bodybuilders can eat red meat, and some do eat red meat, considering it's a protein source.

Looking through the internet archives, you can find many articles about a bodybuilder's diet, including the specific foods they eat and when they eat those foods. Don't take them too seriously.

You're not competing in the Mr. Olympia contest, so you're probably not doing large quantities of performance-enhancing drugs. You don't have sponsorships and other endorsement deals that allow you to work out and compete for a living.

Woman in yoga pose looks at burger on mat

When perusing those archives, also consider the time of publication. Low-carb dieting is popular now, just as it was 20 years ago when your relatives cooked bacon all the time because the Atkins Diet was popular. Bodybuilders aren't special, and they're susceptible to growing trends amongst the general population, too.

For real insight, listen to what they have to say in interviews or first-hand articles. Old-school legend Vince Gironda restricted carbs to a high degree and advocated for consuming red meat, as well as fish and other animal proteins, in large quantities.

On the flip side, Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates ate red meat at the end of his contest period but stuck to white meat while prepping for his contests, with the occasional lean beef option in there.

Nutrition expert Dr. Layne Norton says, "When diets result in weight loss, they reduce inflammation regardless of what the diet consists of. Caloric restriction and weight loss drive the vast majority of health benefits from dieting, NOT magic foods."

Three excellent sources of wisdom, different approaches. The reasoning for the difference of opinions is contingent on several other things.

The available data on nutrition isn't conclusive or perfect, but it's far greater than it was over 30 years ago. People relied on anecdotal data. They'd go to the gym, see what their friends were doing, and try them out. If those things worked, a competitor would adopt and tailor those practices. In the tailoring process, there's a preferential component.

Personal Preference

You have friends who like inviting you to open-bar weddings and families who ask you to funerals, quinceaneras, and other social events. Many of those occasions center on food, eating, and drinking. You also have your own dietary preferences to contend with, along with any allergies and ethical concerns.

Following what bodybuilders do might not be a wise choice, whether or not they eat red meat. They eat in a way largely unconducive to you and your life. So while bodybuilders sometimes eat red meat, they have their reasons, and whether you consume red meat or not depends on your reasons.

Fitness woman holds a wooden cutting board with cuts of meat


When you find a long-term diet you like, you'll have a better chance of adhering to it. The more you stick to something, the further you can take it.

Do you like red meat? Are you okay with using leaner cuts to watch your saturated fat intake? Can you fit red meat into a varied diet that keeps your internal health markers where they need to be, along with any external goals you have?

If the answer to all of those is "yes," then sure, eat red meat. You're an adult. Armed with this information, you can do it in a healthy way and achieve your fitness goals.

So Is It Good for Exercise?

The best diet for your exercise endeavors is, first and foremost, one you can stick to. Adherence matters. You can have the theoretical best and most individualized meal plan in front of you, but if you don't put it to practice, then it's useless. The same is true for a workout plan.

If your exercise routine is sound, and red meat helps you hit the workouts while keeping your health and physique where you want it, then yes, red meat can be good for exercise.

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