Beefing Up Your Burgers Can Help Meet Nutritional Goals

Shalene McNeill, PhD, RD, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Executive Director, Nutrition Science, Health & Wellness

Colorful Burgers

As part of the beef community, I’ve had the pleasure of eating some of the best steaks in the country – maybe even in the world, and I’d still rank a juicy beef burger among my favorite beef eating experiences.  At Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner. land, we’re always learning new insights about consumers’ love affair for all things beef.  Recently, we’ve been looking at the consumer research that reinforces how much Americans truly love a delicious beef burger, especially fresh off the grill.  I’ve also seen the data that reminds us how much people love seeing drool-worthy images of big, juicy burgers.  From where I sit, as a nutrition researcher and registered dietitian, this presents an opportunity. 

As the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) recently pointed out in their Scientific Advisory Report, because of their popularity, burgers and sandwiches are a significant source of calories, sodium, refined grains and solid fats in typical American diets1. Yet, on the other hand, there is tremendous nutrition potential in a classic beef burger.

I have a teenage daughter—one of those picky eaters—who eats a plain burger with nothing on it from her high school cafeteria most days of the week. The mom vs. dietitian debates I have with myself usually land in a place where I am grateful for the nutrients she is getting, like iron, zinc, B-vitamins and high-quality protein, knowing the beef patty provides a great nutritional base, but I’m left wishing for more. I know her diet, like so many of her peers, is vulnerable to being woefully inadequate in key life-stage nutrients, and like so many moms, I worry about her. Despite her eyeroll, I persistently provide a daily nudge: “PLEASE add some colorful veggies to the top of that burger, find a healthy side, build it out with a veggie or fruit….” Turns out she has recently started to add a garden salad with those burgers. Progress! Now if we can only move in this direction on a population level.  

Colorful Burgers

Americans love real, authentic beef burgers. In fact, according to a recent analysis, beef-containing sandwiches (including burgers) are consumed by 1 in 5 Americans 2 years of age and older on any given day2. The 2020 DGAC Scientific Report recognized this opportunity as well noting “.... burgers and sandwiches could become a major way to increase the consumption of many food components and nutrients that are currently under consumed, such as whole grains (fiber), and vegetables.”1

My friend and colleague, Wendy Reinhardt-Kapsak, MS, RDN , President and CEO of the Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH), recently noted that sandwiches, multi-cultural mixed dishes (e.g., Italian, Asian, Mexican), and burgers rise to the top of Americans’ intake of vegetable pairings and could be utilized more as a vehicle for increasing vegetable eating occasions. In fact, PBH’s recent “State of the Plate” research showed that intake of vegetables such as tomatoes and onions – common burger condiments – is declining, and that this disturbing trend could be reversed if more vegetables were added to burgers.3

"Some will advocate that moving away from real beef burgers is a better solution to public health; but as a dietitian, a Ph.D. in nutrition science, and a Mom, I disagree. Our real opportunity is to help Americans eat the foods they love in the forms they love, in a more nutritious way."

As the DGAC scientific report also recognizes, burgers and sandwiches are already a source of key nutrients and other food groups for most Americans1, including: 

  • #1 source of protein, calcium, potassium, and fiber;
  • #2 source of whole grain, dairy, and vitamin D; and
  • #3 source of vegetables

Colorful Burgers
Colorful Burgers

Some will advocate that moving away from real beef burgers is a better solution to public health; but as a dietitian, a Ph.D. in nutrition science, and a Mom, I disagree. Our real opportunity is to help Americans eat the foods they love in the forms they love, in a more nutritious way. Let’s inspire Americans to enjoy burgers with even more flavor and nutrition than they usually do. It’s something I am committed to and will be encouraging people to “beef up” those burgers, for everyday meals or special occasions. 

It’s as simple as: 

  • Start with 3-4 ounces of juicy, nutrient-dense cooked ground beef (85% or leaner) 
  • Add layers of crunchy, vibrant vegetables, such as spinach, carrot slaw and red peppers 
  • Top with flavorful fruit such as pineapple, mango and tomatoes 
  • Add low-fat cheese, avocado or hummus for extra creaminess 
  • Build your base with a whole grain bun or low-carb style with a lettuce wrap or other favorite produce 
  • Pair with nutrient-packed sides like roasted potatoes, juicy watermelon or sweet corn 

We can all benefit from making EVERY BITE COUNT. I know I enjoy real beef burgers. My family enjoys them too. America enjoys them. So take advantage of the colorful and fresh fruits and veggies this summer, grab some beef, and let’s get grilling! 

About Shalene McNeill:

Shalene McNeill, PhD, RD is nutrition scientist, registered dietitian and the mom of a beef-loving family.  She is passionate about advocating for healthier diets with beef and is always exploring fun and tasty ways to enjoy beef’s great nourishment.  

  1. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Scientific Report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee: Advisory Report to the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Secretary of Agriculture. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, Washington, DC. 2020. 
  2. WWEIA, NHANES 2013-2016, Day 1, Exponent, Beef Checkoff Analysis, unpublished   
  3. State of the Plate: America’s Fruit and Vegetable Consumption Trends