Beef is known to be an excellent source of protein. But what exactly is protein and why is it important?
Proteins, along with carbohydrates and fats, comprise the three macronutrients that, when broken down (digested), supply energy to our bodies in the form of calories. Proteins have several important functions including providing structure to all cells of the human body, functioning as enzymes, transport carriers and hormones.1
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. If amino acids are the letters of the alphabet, proteins are the words they form. There are 20 amino acids, nine of which are essential – meaning the body cannot generate them on its own.1
Protein quality is a term used to describe a protein that has sufficient amounts of all nine essential amino acids. It can be measured by the Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score (DIAAS), which describes protein quality on the basis of ileal digestibility; or by the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) scoring system.2,3 Generally speaking, proteins that come from animal sources such as beef, poultry, fish, eggs or dairy are complete, or high-quality, proteins, whereas most plant sources of protein tend to lack one or more essential amino acids and are thus considered “incomplete” proteins.2,3
Not only is protein beneficial from a structure/function perspective, but research also shows certain health benefits associated with protein:
In addition to consuming enough protein in a day, emerging research suggests that for optimal benefits, protein intake should also be paced throughout the day. Currently, the majority of protein is eaten at dinner (42%), followed by lunch (28%), and then breakfast (16%).11 Snacks, which may be spread throughout the day, make up the difference.11
According to recent research, consuming 20 to 30g of protein per meal may optimize skeletal muscle synthesis.12,13 Assuming three meals per day, protein intake would still be well below the recommended upper limits for protein or essential amino acids for healthy persons.
When it comes to choosing protein, not all food sources are created equal. Animal proteins, such as lean beef, provide complete high-quality protein that contains all the essential amino acids the body needs for optimal health. To get the same amount of protein found in lean meat from most plant proteins, such as beans, nuts and grains, results in consuming 1½ to 2 times more calories. For example, a 3-oz serving of lean beef (about 150 calories on average) provides about the same amount of protein as 1½ cups of cooked black beans (341 calories) in less than half the calories.14 Lean beef is also a top source of readily absorbable iron and zinc and an excellent source of vitamin B12, an essential nutrient not naturally available in plant protein sources.14
The benefits of consuming beef have been extensively studied. A recent paper published in Obesity Science & Practice shows that as part of a healthy and higher-protein diet, lean beef can help people lose weight while maintaining muscle and a healthy heart.15
A smart strategy that health professionals can utilize is to help consumers pace their protein intake throughout the day, paying particular attention to breakfast when protein intake tends to be at its lowest. Health professionals who advise older adults should also emphasize protein intake to help to prevent sarcopenia.
Beef is an excellent protein source as consumers seek to boost their protein intake, given it’s a complete protein supplying all nine essential amino acids, and is associated with weight maintenance and heart health.
Here are a few free resources which may be useful for both health professionals and their clients: