Diets rich in lean beef can help teenagers maintain their levels of useable iron, teach important balanced eating habits, and dispel rumors that all healthy diets are challenging and lack taste, according to a researcher in the University of Iowa College of Public Health.

Oftentimes when Americans try to decrease their fat intake, they refrain from red meat or eliminate meat entirely, said Linda Snetselaar, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology. A recent study by Snetselaar and colleagues shows that lean red meat can actually benefit those on a decreased-fat diet.

The study, was published in the  Journal of the American Dietetic Association, it 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.

“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,” Snetselaar said. “So often people think red meat should be limited, especially when dieting. What they should remember is that making good choices about lean cuts of red meat can actually be very good for one’s diet.”

Snetselaar 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.

She also wanted to target a younger group with the hopes of establishing and maintaining good, balanced eating habits.

“Hopefully this group will pass along these habits to their own children,” Snetselaar said. “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.”

Teens, like all people, need to remember to consider the whole picture, she said. Eating habits have a high correlation to obesity rates, and forming positive eating habits as young adults will reap benefits throughout the rest of their lives, she 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,” Snetselaar said.

The meals suggested for participants in the study incorporated healthy foods that were easy to prepare, she said. Researchers wanted to give these teens, and their families, new ideas on how to prepare different foods.

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, Snetselaar noted.

University of Iowa Health Science Relations and Linda Snetselaar, PhD, MS
Associate Professor of Epidemiology/Internal Medicine