New dietary guidelines from the federal government recognize the benefits of beef’s role in a healthy lifestyle, and for the first time ever, recommendations were provided for babies from birth to 2. They advise introducing foods rich in iron and zinc, like beef to children, at 6 months old.
The recently released guidelines come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services. They are updated every five years, and the latest advice covers 2020-2025.
The guidelines also identified nutrition advice for those at critical life stages, including pregnant women, babies, teen girls and older adults. Some of those stages put people at risk of deficiency of many nutrients that are readily available in beef, according to the update from the Kansas Livestock Association.
The Midwest Messenger interviewed dietitians at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and the beef councils in Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota about this latest information, which links making healthy choices now to better health as people age. The experts also provided answers regarding the nutritional difference of grass-finished versus grain-finished meat – a beefy issue in the Midwest.
Question: What vitamins and nutrients exactly does beef provide?
Dr. Shalene McNeill, registered dietitian and executive director of nutrition science, health and wellness for NCBA: It’s hard to beat the nutrients that you get from a serving of real beef. It actually has 10 essential nutrients including protein, vitamin B12, selenium, zinc, niacin, vitamin B6, phosphorus, choline, iron and riboflavin. So a 3-ounce serving of beef provides less than 10% of calories but more than 10% of all those nutrients. That’s why we call beef nutrient-rich.
Q: If a person doesn’t eat enough protein, what can happen?
McNeill: When there’s inadequate protein in the diet, you lose muscle as you age, it’s easier to be fatigued. You lose strength. In more severe forms of protein deficiency you’d see brittle hair and nails and unhealthy skin.
Older Americans who eat more protein and couple that with staying active can live independently, longer. One of the most common reasons people lose independence is they fall, due to lack of muscle strength and instability. Getting enough protein together with exercise, can help.
Beef has calories, high quality protein and nutrients like vitamins and minerals that provide energy and also turn the food that you eat into energy. So, eating beef can help prevent fatigue, and muscle loss. Eating a nutritious diet with beef can also give your body the nutrients it needs for a healthy immune system.
Q: What age is recommended to begin introducing beef to babies?
Abby Heidari, director of nutrition for the Kansas Beef Council: Beef is an important complementary food for infants and toddlers during the first few years of life when rapid growth and development occur. Health authorities like the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend animal source foods, like beef, to ensure nutrient needs – such as iron and zinc – are met.
McNeill: Babies are introduced to rice cereal and eat solid foods at 6 months of age. Usually after 6 months mother’s milk naturally starts to decline in iron and zinc. That’s when you’re supposed to start introducing solid foods in the babies’ diet. Those can be pureed, mashed, and as they develop in their feeding skills, it can be chopped or shredded meat.
Heidari: Babies are ready for solids if they are about 6 months old; sit up, with or without support; have good head control; seem interested in food; no longer spit out solids.
Q: How do you keep babies’ interest in beef choices?
Heidari: Parents can transition from watery purees that are smooth textured and a single-ingredient food to pureed, single-ingredient foods having mashed, lumpy textures and combinations of single-ingredient foods (such as pureed beef with pureed green beans) and then to mashed, lumpy foods and soft, dissolvable foods such as chopped or shredded tender beef with well-cooked pasta and chopped veggies, and finally chopped table foods. Beef may be pureed as a first food and chopped or offered as a finger food when a baby is ready and able to eat it.
Q: What cuts of meat are preferred?
Holly Swee, director of nutrition for the South Dakota Beef Industry Council: All beef can be included in a healthful, balanced diet, and consumer choice is very important. That’s why we are pleased to have a variety of beef cuts and choices for various purposes – including prime, choice and select grades, as well as various cuts that are considered lean, all the way to extra lean options.
Q: How does iron found in beef differ from iron in plant sources?
McNeill: Beef contains heme iron, which makes it more available and better absorbed by your body, as opposed to what’s in plant food, which is non-heme iron.
Q: What are your thoughts about meat substitutes?
Mitch Rippe, director of nutrition and education for the Nebraska Beef Council: A lot of the emphasis from the health and nutrition side is to consume whole foods. One of the biggest takeaways we see, from the nutrition side is that meat substitutes are a highly-processed product. Beef is a great option with high nutritional content, and it’s a whole food.
Q: Is there an advantage of grass-fed beef over grain-fed beef?
McNeill: Not from a nutritional standpoint. I prefer the term “grass-finished” over “grass fed” because, many people don’t realize that all cattle are fed grass for most of their lives. When it comes to nutrition, as a registered dietitian, my perspective is they’re equally nutritious, although grass-finished beef can tend to be slightly leaner.
Rippe: Typically we see more marbling with the conventional finished beef, due to cattle consuming a high-energy diet. Nutritionally, both provide a good eating experience. The majority of our cattle here in the Midwest will be grain-finished (conventional) beef.
With grass-finished beef, the taste and price will be the difference. Grass-finished is typically higher priced.
This being the “beef belt,” we’ve found that 83% of Nebraskans consume beef, at least weekly.
Reporter Amy Hadachek is a two-time Emmy Award winning meteorologist and a storm chaser who earned her NWA and AMS Broadcast Meteorology Seals of Approval. She and her husband live on a diversified farm in Kansas. Reach her at email@example.com.