Study: It's OK to Eat Red Meat
By Bev Bennett,

Middle-aged women concerned about osteoporosis or post-menopausal weight gain sometimes cut back on red meat, thinking it is fattening, or that the protein might adversely affect their bone density. Neither is necessarily true.

Healthy post-menopausal women can eat reasonable amounts of red meat without compromising their bones or their figures, say nutritionists. What's more, the nutrients in meat are beneficial for women as they age.

Unfortunately, when middle-aged women limit their meat intake, they think they're doing their bodies some good. That thinking is based on older studies that suggested a link between protein and calcium loss. The theory is that protein leaches calcium from bones and is carried away in urine, leading to bone loss.

But recent research may dismiss that connection. In North Dakota, volunteers at the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center spent four weeks on a diet that contained about twice the recommended dietary allowance for protein -- including 10.5 ounces of meat a day. Along with the protein, the 15 post-menopausal women ate about 600 milligrams of calcium a day, which is half the recommended intake. For comparison, the women then went on a low-protein diet, eating only 1.5 ounces of meat a day for four weeks.

The high-protein diet didn't have an adverse effect on calcium retention, according to Z.K. (Fariba) Roughhead, Ph.D., a registered dietitian at the U.S. Department of Agriculture research center in North Dakota.

"We found that women in the high-meat and low-meat diets maintain the same amount of calcium," says Roughhead. "We gave the women 600 milligrams of calcium -- which is low, but is the average calcium intake in the U.S. We wanted to see how much calcium is leached when the women have a low-calcium intake."

Contrary to the popular belief that protein is harmful to bone density, Roughhead says, the opposite may be true, that protein and calcium may be synergistic. She speculates that the correlation between protein and calcium loss came from early work, using purified protein. Meat protein, on the other hand, contains substantial amounts of potassium and phosphorus, which reduce urinary calcium loss. In addition, protein is one of the building blocks of bone, so it stands to reason that it's essential, says Roughhead.

In the USDA study, a large percentage of the protein came from meat, but some also came from dairy foods and bread. Only 30 percent of the calories came from fat.

Roughhead said she isn't endorsing a high-protein diet. "I don't want to advise that any level of protein is OK. This study was neutral. It suggests that eating meat is not bad for bone density."

Meanwhile, a study several months ago from the University of Illinois suggests that middle-aged women who get a larger percentage of their calories from lean protein, and fewer calories from carbohydrates while on diets, maintain more of their muscle while trimming pounds. Protein helps bodies build more muscle, according to Don Layman, the lead researcher of the diet investigation.

Neither study should be taken as license to eat huge portions of high-fat meat smothered in sauce, caution health experts. And when you're eating meat, think about the cut of meat, the preparation method and portion size -- 3 ounces, or about the size of a woman's hand (if you buy a 4-ounce piece of meat, you'll lose about 1 ounce during cooking.

"If you're eating out and select an 8-ounce steak, ask the wait staff to cut the steak in half and bring only one portion to the table," suggests Dayle Hayes, a registered dietitian in Billings, Montana. "You can ask for the rest to be wrapped in the kitchen for you to take home."

Regardless of where you're eating, think about low-calorie, low-fat foods to help fill your plate. "One-fourth of your plate has the meat portion; half the plate should contain fruits and vegetables, and the last quarter is the grains," says Hayes.

When shopping for meat, the name of the cut is a clue to how much fat and how many calories the piece contains. Beef does not have to carry nutrition fat labeling. Look for the word "round" or "loin," which is where the leanest cuts come from. Names such as "tenderloin" or "top round steak" are examples, Hayes says.

Although many of the leaner cuts -- tenderloin being an exception -- are also tougher ones, supermarkets often feature marinated beef or beef strips for faster cooking.

Bev Bennett is co-author of "The Dictionary of Healthful Food Terms" (Barron's, 1997).

Source: ThirdAge Health Newsletter