Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed Beef

Jennifer O'Donnell-Giles | October 18, 2016

It’s safe to assume that most people would choose grass-fed beef over grain-fed beef based on the belief that it’s the healthier option. But is that really the case or are we just buying into some really good marketing tactics?

Americans eat a lot of beef. Most of it is consumed as ground beef, which is typically higher in total fat than most other cuts of beef. What many people don't realize is that beef is one of the highest food sources of oleic acid, a healthy monounsaturated fatty acid. Some studies found that consuming monounsaturated fats may help slow the rates of cancer cell growth and reduce cardiovascular risk factors. While grass-fed beef contains three times more omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed beef, however, it’s also higher in saturated fat and trans-fats.

Researchers at Texas A&M University conducted two studies comparing the effects of grass-fed and grain-fed beef on two health risk factors: cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. In the studies, a group of male participants consumed both grass-fed and grain-fed beef for five weeks. The men who had mildly elevated cholesterol levels decreased their HDLs (good cholesterol) with grass-fed beef consumption. The men with normal cholesterol levels increased their HDL cholesterol levels only with grain-fed beef consumption. Interestingly, neither grain-fed nor grass-fed beef consumption increased LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) in these men. Additional research on women resulted in similar findings where neither grass-fed nor grain-fed beef affected LDL cholesterol levels in postmenopausal women. Premenopausal women were not included in the studies because their estrogen levels provide cardiac protection.

As far as insulin levels were concerned, both types of beef had a favorable impact on plasma levels. This suggests that beef can possibly reduce type 2 diabetes risk factors.

Which is better?

Is high oleic acid grass-fed beef better? Or is grain-fed beef better because it contains less saturated fat and less trans-fat? Neither grass-fed nor grain-fed ground beef increased the risks for cardiovascular disease or type 2 diabetes. Grain-fed beef, however, may provide extra protection against cardiovascular disease by contributing to an increase in HDL cholesterol levels.

Another major misconception about beef is that grass-fed beef contains less cholesterol. A study at Texas Tech University debunked this myth by showing that there is no difference in cholesterol content between the two types of ground beef, assuming the fat content is similar. This study broke it down further by stating that “for every 1 percent increase in total fat content there is a 1-milligram increase in cholesterol. So, ground beef that is 95 percent lean (5 percent fat) contains about 50 milligrams of cholesterol and ground beef that is 85 percent lean (15 percent fat) contains 60 milligrams of cholesterol. This is as true for beef from grass-fed beef as it is for beef from grain-fed cattle”.

Studies, thus far, have shown that there’s no conclusive scientific proof that grass-fed beef is better for your health than grain fed beef is. We were probably buying into good marketing, after all. No matter which beef or other meats you choose, remember to opt for leaner cuts with less saturated fat and trans-fat. Make it a balanced meal, rich in fibers, vitamins and minerals, by enjoying them alongside your favorite vegetables and whole grains!


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Jennifer O'Donnell-Giles

Jenn Giles, R.D., C.S.S.D. is all about health and wellness. She has over 15 years’ experience, including a dual master’s degree in Nutrition and Exercise Physiology from Columbia University. She is a Registered Dietitian (RD) and a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD). She supplements all of this with her spin instructor certification and USATriathlon Level I Coach Certification.

Jennifer is passionate about (actually, obsessed with) the sport of triathlon. She has been personally participating in triathlons since 2000 and running road races since 1992. She is a two-time Ironman finisher and has completed countless numerous marathons. She has been a member of Power Bar Team Elite since 2006 and competed as a member of the 2006 Aquaphor/Active.com Sponsored Athlete Team. She was ranked as USAT All American Honorable mention in 2006 and 2011. Jennifer does all of this along side of her husband, Patrick, who is an equally accomplished triathlete and runner. They try as hard as they can to do all of their training and racing together.

She will tell you, however, that her most important, most rewarding and most challenging job is as a mother of four. She knows first hand the challenges of maintaining optimal fitness, overall good health and achieving goals while raising a family - of which good nutrition is the cornerstone.

Most importantly, she knows how to motivate, inspire and challenge athletes based on their own abilities, strengths and everyday lifestyles. She believes there is an athlete in everyone - no matter what their abilities are – and if those abilities are manifold, then there is an even better athlete in there!

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