Can I Still Eat Beef as Part of a Low-Fat Diet?

Broil meatballs

​The Spruce

You do not necessarily need to stop eating beef if you're trying to eat low-fat. No, not necessarily. Beef gets a bad rap because it's a source of saturated fat and cholesterol, which are linked to an increased risk of heart disease. But there are ways to include ​beef in a healthy low-fat diet.

tips for including beef in a low-fat diet
Illustration: Alex Dos Diaz. © The Spruce, 2019

Go Lean

There are 29 cuts of beef that are designated lean—which means it must contain less than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per 3 1/2 ounce serving. There are also a few cuts that qualify as extra lean, which means they must contain less than 5 grams of ​​​total fat, 2 ​grams or less of saturated fat and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per 3 1/2 ounce serving.

If you can get it, choose grass-fed beef, which is lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, and higher in omega-3 fatty acids, which are considered heart-healthy.

There are two ways of figuring out how lean a cut of beef is: the grade and the cut.

  1. The grade refers to the amount of marbling (streaks of fat) in the beef. The three most common grades are prime, choice and select. The cuts with the most marbling are given the highest grade. These cuts are very tender and are found mostly at restaurants. We see choice and select most often at the grocery store. Select has the least marbling, so is leaner, and consequently less tender.
  2. The cut of meat also gives us a clue to the leanest beef. As a rule of thumb, anything labeled loin or round is lean. The seven leanest cuts are eye round, top round, round tip, top sirloin, bottom round, top loin, and tenderloin.

For ground beef, look for ground sirloin or ground round, and choose packages labeled lean or extra lean.

Think Small

Keep portions to around 4 ounces, which shrinks to about 3 ounces after cooking. This doesn't sound very much, but beef is very rich and packed full of important vitamins and minerals, including iron, zinc, selenium, phosphorus, vitamins B6, B12, and niacin. You don't need a 12-ounce steak to benefit from these nutrients. They're all there in a 4-ounce portion.

Trim Visible Fat

Even the leanest cuts of beef may have a 1/4-inch of fat that should be removed before cooking. Sure, it adds flavor and moisture, but it contributes up to half the total fat content of a piece of beef. 

Maximize Flavor and Tenderness

The problem with opting for the leanest cuts of beef is that, without the tenderizing effect of all that marbling, they can be tough. Be sure to choose the appropriate cooking method for the cut of beef. Often lean cuts benefit from a moist cooking method such as braising, which helps break down the structure of the meat, making it fork-tender.

If you want to grill or broil lean cuts of beef, marinate them first. A short marinade will impart flavor, but a long one—between 6 and 24 hours—will help tenderize the meat as well as add flavor. A proper marinade requires an acidic ingredient such as vinegar, wine or citrus juices, combined with a little oil, herbs, and spices.

With steaks, omit high-fat toppings such as butter, cheese, and cream-based sauces. You don't need any more saturated fat. Experiment with herbs and spices instead. A spice rub is easy to do, using a combination of your favorite herbs and spices in your pantry, depending on the flavor you want. Some ready-mixed rubs contain a lot of salt, so making your own means you can control the mix of herbs and omit the salt if you wish. About's Guide to Barbecues and Grilling has a great selection of rubs. If you like, make that rub into a paste by adding a small amount of liquid to the spice mixture. And for a classic flavor, use barbecue sauce. Again, commercial sauces tend to be high in salt, but with a few basic ingredients, including tomato sauce, vinegar, molasses or brown sugar, you can make your own.

So go ahead and enjoy beef from time to time. Just remember to keep it lean, keep it small, and use as little added fat as possible.