Ground Beef: Why Lean is Not Low Fat

Fat Content of Lean and Extra Lean Ground Beef

Ground beef
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Beef is an important source of protein, zinc, iron, selenium and vitamin B12. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it's one of the biggest sources of fat in our diet—think of all those quarter pounders, red-meat chilis, steaks, meatloaves, meatballs, and all-beef hot dogs we eat in a year. Yikes.

If you want the nutritional benefits of beef with less of the fat and cholesterol, opt for lean and extra lean cuts.

But don’t be fooled into thinking you're eating a low-fat food by going "lean." You're not; you're simply lessening your fat intake.

Take lean ground beef, which, according to the USDA, is defined as containing no more than 10 percent fat, which means it's 90 percent lean, right? Yes, but there’s a catch: the percentage refers to product weight, not the percentage of calories from fat. This may be obvious to some, but many people don't know this, or at least don’t think it through. Here's what I mean:

According to the USDA, four ounces of lean ground beef (90 percent lean, 10 percent fat) is worth 199 calories, with 11g of fat. Given that there are nine calories in each gram of fat, 99 of those calories, or 49.7 percent of them, come from fat.

Similarly, four ounces of extra-lean ground beef (95 percent lean, 5 percent fat) is worth 155 calories, with 5.6 g of fat, or 33.3 percent of its total calories.

But to put this into some perspective, four ounces of ground chuck (which is 80 percent lean and 20 percent fat), most commonly used in burgers, chili, and meatballs, contains 287 calories and 22.6 g fat, which comprises 71 percent of its calories.

The question is, does this matter? The total number of calories in that four-ounce serving isn’t all that bad, especially if you eat about 2,000 calories a day.

Although there is no set recommended dietary allowance for fat*, it represents about 30 percent of suggested intake for those on a 2,000 calorie a day diet. But put that four ounces of chuck in a bun with cheese, bacon and some kind of mayo dressing, then throw in some fries, and those calories, along with the fat count, will soon add up, tipping you over 1,000 calories for just one meal.​

If you want to sink your teeth into a juicy hamburger, go ahead, but you might want to consider lower-fat toppings such tomatoes, red onion slices, peppers, lettuce, and mustard.