Red meat for athletes – part I

Ground beef from Shutterstock
Ground beef from Shutterstock

My colleagues and I recently wrote two monographs in a series on “Red meat in nutrition and health”. One of these publications, “Red meat and sport”, outlines the role of red meat in the diet of sportsmen and women – and when it comes to supplying very specific nutrients, this food definitely has great advantages.

What is red meat?

Red meat is usually classified as beef and mutton or lamb, including offal or organ meats like liver and kidneys, because of their high nutrient density.

The role of nutrition

Two of the world’s leading sports nutritionists, Burke and Deakin, agree that nutrition is the single factor that “may have more to offer the athlete than any other”. Modern athletes of all ages and levels of competitiveness turn to supplements of every kind to improve their performance, rather than use a balanced, tailored diet – consisting of natural foods such as red meat, fish, eggs, fruit and vegetables, dairy products, whole grains and healthy fats – to help them succeed.

Read: Protein facts

Protein and specifically animal protein, as found in red meat, can be used more successfully than supplements to optimise sports performance and health – not only by top athletes, but also by the countless individuals who use sport as a means of relaxation or improving their health. Red meat is rich in protein and other nutrients, particularly iron, zinc and B vitamins and can make great contributions to athletic performance.

Major nutritional contributions

Lean red meat and offal derived from lamb or mutton and beef, are important sources of the following essential nutrients:

  • Protein with a high biological, containing all nine essential amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins which in turn are used in the body to build and repair muscle and organ tissues, as well as manufacturing blood corpuscles and hormones.
  • B-vitamins: especially vitamin B12, which prevents the development of megaloblastic anaemia; niacin; thiamine (B1); and riboflavin (B2) – all of which are involved in hundreds of metabolic processes in the body, including energy production and endurance.
  • Minerals: particularly haem iron, which is highly biologically available and vital in the prevention of iron-deficiency anaemia; zinc which also acts as a catalyst in countless metabolic reactions and boosts immunity; and phosphorus, a mineral that plays a role in energy and bone metabolism.
  • Long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fats acids: namely DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), which have been linked to reduced risk of chronic diseases, but are increasingly deficient in western diets.
  • Biogenic substances: including taurine, carnitine, carnosine, ubiquinone, glutathione and creatine. Red meat is a natural source of these compounds which are so often added to sports supplements to improve performance or promote an increase in lean muscle mass.

What you get from 100g of red meat

A 100g portion of lean red meat like lamb provides more than 30% of the Nutrient Reference Value (NRV) of protein, niacin, vitamin B12, and zinc, and more than 10% of the NRV of phosphorus, iron, thiamin and riboflavin.

Lean red meat is an important source of protein of the highest quality. It provides about 20-25g of protein, containing all 9 essential amino acids, namely lysine, threonine, methionine, phenylalanine, tryptophan, leucine, isoleucine, histidine and valine, to the diet. These amino acids are classified as “essential” because they cannot be manufactured in the human body, but must be obtained from the diet.

Why amino acids are important

The abovementioned amino acids that are found in lean red meat are key contributors to muscle growth and assist in the repair of damaged muscle tissue, which are both of primary importance to sportsmen and women.

Read: High-protein diet not green

Young athletes have an increased requirement for high quality protein and amino acids derived from natural sources like red meat to provide for their normal growth, as well as the added demands of training.

What about the fat content?

Red meat is what is called “an animal source protein” and will, therefore, contain some animal fat. Foods containing fat are often a contentious issue with athletes, particularly female athletes, who are intent on keeping their weight as low as possible. In addition, the fact that animal fats contain saturated and trans-fatty acids, may turn athletes away from foods like red meat. But nowadays the fat content of red meat has been decreased dramatically thanks to purposeful selection of lean breeds and trimming of meat at retail outlets and at home.

If you buy lean meat and remove all the visible fat and make sure that you are not adding large quantities of fat or oil during cooking, then an average lamb chop which in the untrimmed state contains 15% fat can be reduced to a fat content of less than 5%.  

In other words, you can reduce the total fat content of red meat like lamb by nearly 70% between the shop and the plate.

Read: Having beef can be heart healthy

Of this 5g of fat per 100g of meat, more than half consists of healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids. In addition South African lamb and mutton are natural sources of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) which researchers have linked to a reduction in heart disease, cancer and cholesterol levels.

A pleasing total

If we add up all the nutrient benefits of lean red meat, and keep in mind that red meat contains the abovementioned bioactive compounds, antioxidants and creatine, for which athletes pay a lot of money as ergogenic aids in the form of supplements, then eating red meat appears to be a natural choice for athletes, particularly those who are trying to “make weight” or suffer from anaemia.

How much protein do athletes need?

Let’s try to answer this question by listing the prime functions of proteins in the human body. Firstly proteins must supply us with the correct amount of amino acids, particularly those we can’t manufacture in our own bodies, to build new body protein and to repair damaged body protein.

Proteins can also be used for fuel if our diet is carbohydrate deficient (“Banting” athletes?), but most nutrition experts regard the use of protein for energy purposes as wasteful and counterproductive, because protein that has to be used to generate energy is not available for building muscle and other body tissues and can cause a loss of lean body mass. This is something no athlete can afford.

Read: 10 Golden rules of Banting

Sports nutritionists recommend that athletes and other individuals who are very physically active require protein intakes of between 1,2 and 1,7 g/kg/day.

In other words a 50 kg female athlete would require 60 to 85g protein daily, and a 70 kg male athlete would need 84 to 119g of protein per day. These quantities are considerably higher than the 0,8g/kg/day suggested for sedentary adults.

Next week we will have a closer look at other positive contributions athletes can source from red meat instead of supplements.

Read more:

Protein facts
Protein and sports performance
Red meat tied to higher diabetes risk


 - Beelen M et al ( 2010). Nutritional strategies to promote postexercise recovery. International Journal of Sport Nutrition & Exercise Metabolism, 20:515-532.  

- Burke L & Deakin V (2002). Clinical Sports Nutrition. 2nd Ed. The McGraw-Hill Co, Australia, Pty Ltd.
- Coleman (2012). Protein requirements for athletes. Clinical Nutrition Insight, 38(9):1-3. 
- Schönfeldt & Hall, (2013). 2013 Update on nutrient delivery. Lamb & Mutton South Africa.
- Van Heerden, IV Hall, N & Schönfeldt, HC (2014). Red Meat & Sport. Red Meat in Nutrition & Health. Supplementary Chapter. Published by Lamb & Mutton SA.
- Williams, P (2007). Nutritional composition of red meat. Nutrition & Dietetics, 64 (Suppl. 4): S113-S119.

Image: Ground beef from Shutterstock

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