The bodybuilding universe is filled with sedate and perfunctory nutritional anecdotes that revolve around turkey breast, egg whites and tilapia, all of them with the same misguided vanilla punch line: that these “clean” foods helped someone look their best. So we ask: Whatever happened to downing a nice, juicy steak to fuel your training efforts?
In a world gone mad with leaner living, we’ve somehow forgotten that bodybuilding is, at its well-chiseled core, about getting bigger — about packing on as much lean beef of our own as we can and eating and training with that mission in mind. In the sport’s Golden Era, guys like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbu would famously wash down a top sirloin with a New York strip. Today, guys with monstrous physiques like Branch Warren and Johnnie Jackson swear by fatty meats that help them stay strong in the gym and full onstage. But steak isn’t the only muscle food getting left out in the cold by today’s lifters — there are a few other less common meats in the nutritional lexicon that could be contributing to your gains. If you’re serious about adding some size to your physique and flavor to your menu, it’s time to go beyond the breast.
Red Meat Redux
Maybe it’s that chicken has a better publicist, but somewhere along the line, beef got a bad rap. Bodybuilders began relying less on red meat, and shifting more of their protein consumption toward meats that were suddenly considered to be healthier alternatives, like chicken and fish. High in calories and loaded with saturated fat, red meat was given a backseat. But the perception that red meat can kill physiques and stop hearts is dated, according to Matthew Kadey, MS, RD, a dietitian specializing in nutrition for bodybuilders. “Studies show that some saturated fat, which is present in red meat, in the diet is not as harmful to heart health as once thought,” says Kadey. “A diet high in highly processed carbs is worse. In leaner cuts of red meat there’s almost just as much unsaturated fat as saturated fat.”
Related: 6 Best Exotic Muscle-Building Meat Options
Those who think that red meat is tougher to digest might be “steering” themselves in the wrong direction. Kadey says that claims of chicken and fish being superior forms of protein aren’t accurate. “The high biological value of beef ranks right up there with poultry and other animal-derived proteins,” he says. “And beef has more bioavailable iron. In general, I find that most people digest beef just as well as chicken breast.”
Research has shown that saturated fat helps to keep your testosterone level up, which is key for training hard and heavy. But what about the claim that red meat, in the long run, can cost you in the calorie department? “Red meat is an excellent muscle-building food, and we all know that muscle is much more metabolically active than fat, helping you to stay lean,” Kadey says. “As long as you don’t order a 12-ounce porterhouse all the time, beef is a calorie-controlled protein source, coming in at an average of about 70 calories per ounce for lean cuts. That can easily fit into a bodybuilding diet.”
Calorie- and hormone-friendly, red meat also has a leg up on other protein sources because of its supplemental nutrition value. The biggest one on the list is likely already sitting in your supps cabinet. “Red meat is likely the richest dietary source of creatine in the North American diet,” Kadey says. “Game meats, such as bison or buffalo, are said to be particularly abundant in creatine. Beef also generally has more of the type of highly absorbable iron called heme iron, which is needed to help carry oxygen to working muscles for energy production. And if you choose grass-fed beef, you’ll get more healthy omega fatty acids with less saturated fat, as well as more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which may improve fat burning. Still, to get the best athletic boost from these things, you should still take your supplemental doses.”
Hungry for more? Red meat is also rich in vitamins like thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, B6, and B12, all of which help you better utilize fat and carbs. It’s worth noting that a 12-ounce serving of red meat contains 2 grams of creatine.
Off The Beaten Path
When you think red meat, you think “cow.” Visions of sizzling cuts with perfectly spaced grill lines over a roaring flame are pretty standard. But there’s more to red meat — much more — than sirloin. These meats, some just on the other side of obscure, can also help to boost your muscle-making/fat-burning ability.
Bison: The American bison, or buffalo, can come in at 6½ feet tall and weigh over a ton. To a meat lover, that translates to a lot of steaks. A protected species in North America, bison can be a bit pricey, but it’s worth it if you find a reputable distributor. Higher in iron and protein, yet lower in calories and cholesterol, a good buffalo steak may be just what your contest guru ordered. “This meat is often more flavorful than factory-farm beef with a good protein to fat ratio,” says Kadey. “No hormones are allowed to be given to bison destined for the dinner plate.”
• Nutrition Facts (3 oz.): Calories: 152 | Protein: 22 g | Carbs: 0 g | Fat: 7 g (3 g saturated)
Venison: Okay, no one likes the image of serving up Bambi on a post-workout plate, but sometimes, your physique requires a different approach — one that plays to your ego rather than your heartstrings. Venison can be a staunch ally in your quest for new size — one that’s sure to be a tasty departure from most guys’ normal food week.
“Venison is a very flavorful red meat with another good protein to fat ratio,” says Kadey. “Lean venison, or deer, is best cooked slowly at a low temperature in the oven until the entire piece of the rich tasting meat has been gently coaxed to an even medium rare.”
• Nutrition Facts (3 oz.): Calories: 129 | Protein: 27 g | Carbs: 0 g | Fat: 2 g (1 g saturated)
Elk: One of the largest land mammals in North America also happens to be a savory red meat that more bodybuilders should give a try. Similar to venison in its nutritional profile, elk contains less saturated fat but still packs a whopping serving of protein per ounce.
• Nutrition Facts (3 oz.): Calories: 124 | Protein: 26 g | Carbs: 0 g | Fat: 2 g (1 g saturated)
The largest bird, native to Australia, is making a home in countries everywhere because of its rich, succulent meat. As pricey as it is hard to come by — you’re not likely to find it at your neighborhood supermarket — it’s still a quality protein with a high biological value, meaning more of its aminos will reach your muscles.
• Nutrition Facts (3 oz.): Calories: 131 | Protein: 27 g | Carbs: 0 g | Fat: 2 g (0 g saturated)
Cuts That Count
If bison isn’t in your budget and elk is a tad too obscure for your tastes, there are still plenty of reasons to see red in your next dose of protein. To keep both your muscles and your taste buds happy, you can’t go wrong with the following bodybuilder-friendly choices.
Tri-Tip Roast: The stuff of backyard barbecue legend, a well-prepared tri-tip makes any meal feel like a cheat meal. Like many thicker cuts, it’s important to make sure that it’s properly marinated and prepared but cooked to your preference, it’s hard to go wrong with tri-tip.
“This is an excellent tasting lean beef cut and is ideal for barbecuing,” says Kadey. “Very few people order this cut from the butcher.”
• Nutrition Facts (3.5 oz.): Calories: 142 | Protein: 21 g | Carbs: 0 g | Fat: 6 g (2 g saturated)
You don’t necessarily need to go exotic to get your red meat fix of aminos. A lean, tasty bovine cut, eye round can be a bit of a longer chew but with the right marinade and an experienced grill master, it makes for the perfect protein to build a meal around.
“This cut has the lowest fat and saturated fat of the beef cuts making it a protein powerhouse,” Kadey says.
• Nutrition Facts (3 oz.): Calories: 177 | Protein: 24 g | Carbs: 0 g | Fat: 8 g (3 g saturated)
Good beef don’t come cheap. But every once in a while, the aforementioned sizzle of the grill is worth the splurge. So if you must spend, spend wisely, such as you would on grass-fed steaks.
“A worthwhile splurge, as studies show that cattle stuffed with pasture and not corn or soy have more omega fats and CLA and less saturated fat,” says Kadey.
• Nutrition Facts (3.5 oz.): Calories: 116 | Protein: 21 g | Carbs: 0 g | Fat: 4 g (1 g saturated)
We would never discourage you from taking in fewer fatty types of meat like chicken breast and egg whites. But in the interest of unlocking your true bodybuilding potential, it would “be-hoof” you to take advantage of everything that red meat has to offer. More muscle, better testosterone levels, healthier joints and quality calories — what’s not to like? So go forth and diversify your meat drawer. Arnold would be proud.
5 Reasons To Go Red
All the justification you need to nosh on more red meat.
Loaded with creatine, red meat helps you to move more weight during workouts, giving you a whole food boost to your existing supplement regimen. A pound of beef contains roughly 2 grams of creatine.
The saturated fat in red meat helps to maintain your muscle-building testosterone level, which is key for pushing heavy poundage in the gym.
3. FAT FIGHTING
Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is a healthy fat present in red meat — and in higher quantities in grass-fed meat — that helps you preserve more muscle and burn more fat. CLA is also an important component of joint health.
One knock against red meat is that it’s not as easily digested and absorbed as other protein sources like whey, but it actually possesses a higher degree of bioavailability comparable to fish and chicken.
Because of the fat content, red meat is, on average, more calorically dense. This is perfect for those looking to add size through quality, muscle-building proteins.