A man can only eat so much chicken breast. That default meat of gym-goers is relatively easy to cook, adapts to a variety of different seasonings, and is cheap as all heck.
But if you just can’t stomach the thought of another grilled chicken breast dusted with Mrs. Dash’s lemon pepper seasoning, then bust yourself out of your cooped-up thinking and seek greener pastures.
Specifically, cow pastures.
Grain-fed rib eye steaks, well-marbled short ribs, and thick T-bones give beef a bad rap when it comes to fattening cuts. But there are many different parts of the cow that offer plenty of protein for very little additional calories from fat.
If you’re looking for the leanest cuts of beef, these are great options to pick up that still house plenty of flavor.
Oh, wait what now? Before you check your pacemaker, hear this out. Just like any other animal, the heart of a cow is a constantly functioning organ. For that reason, it’s always working out, which means that it’s pretty much pure muscle. Four grams of beef heart contain 21 grams of protein for 119 calories and barely a gram of saturated fat. Yes, you have to ask your butcher to special order it. Yes, you have to get past the part that you’re eating heart. But if you can clear those hurdles, this lean meat tastes incredible cubed, grilled, and tucked into tacos. Chicken breast, this is not.
Eye of Round
The “round” comes from the backside of the cow, a hard-working area of the animal that helps it move and, in turn, is naturally lean. The “eye” cut comes from the center of the round. There are 23 grams of protein in a four-ounce serving of this cut. That’s not bad for 131 calories and just one gram of saturated fat. Eye of round is a tough cut, though, and benefits when it’s the centerpiece of a slow-cooked stew or very thinly sliced and anchored into a steak sandwich.
You guessed it: This cut of beef comes from the area of the cow above the eye of round. Like the eye of round, top round is a lean, hardworking muscle that takes well to slow-cooking or thin-slicing. The flavor is intensely savory and can stand up to other strong ingredients like red wine, rosemary, garlic, and gravy. A four-ounce serving of top round roast contains 131 calories, 27 grams of protein, and one gram of saturated fat.
You’ll often see this cut in steak form behind the meat case. Because it’s butchered from the top portion of the animal, like top round, the meat has less intramuscular fat. This keeps it lean (25 grams of protein and one gram of saturated fat for 144 calories), but also can result in a chewier meal. One good strategy: Slice top sirloin into strips. This shortens the muscle fibers in the meat and, in essence, “tenderizes” it. Top sirloin strips work well in stir-fry, on kabobs, or simply sautéed with fresh mushrooms.
Grandpa was on to something. Four ounces of beef liver contain 23 grams of protein for only 153 calories and one gram of saturated fat. Okay, yes, there’s the flavor, which some people find off-putting, but there’s a reason that you always see liver paired with onions. Sweet griddled onions remove some of the mineral bite of liver. A quick red wine sauce or gravy also help the protein go down. Still leery? Try some beef liver chopped into your next meatball or meatloaf recipe.
Every BBQ aficionado’s favorite cut also happens to be super lean. It’s sort of the chicken breast of the cow, positioned near the front legs. The "brisket flat half," specifically, comes without the cut’s large fat cap and tallies 140 calories, 24 grams protein, and two grams of fat for four ounces. Because it’s so low in fat, brisket deserves many hours basking in a smoker or slow-cooker in order to render the muscles fork-tender.
97-Percent Lean Ground Beef
You know how some hamburger patties are sold as “90/10” or “80/20” on the label or behind the case? Well, the first number stands for the percentage of beef muscle; the second for the percentage of beef fat. So, “97/3” ground beef is 97 percent muscle. While it may not make for the juiciest burger (80/20 is a better bet), 97/3 ground beef does make for decent tacos, lettuce wraps, or as a rice-bowl topper. Four ounces of 97-percent lean ground beef has 25 grams of protein for 137 calories and two grams of saturated fat.
Stew Meat (Chuck)
The “chuck” cut comes from the shoulder area of the cow, a massive area that produces blade, neck, and steak cuts-many of which are hearty and intensely beef in flavor. “Stew” meat is essentially large cubes of beef cut from this chuck area. Your typical chuck stew meat will run you 140 calories per every four ounces at 25 grams of protein and two grams of saturated fat. Yes, it’s good for stew. It’s also good for meat-based pasta sauces.
The name doesn’t lie. This cut is one of the few lean options that combines a lack of fat with supreme tenderness. You’ll find tenderloin as long whole-muscle cut, but you can also buy it in steak form. A four-ounce portion comes in at 153 calories and delivers 25 grams of protein for two grams of saturated fat. Tenderloin is practically made for the grill.
You’ll usually find shoulder in the form of a roast, also it’s sometimes cut into steaks. Shoulder meat comes from the same section of the animal as the stew meat (above) and shares many similar attributes for that reason. You’ll eat 24 grams of protein and two grams of saturated fat in a four-ounce portion, which comes in at 141 calories.
*All nutritional analysis conducting using the USDA’s Food Composition Nutrient Database and largely features “trimmed” cuts, meaning that extra-muscular fat was removed during processing.
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