Meat is often considered unhealthy because it is high in saturated fat.
For this reason, meat (especially fatty meat) has been demonized.
But new studies have shown that saturated fat is harmless, and meat has been making a comeback as a health food.
That being said, there are some potential concerns with the fatty acid composition of “conventionally” raised meats.
This article takes a detailed look at lean and fatty meats, what to look out for, and how to make the right choices depending on your goals and preferences.
Differences in Calories and Macronutrients
The most obvious difference between lean and fatty meats is the fat content. With fatty meats being much higher in total fat.
Given that fat contains 9 calories per gram, compared to 4 calories per gram for protein, fatty meats are also higher in calories.
For example, different 100 gram (3.5 ounce) parts of chicken contain:
- Breast (lean): 165 calories with 4 grams of fat and 31 grams of protein.
- Wings, meat, and skin (fatty): 290 calories with 19 grams of fat and 27 grams of protein.
As you can see, a fatty piece of chicken contains many more calories than a lean piece of chicken.
Bottom Line: The main difference between lean and fatty meats is the amount of fat. Fatty meats are also much higher in total calories.
Differences in Micronutrients
Meat is an incredibly nutritious food. It contains a little bit of almost everything we need.
However, there are some subtle differences in micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) between fatty and lean meats.
The main difference is that fatty meats tend to be higher in fat-soluble vitamins. This includes vitamins A, D, E, and K2.
That being said, the difference in micronutrients isn’t large and certainly not a compelling reason to choose one type of meat over the other.
If you want to maximize the number of nutrients you get from animal foods, then consider regularly eating organ meats like liver.
Bottom Line: Fatty meats may be slightly higher in fat-soluble vitamins than lean meats, but the difference isn’t very large.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Today’s animals are fed in a way that makes meat significantly lower in omega-3 fatty acids.
Our food environment has changed since the dawn of agriculture.
It has changed even more drastically in the past few hundred years, and has been completely transformed in recent decades.
Back in the day, our paleolithic ancestors ate a lot of meat, but from wild animals that they hunted.
These animals roamed free, eating grass or bugs or whatever they could find.
Compare that to today’s animals, which are usually locked inside and fed unnatural feeds based primarily on corn and soy.
The truth is, it doesn’t just matter what animals we eat. It also matters what foods these animals eat.
Animals that are fed grains contain significantly fewer omega-3 fatty acids than animals fed grass, which is the food they evolved to eat.
However, they still contain plenty of omega-6, so their omega-6:omega-3 ratio is distorted.
The problem is we need to eat these fatty acids in a certain balance. Most people today are eating a lot of omega-6 fatty acids, while their omega-3 intake is low.
Therefore, eating a lot of fatty grain-fed meats can cause problems by contributing to an imbalance in your omega-6 and omega-3 intake.
However, I am personally not convinced that this is something you need to worry about.
As long as you’re avoiding the biggest sources of omega-6 fatty acids (processed vegetable oils), then the benefits of avoiding conventionally raised meats may not be worth the effort.
If you’re trying to optimize your omega-6 and omega-3 intake, then you can either eat only grass-fed/pasture-raised meats, or you can choose lean meats and supplement your diet with other healthier fats instead.
If you eat conventionally raised fatty meats, then make sure that your omega-3 intake is adequate by eating fatty fish or taking fish oil regularly.
Bottom Line: Conventionally raised meats tend to be much lower in omega-3 fatty acids than meat from animals fed a natural diet. It is important to take some steps to ensure that you get plenty of omega-3s.
If protein intake is a priority, then lean meat is a better choice.
Studies show that a high protein intake can have various benefits for weight loss and body composition.
For some people, especially athletes, bodybuilders, and people who need to lose weight, emphasizing protein is a good idea.
In these circumstances, lean meat is a much better choice, because getting the same amount of protein from fatty meat would also bring with it a whole ton of calories.
For example, bodybuilders who might want to eat 200 grams of protein would easily go over their calorie limit if they got all the protein from fatty meat.
Bottom Line: Choosing lean meat instead of fatty is important if you need to eat more protein without increasing total calorie intake.
On a low-carb diet (especially ketogenic), fatty meats are usually a better choice.
Everything in nutrition depends on the context. Whether one food is “good” or “bad” can depend entirely on the individual.
One variable that is important when determining the role of fatty foods, is an individual’s carbohydrate intake.
Numerous studies show that eating little carbohydrates (a low-carb diet) leads to impressive benefits for health.
When you don’t eat a lot of carbs, you need to get energy from dietary fat instead. Otherwise you will end up starving and abandon the diet.
Therefore, fatty meats are a perfect food for people who are eating a low-carb/ketogenic diet.
But for people who eat a moderate- to high amount of carbs, choosing lean meat is better. Eating high-carb and high-fat at the same time is a bad idea.
Take Home Message
At the end of the day, the main difference between lean and fatty meats is the fat (and calorie) content.
For people eating a low-carb or ketogenic diet, more fat is generally a good thing. But for others, keeping calories lower and protein higher may be a better option. And of course, eating unprocessed meat is crucial, no matter whether it is fatty or not. Processed meat is unhealthy.
To sum up:
1. If you’re eating low-carb, choose fatty meat.
2. If you’re eating moderate to high carb, or need to increase protein intake without raising calories, then choose lean meat.
3. Always eat unprocessed meat and choose grass-fed/pasture-raised if it is available and affordable.
*Image of “meat” via Marius Boatca/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0