Lamb meat is the ultimate special occasion food, whether you indulge in a holiday standing rib roast or a romantic dinner featuring lamb chops. Even ground lamb can elevate a meatloaf or casserole. But should lamb form part of your regular diet? Probably not.
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For most people, the saturated fat in lamb meat makes it too unhealthy to include in their diets on a regular basis. But when consumed once or twice a week, lamb health benefits will outweigh its potential drawbacks.
The Saturated Fat Problem
The American Heart Association (AHA) notes that limiting the amount of saturated fat and dietary cholesterol is essential for good health. Both of these substances can raise your blood cholesterol levels. In turn, high blood cholesterol puts you at greater risk for strokes and heart disease.
The amount of fat and cholesterol that the average serving of lamb contains makes it unsuitable for more than an occasional appearance in your diet.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), rib roast is among the worst offenders when it comes to heart health. With 10 grams of saturated fat and 80 grams of cholesterol, a single serving is about half of the saturated fat and one-third of the cholesterol that you should take in for the day.
Most other cuts of lamb on the USDA charts contribute at least one-quarter of the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol you should consume in a day. The lowest in both of these fatty substances is roasted shank lamb meat, with 4 grams of saturated fat and 75 grams cholesterol.
The AHA states that the listed daily values (DV) of saturated fat on food packaging are based on 5 to 6 percent of the total average recommended calorie intake for all adults. A petite woman, for example, might need to consume even less saturated fat compared to what the DV indicates.
If your weight and gender recommendations are for 2,000 calories a day, you should only have about 13 daily grams of saturated fat daily. That means that a serving of rib roast, which contains 8 grams, is even more than half of what you should consume for the day.
Reaping the Protein in Lamb
One thing lamb delivers in spades is protein. Depending on what cut you're serving, USDA charts indicate that lamb meat can provide about half of the recommended DV for protein. The average adult needs at least 50 grams of protein a day. Given that a three-ounce serving of lamb meat contains 22 to 26 grams protein and averages about 250 calories, it's a good "bargain" from a protein standpoint.
Lamb chops taken from the shoulder have the highest amount of protein, according to the USDA. These chops provide as much as 26 grams a serving. Loin chops contain 22 grams. Lamb rib roast, which is also the highest in calories and saturated fat, contains 18 grams of protein per three-ounce serving.
Protein is one of the most important nutrients in your daily diet. The amino acids that make up this nutrient all serve different functions. Protein maintains all of the tissues in your body, while also enabling new tissues to grow and be repaired. Harvard Health Publishing points out that adequate protein does everything from boosting your immune system and carrying other nutrients throughout the body to building muscles and encouraging hair growth.
But the saturated fat and cholesterol in lamb meat make it too rich to have more than once or twice a week. Harvard Health Publishing suggests lower-fat alternatives to the protein in lamb, including fish like haddock, trout or salmon. These all provide about 21 grams of protein per three-ounce serving, which is equivalent to what the same size serving of lamb meat provides. Turkey or chicken, offering an average of 19 grams per serving, are also excellent choices.
If you want to cut back on meat altogether, vegetarian options include cottage cheese and Greek yogurt, which provide at least 14 grams of protein per serving. Other sources that deliver at least 6 grams of protein include beans, nuts, eggs and milk.
Mining for Minerals and B12
As with other nutrients, the exact amount of vitamins and minerals that lamb meat provides depends on the cut you're cooking. Lamb health benefits come largely from its iron, potassium, zinc and vitamin B12 content.
In general, various lamb cuts deliver 8 to 10 percent of the iron you need for the day, according to the USDA. Getting enough iron can be especially challenging for women in their childbearing years because the important mineral is depleted by monthly bleeding. This nutrient is important for red blood cell production, immune function and energy production. It also aids in wound healing.
A serving of lamb can also provide at least one-quarter of the daily value for zinc. A three-ounce serving of shoulder roast lamb meat can offer more than half of the zinc you need each day. This mineral, which is known for its immune-boosting properties, also promotes eye and nervous system health.
It's not unusual for at least one B vitamin to be present in animal foods. In the case of lamb nutrition, it's B12 that the meat provides in high numbers. In fact, you'll get at least 90 percent of the B12 you need from most cuts of lamb meat. Seniors, in particular, are at risk of being deficient in the nutrient. Low vitamin B12 levels can put you at risk for memory loss, heart disease and numbness in the limbs.
Lamb meat also provides about 6 percent of the daily value for potassium. This mineral helps keep your muscles working properly, and adequate intakes may even help prevent cramping. Getting enough potassium is also important for healthy blood pressure, strong bones and a well-functioning nervous system.
Pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems should avoid undercooked lamb as it may contain the Toxoplasma gondii parasite. Lamb, venison and pork are the meats most likely to harbor toxoplasmosis, which can be passed on to newborns and cause serious health issues.
If you do eat lamb while pregnant or coping with a compromised immune system, make sure it’s been cooked to a minimum of 145 degrees Fahrenheit and allowed to rest for three minutes after coming off the heat.
Keeping Lamb Lean
When it comes to including lamb in your meal plan, keeping this red meat to once or twice a week is the best way to limit saturated fat. But in order to take advantage of lamb's nutrients, not to mention its unique flavor, you need to consider a few things.
The American Heart Association urges meat lovers to keep their serving size to two to three ounces. That's about the size of a deck of cards, whether you're talking about sliced roast lamb, the amount of meat in your serving of lamb stew or a serving of Greek lamb meatballs.
Shopping for and prepping lamb meat with an eye toward a healthier meal is important too. Look for packaging that uses words like "lean," "loin" or "sirloin." Before you begin cooking the lamb, remove as much fat as possible from the outer edges of the cut.
If you're comparing packages of ground lamb, check the label for the ratio of lean meat to fat. The higher the lean meat percentage, the healthier it will be.
Learning Healthier Ways to Cook
The Mayo Clinic notes that the best methods for cooking red meat include roasting, broiling, stewing or baking. These require fewer added fats, as opposed to frying or sautéing. Also, when you roast or broil lamb, make sure to set it on a rack so that it won't re-absorb the fat that melts off the meat.
Fat can also be reduced by removing the cooked ground lamb from the pan with a slotted spoon, then wiping down or pouring off the excess fat from the pan. Similarly, a lamb stew will likely release fat to the top of the pot as it simmers. This can be skimmed off when cooking or reheating the stew.
How do you get around the moisture and flavor that fat adds to lamb meat? Once you've trimmed the lamb meat fat and chosen leaner cuts, it helps to use techniques that will prevent it from becoming tough and flavorless. Low-fat marinades help tenderize and flavor the meat. Choose marinades with a wine, vinegar or citrus base, and one that is flavored with plenty of herbs and spices.
Finally, consider using lamb as a flavorful ingredient rather than the entree. By using cubed or sliced lamb in a casserole, risotto or stew, you'll have less than a standard-sized serving of lamb meat. In fact, you can make up for the missing nutrients by using fat-free foods that are also high in minerals and B-12. Add a combination of lean poultry or seafood along with dried beans and leafy greens.
Cooking Healthy Lamb Meals
If you're not sure whether your favorite lamb recipe is as healthy as it could be, consult a cookbook or website that lists nutritional information, such as calories, dietary cholesterol and saturated fat for its recipes. The American Council on Exercise (ACE), for example, provides several healthy lamb recipes. It also lists the nutritional content for each dish, including saturated fat, dietary cholesterol, protein and other key nutrients.
ACE's version of the Moroccan street food classic, kefta, for instance, combines lamb meat with lean beef to reduce saturated fat. It also uses a marinade blend and olive oil for flavor and opts for a broiler as the cooking method.
Recipes like Irish lamb stew and kusa mihshi (stuffed squash) use the trick of relying on smaller amounts of lamb for flavor and texture. That allows healthy ingredients like vegetables and brown rice to help fill you up, using smaller portions of lamb overall.
- American Heart Association: "Saturated Fat"
- USDA: "Pork and Lamb Nutrition Facts"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "How Much Protein Do You Need Each Day?"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Listing of Vitamins"
- My Food Data: "Nutrition Facts (Various Lamb Servings)"
- American Heart Association: "Meat, Poultry, and Fish - Picking Healthy Proteins"
- Mayo Clinic: "Toxoplasmosis"
- FDA: "Food Safety for Pregnant Women"
- Mayo Clinic: "How Meat and Poultry Fit in Your Healthy Diet"
- FDA: "Vitamins and Minerals Chart"
- American Council on Exercise: "Lamb Recipes"
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: "Protein"
- American Heart Association: "Cholesterol"