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Meat: A Key Player on Your Wellness Team

Who’s on your wellness team?

Meat and poultry are part of a healthy, balanced eating plan that draws on various food groups like a sports team. The team functions best when all players fulfill their roles in a coordinated way.

The human body needs a wide range of foods, including a variety of foods from within each food group, including Protein Foods, Dairy, Vegetables, Fruits, and Grains. Each group is formed based on the unique nutrient profile it brings to MyPlate.

What makes meat and poultry a unique player on your wellness team?

Meat and poultry help you to cover the bases, with complete, high-quality protein, a rare natural source of vitamin B12, highly bioavailable minerals, like iron and zinc, and a whole lot more key nutrients in a lean package. Combined with vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, and other protein-rich foods, meat and poultry have an important place on MyPlate.


U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 1 are developed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture based upon recommendations from a committee of nutrition and food scientists, health professionals and public health experts.

MyPlate 2 is the U.S. government’s educational tool for promoting healthful eating according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Meat is in the Protein Foods group.

1st Base: Meat provides a complete, high-quality protein.1

The high-quality protein from meat and poultry is a “one-stop-shop” for the essential amino acids needed for optimal health.

Per serving, meat, poultry, and fish provide more protein (25 g per 3 ounces) than dairy (8 grams per cup), eggs (6 grams each), legumes (12 g per ¾ cup), or cereals, vegetables, or nuts (2 to 5 grams per serving).3

Vegan diets must include protein from a wide variety of sources to piece together all of the amino acids needed for health.4

Protein is critical for developing, maintaining, and repairing strong muscles. 1,4

Protein is vital for growth in children and reducing the muscle loss that often occurs with aging.1,4

Calorie needs decrease with weight loss efforts and with normal aging, while protein needs during these times remain stable or may increase.1

Meat and poultry generally provide more protein per calorie than plant protein sources. 3

While there are more and more products on the market with added protein, meat and poultry are naturally full of high-quality protein.

2nd Base: Foods from animals, including meat and poultry, are THE natural source of Vitamin B12.

Vitamin B12 is important for normal metabolism and mental clarity.

A vegan diet, which contains no animal foods at all, must be rounded out with vitamin B12 supplements, fortified foods, or certain types of seaweed or nutritional yeast. 4

Up to 16% of U.S. adults and more than 20% over 60 years old are marginally depleted in vitamin B12. Deficiency increases with age, with about 6% of those over 70 years old being deficient in vitamin B12. 5

3rd Base: Meat and poultry are rich in nutrients your body can use, and help you get more out of your vegetables and grains, too!

Iron and zinc in beef, pork, lamb, poultry, and fish are more “bioavailable,” meaning they are more easily absorbed and utilized by the body, than these minerals from grains or vegetables. 6,7

Fortunately, meat, poultry, fish, vitamin C, and soaking beans and grains in water before cooking all help the body to absorb iron from plant sources. And while the phytates, tannins, and other compounds in plants reduce absorption of non-heme iron, they have no effect on heme iron from meat and poultry. 6

Emerging research suggests that at least 50 g, or about 2 oz, of meat, poultry, or fish may improve iron absorption from a meal by about 45%. 6

While soy, leafy green vegetables, beans, and certain dried fruits are good sources of iron, they also contain components that reduce absorption of both zinc and iron.6

Home Run: A unique nutrient bundle

Meat and poultry products bring home a unique bundle of nutrients, from high-quality protein, bioavailable iron and zinc, and vitamin B12 to selenium, choline, vitamin B6, thiamine, niacin, and riboflavin.

Together, meat nutrients have an impact on normal metabolism, the functioning of immune, antioxidant, thyroid, and nervous systems, our senses of taste and smell, and the formation of red blood cells, hormones, and muscle tissue.

Calorie needs decrease with weight loss efforts and with normal aging, while protein needs during these times remain stable or may increase.

Popular cuts of meat are leaner than ever, including pork 9 and beef.

Closing thoughts

Clearly, scientific research affirms that meat and poultry are packed with essential and highly absorbable nutrients and can play a vital role in a healthy diet. Meat and poultry, eaten in combination with other recommended foods, also can optimize the nutrition that people derive from their balanced diets. Like sports teams that succeed when players use their strengths and work together, meat and poultry products are key players on the nutrition team.


  • [1]Dietary Guidelines for Americans. http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/Publications/DietaryGuidelines/2010/PolicyDoc/PolicyDoc.pdf.
  • [2]MyPlate.http://www.choosemyplate.gov.
  • [3 ]USDA Food Composition Database. http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/search/list.
  • [4] Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets (2009). http://www.eatright.org/About/Content.aspx?id=8357.
  • [5] Allen LH (2008). How common is vitamin B-12 deficiency? http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/89/2/693S.long.
  • [6] Lim KH, et al (2013). Iron and zinc nutrition in the economically-developed world: a review. http://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/5/8/3184.
  • [7]Foster, M, et al. Effect of vegetarian diets on zinc status: A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies in humans. J. Sci. Food Agric. 2013;93:2362–71.
  • [8] Iron and Iron Deficiency. http://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/everyone/basics/vitamins/iron.html.
  • [9]http://www.porkbeinspired.com/NutritionArticle_TodaysPorkLeanerThanEver.aspx#sthash.APCH4dwM.dpuf
  • [10]US FDA, http://www.fda.gov/food/guidanceregulation/guidancedocumentsregulatoryinformation/labelingnutrition/ucm064928.htm