The Healthiest Way to Cook Steak

A juicy steak doesn’t have to be a nutritional disaster. Find out how experts say to select, prep, and cook beef for maximum enjoyment and health.

woman finishing seasoning steaks in pan in kitchen
If you're going to use a high-heat cooking method like sautéing for steak, a marinade can help prevent unwanted chemical reactions.Alina Rosanova/iStock
“Plant-based diets” have been a health buzzword for a while now, and more people are giving up or limiting meat, especially red meat, whether because of the potential health risks or due to concerns about the impact of conventional livestock farming on the environment.

Still, the occasional steak can feel like a celebration, and does have some nutritional perks — things like iron, zinc, selenium, and B vitamins.

?When it comes to your health, a lot of red meat’s impact depends on how much you eat.
“The connection between meat and chronic diseases is nuanced,” says Sarah Anzlovar, RDN, a Boston-based intuitive eating dietitian for moms. “Ultimately, diets high in red meat are associated with increased risk of many cancers, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and more.” The research linking red meat to poor health outcomes is rather weak, however.

And, Anzlovar adds, that does not mean red meat alone leads to those outcomes. Research has found that people who eat a lot of red meat tend to have other risk factors for chronic diseases, such as smoking, not getting a lot of physical activity, and skimping on fruits and vegetables.

“My advice is to consume processed meats as little as possible and to eat fresh meat in small portions,” says Christine M. Palumbo, RDN, a nutrition consultant from Naperville, Illinois.

If you do decide to enjoy the occasional steak, there are other ways to ensure it’s as healthy as possible, from the specific cut you choose to how you prep and cook it. Consider this the ultimate guide for health-conscious steak lovers.

Health Benefits of Steak

“Beef, including steak, provides more than 10 essential nutrients and a significant amount of protein,” says Palumbo. It’s considered a “complete protein,” which means it contains all nine of the essential amino acids (which are compounds your body uses to make protein) that your body isn’t able to make on its own.

Just know that “incomplete proteins” (like those in nuts and vegetables) are still plenty good for you. “The whole idea of a complete protein being 'better' is an old myth — as long as you're eating a variety of foods, even incomplete proteins, you can easily meet your protein needs,” says Anzlovar.

One of the reasons steak, like other red meat, tends to get a bad rap is the high amount of saturated fat it contains. But not all steak has the same amount or kind of fat. There are cuts of beef that qualify as lean choices.

For example, here’s the nutritional breakdown for a 3-ounce (oz) serving of sirloin steak (which is considered a lean cut) with the visible fat trimmed off:

  • Calories: 186
  • Protein: 25 grams (g)
  • Fat: 9g
  • Carbohydrates: 0
  • Vitamin B12: 1.6 micrograms (?g)
  • Zinc: 4.4milligrams (mg)
  • Selenium: 26.8?g
  • Niacin: 6.7mg
  • Vitamin B6: 0.5mg
  • Phosphorous: 185mg
  • Riboflavin: 0.1mg
  • Iron: 1.7mg
  • Choline: 93.5mg

How to Buy the Healthiest Steak

If you tend to get overwhelmed every time you head to the meat counter at your grocery store, you’re not alone. These tips can help you get the most nutritious bang for your buck when selecting steak.

Know What Cuts Are Lean

“The leanest cuts are the healthiest,” says Anzlovar. A steak like ribeye can have more than double the fat content of a 3-oz sirloin.

?And saturated fat is typically prevalent in red meat, which can raise your LDL “bad” cholesterol levels, upping your odds of developing heart disease.

Filet, which comes from the tenderloin, is typically the leanest cut, but flank or skirt steak, sirloin, and top round steak are also considered lean.

Pay Attention to the Grade

Meat also gets put into a grading system, where it’s labeled “prime,” “choice” or “select.” Ideally you’ll want to choose a “choice” or “select” cut because “prime” cuts typically have more fat.

Go With Grass-Fed

Conventionally, cows are fed on grains, usually corn. Studies done on the meat of pasture-raised cattle that graze on grass found that grass-fed beef (sometimes called grass-finished beef) has less total fat compared with grain-fed, and also contains healthy omega-3 fats including conjugated lineolic acid (CLA).

If You Want to Splurge, Go for a Premium Variety

Regional styles of steak include Wagyu (from Japan) and Hanwoo (from Korea). Both varieties are considered “highly marbled,” meaning there’s fat dispersed throughout the cut. While this might seem problematic from a health standpoint, one review of research shows these two types of beef actually contain more heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids compared to other meat varieties.

?That being said, Wagyu and Hanwoo beef is expensive, and you’ll likely only see them on the menu at high end restaurants or available at upscale butchers.

The Healthiest Way to Prep and Cook Steak

Once you’ve gotten your steaks home, here’s what you need to know about the healthiest way to prep and cook them.

Make a Marinade

Marinades can be a great and low-calorie way to infuse steak with flavor. Just be careful with commercially prepared marinades, which may have excess sugar or sodium. A simple herb-based marinade can help reduce the unhealthy compounds that form when cooking meat at high temperatures, research shows.

?The marinade essentially acts as a barrier between the meat and flame, preventing the formation of unhealthy compounds. Also, the antioxidants found in some herbs like rosemary might help prevent the cancer-causing compounds from forming.

?“Marinate meat in the refrigerator with commercial or home made marinade for 20 minutes or less — any longer and you risk turning your meat mushy,” says Palumbo.

Keep the Heat Low

While tossing steaks on the grill is a common way to cook them, high temperature cooking may be problematic from a health standpoint (for lower-heat cooking options, try a slow cooker or test out the sous vide method). “Cooking meat, as well as poultry and fish, at high temperatures can create heterocyclic amines [HCAs] which are known to cause cancer in animals,” says Palumbo.

?According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, there’s just not enough information to say that grilling meat specifically raises risks for cancers.

Still, it’s worth knowing charcoal is a higher-heat cooking method than gas grilling.

You can strike a happy medium by combining high-heat and low-heat cooking methods.

?“One method is to do a reverse sear, where you first cook it in the oven, followed by searing it on the grill or in a frying pan,” says Palumbo.

Get the Temperature Right

Steak should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees F and let rest for at least three minutes to eliminate potential disease-causing pathogens.

?“Cooking to a proper internal temperature is important for food safety,” says Anzlovar. “While most meat can safely be served rare, medium rare, or well done, it is important to know that steak that is not fully cooked may come with some risk of food-borne illness.” This risk is most important for pregnant women. How thoroughly cooked you want your meat is a matter of personal preference, says Palumbo, but if you are concerned about HCAs, avoiding a well-done steak may help. “Grilling steak at high heat may increase possible carcinogenic compounds. The best thing to do is to make sure not to char it,” says Anzlovar.

Watch Your Portions

“The recommended portion is 3 oz cooked, or about the size of a deck of cards,” says Palumbo. “If you plan to splurge with a larger portion, reduce your consumption of red meat later in the week.”

?Anzlovar also suggests mixing up your proteins. “Steak and other red meat may be one type of protein you eat, but variety is key and I don't recommend it being the primary protein in your diet,” she says.

How to Serve Steak as Part of a Healthy Meal

“In general, less is more when it comes to toppings,” says Anzlovar. That means letting the flavor of your meat “shine” without using a bottled steak sauce that can contain sodium, sugar, and other questionable additives. For example, 1 tablespoon of steak sauce can contain 2 g of sugar and almost 300 mg of sodium (12 percent of your daily value).

?“There’s no shame in simply keeping it simple with a little shake of salt and some freshly ground black pepper,” says Palumbo.
Or, you could whip up some chimichurri, which brings in healthy fats from the olive oil and antioxidants from herbs, says Anzlovar. Just be wary of toppings like garlic butter, which add saturated fat to a meat that’s already full of it.

While steak is traditionally paired with potatoes, a produce- or whole grain–based side is a better choice. “I always recommend serving steak alongside vegetables and a nutrient-rich carb like farro or quinoa salad,” says Anzlovar. “This adds foods that are known to reduce risk of cancer, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, which may counteract some of the possible risk of the steak.”

The Takeaway

“Steak can be a delicious way to help you meet your protein needs,” says Anzlovar.

And while the science on whether and to what degree red meat contributes to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses hasn’t been entirely settled yet, most experts agree that steak, in moderation, can be a healthy protein — and even healthier if you follow these guidelines for preparing and enjoying it,

Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

Everyday Health follows strict sourcing guidelines to ensure the accuracy of its content, outlined in our editorial policy. We use only trustworthy sources, including peer-reviewed studies, board-certified medical experts, patients with lived experience, and information from top institutions.

Sources

  1. Lescinsky H et al. People’s Values and Preferences About Meat Consumption in View of the Potential Environmental Impacts of Meat: A Mixed-Methods Systematic Review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. December 24, 2022.
  2. Klurfeld DM. What Is the Role of Meat in a Healthy Diet? Animal Frontiers. July 7, 2018.
  3. Lescinsky H et al. Health Effects Associated With Consumption of Unprocessed Red Meat: A Burden of Proof Study. Nature Medicine. October 10, 2022.
  4. Jo?o Gregório M et al. Dietary Patterns Characterized by High Meat Consumption Are Associated With Other Unhealthy Life Styles and Depression Symptoms. Frontiers in Nutrition. July 14, 2017.
  5. What Are Complete Proteins? Cleveland Clinic. December 5, 2022.
  6. How Do I Choose Lean Meat and Poultry? U.S. Department of Agriculture. January 4, 2024.
  7. Beef, Top Sirloin, Steak, Separable Lean and Fat, Trimmed to 0" Fat, Choice, Cooked, Broiled. U.S. Department of Agriculture. April 1, 2019.
  8. Beef, Rib Eye Steak, Boneless, Lip-On, Separable Lean and Fat, Trimmed to 1/8" Fat, All Grades, Cooked, Grilled. U.S. Department of Agriculture. April 1, 2019.
  9. Is Red Meat Bad for You? Cleveland Clinic. February 14, 2024.
  10. Cuts of Beef: A Guide to the Leanest Selections. Mayo Clinic. November 21, 2023.
  11. Nogoy KMC et al. Fatty Acid Composition of Grain- and Grass-Fed Beef and Their Nutritional Value and Health Implication. Food Science for Animal Resources. January 1, 2022.
  12. Gotoh T et al. Characteristics and Health Benefit of Highly Marbled Wagyu and Hanwoo Beef. Korean Journal for Food Science. December 31, 2016.
  13. Bernstein N. A Starter Guide to Wagyu Beef. Wine Enthusiast. December 31, 2016.
  14. Smith JS et al. Effect of Marinades on the Formation of Heterocyclic Amines in Grilled Beef Steaks. Journal of Food Science. August 2008.
  15. Practicing Safe Grilling Can Reduce Cancer Risk, Experts Say. American Institute for Cancer Research. July 6, 2021.
  16. Patarata L et al. Heterocyclic Aromatic Amines in Meat: Formation, Isolation, Risk Assessment, and Inhibitory Effect of Plant Extracts. Foods. June 24, 2021.
  17. Mcclusky M. Grilling Over Gas Is Objectively, Scientifically Better Than Grilling Over Charcoal. Wired. May 9, 2021.
  18. Cancer Researchers Issue Yearly Warning on Safer Grilling. American Institute for Cancer Research. May 17, 2016.
  19. Author: Safe Minimum Internal Temperature Chart. U.S. Department of Agriculture. May 11, 2020.
  20. Picking Healthy Proteins. American Heart Association. November 1, 2021.
  21. Steak Sauce. U.S. Department of Agriculture. April 1, 2019.
  22. The Skinny on Fats. American Heart Association. February 20, 2024.
  23. Vegetables and Fruits. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
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