Carne asada, Spanish for “grilled meat,” is a popular dish in Mexican cuisine consisting of grilled and sliced beef. It is often marinated in citrus juice, garlic, cilantro, and spices before being grilled. Carne asada can be served as an entree or used as a taco or burrito filling. While flavorful and satisfying, some people wonder whether eating carne asada regularly can be part of a healthy diet.
Nutritional profile of carne asada
The nutritional value of carne asada depends largely on how it is prepared. A 3-ounce portion of grilled flank steak with no added fat contains approximately:
- Calories: 175
- Protein: 26 grams
- Fat: 8 grams
- Saturated fat: 3 grams
- Carbohydrates: 0 grams
Flank steak is a lean cut of beef, meaning it is lower in fat and calories than fattier cuts like ribeye or brisket. However, marinades and cooking methods can significantly increase the calorie and fat content of carne asada:
- Marinating in oil-based marinades adds significant fat and calories.
- Cooking over an open flame or broiling can allow fat to drip away, while grilling indirectly or pan-frying may reabsorb some fat.
- Serving with tortillas, cheese, guacamole, and sour cream will increase carbs, fat, and calories.
So while a plain grilled steak may be lean, the typical carne asada plate often ends up being relatively high in calories, fat, and sodium. The preparation method greatly impacts its nutritional value.
Potential benefits of carne asada
Within a balanced diet, carne asada can provide some potential benefits:
- Protein: Beef is an excellent source of protein, providing all of the essential amino acids needed to build and maintain muscle. Protein is also filling and takes longer to digest than carbohydrates.
- B Vitamins: Beef contains B vitamins like niacin, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12. These support energy metabolism and red blood cell production.
- Selenium: Beef is a good source of selenium, a mineral that acts as an antioxidant and supports immune function.
- Zinc: Necessary for immune health, protein synthesis, and DNA production, beef provides a significant amount of the mineral zinc.
- Iron: As a lean cut, flank steak contains less heme-iron than fattier cuts, but still provides a moderate amount of an important mineral that prevents anemia.
So while not loaded with vitamins and minerals, carne asada can be a filling protein source that provides certain nutrients like B vitamins, selenium, and zinc.
Potential downsides of regularly eating carne asada
Eating carne asada, especially in large portions or multiple times a week, may potentially have some downsides as well:
- Saturated fat and cholesterol: Even when grilled, flank steak contains saturated fat and cholesterol, which in excess can negatively impact heart health.
- Cancer risk from charring: Cooking beef at high temperatures like grilling over an open flame can produce cancer-causing compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
- Increased inflammation: Some research indicates diets high in red meat may cause low-grade chronic inflammation, which is associated with diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
- Higher TMAO levels: Trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) is a compound made by gut bacteria during digestion that may contribute to heart disease. Beef appears to raise TMAO levels more than other meats.
- Heme iron: While iron is necessary, the type found in beef (heme) may be associated with increased cancer and heart disease risk compared to non-heme iron from plants.
Moderating portion sizes and avoiding charring, along with choosing healthier cooking methods like grilling indirectly, can help minimize exposure to some of these compounds when eating carne asada.
Carne asada in the context of a healthy diet
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting intake of saturated fat to less than 10% of daily calories and keeping overall red meat consumption, including beef, to no more than 12-18 ounces per week. Some evidence suggests limiting red meat to just 1-2 servings per week may have additional health benefits.
Enjoying carne asada occasionally as part of an overall healthy diet featuring plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds is unlikely to pose major health risks. However, eating it in large portions several times a week could potentially increase risks of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers.
Here are some tips for healthy ways to enjoy carne asada infrequently as part of a balanced diet:
- Choose leaner cuts like flank steak and limit portion size to about 3-4 ounces.
- Skip frying and instead grill using indirect heat to avoid charring.
- Limit high-calorie additions like cheese, sour cream, and guacamole.
- Eat on whole grain tortillas or wraps instead of white flour.
- Fill half the plate with veggies to reduce overall meat intake.
- Avoid eating carne asada more than once or twice a month.
Carne asada prep methods and health
How carne asada is prepared can significantly impact its nutritional value and health effects. Here is how different marinades, cooking methods, and add-ons can alter the nutrition of carne asada:
|Prep Method||Impact on Nutrition & Health|
|Oil-based marinade||Adds significant calories and fat, potentially less healthy than citrus and herb marinade|
|Broiling||Allows fat to drip away, minimizing fat intake|
|Grilling over open flame||Can produce carcinogenic compounds with charring|
|Grilling over indirect heat||Reduces exposure to smoke and charring|
|Pan-frying||Increases fat absorption and caloric density|
|Serving with tortillas and taco toppings||Significantly increases calories, carbs, fat, and sodium|
Choosing healthy cooking methods and watching portion sizes of additions like cheese and sour cream allows enjoying the rich flavor of carne asada while limiting negative health impacts.
Potential health risks of eating carne asada
Research on the health effects of red meat consumption indicates regularly eating carne asada may potentially contribute to:
- Heart disease: The saturated fat and cholesterol in beef raises LDL cholesterol, and carnitine in red meat may also contribute to atherosclerosis.
- Type 2 diabetes: Heme iron and saturated fat may promote insulin resistance, a key factor in diabetes development.
- Cancer: Compounds like HCAs and PAHs created by high-heat cooking are carcinogenic. Heme iron may also increase cancer formation.
- Increased inflammation: Saturated fat and TMAO from digesting beef may trigger inflammatory processes underlying chronic diseases.
- Gut microbiome changes: The TMAO produced during beef digestion may reduce microbial diversity in the gut, which is tied to health.
While moderate intake is likely fine for most people, regularly eating large amounts of carne asada could potentially amplify these risks. Further research is still needed on whether any risk can be mitigated by healthy prep methods.
Comparative health impacts of carne asada, chicken, and fish
Compared to other animal protein sources like chicken and fish, carne asada generally has the highest amounts of saturated fat, the most potential for carcinogen formation from cooking, and a greater impact on TMAO levels. In moderation, each can be part of a healthy diet, but carne asada should likely be limited intake due to higher potential health risks.
|Food||Saturated Fat||Cancer Risk from Cooking||Impact on TMAO|
While carne asada is quite flavorful, limiting intake due to higher health risks and substituting with poultry, fish, legumes, or meatless alternatives may be beneficial for health.
Guidelines for healthy carne asada intake
To gain the benefits of carne asada’s rich flavor and protein while minimizing potential negative impacts, these intake guidelines may help:
- Limit carne asada to no more than 3-4 ounces 1-2 times per month.
- Choose lean cuts like flank steak and trim visible fat before cooking.
- Avoid charring by grilling over indirect heat and flipping frequently.
- Use fresh citrus and herb marinades instead of oil-based ones.
- Fill half your plate with non-starchy veggies to limit meat portion size.
- Pair with whole grains like brown rice or quinoa instead of tortillas.
- Avoid extra sour cream, cheese, guacamole, and salty taco toppings.
Enjoyed occasionally in reasonable portions and as part of an overall nutritious diet, carne asada can be included without major concerns for your long-term health.
Carne asada is a popular grilled beef dish in Mexican cuisine. While it provides protein, vitamins, and minerals, regular high intake may potentially increase risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Limiting portions to 3-4 ounces no more than 1-2 times per month, avoiding charring, and choosing healthy cooking methods can help mitigate negative impacts. Overall, carne asada can be enjoyed in moderation as part of an otherwise nutrient-rich, plant-focused diet for optimal health.