3/5 experts say no.
Cue the sound of a thousand grills shedding a summer-hot tear: burgers, as we know them, are not a health food, most of our experts agree.
But there might be some wiggle room there, depending on what’s in your patty. “Fatty beef from dubiously fed cattle, slathered in sugary ketchup and placed between two haves of a refined flour bun? No thanks,” says David Katz, MD, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. Same for any beef burger not made with 90-97% lean ground beef, says Julia Zumpano, a registered dietitian in preventive cardiology at Cleveland Clinic.
However, Kristi King, senior clinical dietitian at Texas Children’s Hospital, gives a thumbs up to burgers in moderation and in proper portion sizes; burgers are high in protein, vitamin B12 and iron, she says. Plus, says Zumpano, if you make the burgers yourself, you can control the ingredients and maximize the better-for-you elements while cutting down on the more harmful ones.
Moderation, of course, is the key word. Eating beef burgers regularly isn’t a good idea for a few reasons, says Erica Frank, MD, professor and Canada research chair in preventive medicine and population health at the University of British Columbia. Beef burgers are loaded with saturated fat, she points out; an ungarnished fast-food cheeseburger has 29% of your daily FDA-recommended limit.
Then, of course, every burger comes with a large side of environmental issues. Beef isn’t the most sustainable meat to produce. “Raising a cow takes a huge amount of water,” she says—between 4,000-18,000 gallons for a hamburger, according to the U.S. Geographical Survey. Livestock production is a large contributor to climate change, she says, and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations says the livestock sector is responsible for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
“The reality is that global demand for meat is increasing nearly 2 percent a year,” says Rebecca Shaw, PhD, associate vice president and senior lead scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. “As incomes rise, so does demand for meat protein.” Plant-based proteins can help ease that load, but “the bottom line is that we need to make beef, pork and poultry as sustainable as possible,” she says. One way to make burgers better for the earth is to change the way we raise a primary source of cow feed: U.S. corn, nearly 40 percent of which goes towards animal chow, Shaw says. “The low-hanging fruit is to grow this corn more sustainably by reducing excess fertilizer used to grow the corn,” she says. “This will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve water quality.”
Choosing grass-fed—instead of corn-fed—meat is one way to earn burgers a slightly higher rating in Katz’s opinion; you have his permission to plate grass-fed beef bison on a whole-grain bun with slices of tomato, onion, avocado and lettuce. He gives a “definite yes,” though, to his wife’s special: a mix of lean, free-range ground turkey and lentils, patted atop a homemade whole-wheat bun with vegetables and salsa.