According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Americans consume around 0.7 pounds of lamb meat each year. (1) In other countries around the world, such as Greece, lamb is eaten much more regularly than in the United Sates. Maybe you have never given lamb a try or maybe you already love it, but either way, you may be wondering if lamb is a healthy meat choice.
So is lamb healthy? In moderation, lamb is an excellent source of protein and vital nutrients like iron, zinc, selenium and vitamin B12. (2) Is lamb red meat? Yes, lamb is a type of red meat and you probably know that red meat often gets a bad rep, but high-quality red meats like grass-fed beef and grass-fed lamb are excellent and truly healthy protein sources in moderation.
I’m about to answer a lot of common questions about lambs, including what is a lamb, the difference between lamb and sheep, how lamb can boost your health, and also some of the tastiest and healthiest lamb recipes around. So let’s find out just what lamb meat is all about.
What Is Lamb Meat?
Lamb does fall into the red meat category. What makes a meat a “red meat”? The amount of myoglobin in animal muscles determines the color of the animal’s meat. Red meats have a high myoglobin content, which is a protein found in muscle that changes to red when it’s mixed with oxygen. As a red meat, lamb inherently contains more zinc and iron than non-red meats.
One ounce of regular lamb (not grass-fed) has the same number of calories as grass-fed beef but actually has more health-promoting omega 3 fatty acids. People also get worried about lamb’s fat content, but lamb actually can have less marbling of fat within the meat compared to beef. Most of lamb meat’s fat is around the outside and can easily be trimmed.
What is lamb? Lamb, yearling mutton (or hogget) and mutton all come from the same animal, which is the domestic sheep (Ovis aries). What sets these names or classifications apart is the sheep’s age. A baby lamb is a sheep that’s under one year old, and the meat that comes from a sheep at this young age is called lamb. So if someone asks, “Lamb vs. sheep, what’s the difference?” — now you know that lamb is a baby version of a sheep, the meat is called lamb and the animals at this age are also called lambs.
Lamb typically has a milder flavor compared to mutton. So what is mutton then? The common mutton definition is flesh of a mature sheep at least one year old. So mutton is the meat of a sheep that’s over the age of one. There’s also yearling mutton or hogget, which are usually between one and two years of age.
As for lamb meat, lamb nutrition is highly impressive. For example, just three ounces of lamb contains approximately the following: (3)
- 160 calories
- 23.5 grams protein
- 6.6 grams fat (2.7 grams monounsaturated fat)
- 2.7 micrograms vitamin B12 (45 percent DV)
- 4.4 milligrams zinc (30 percent DV)
- 4.9 milligrams niacin (24 percent DV)
- 0.4 milligram riboflavin (21 percent DV)
- 0.4 milligram vitamin B6 (20 percent DV)
- 201 milligrams phosphorus (20 percent DV)
- 9.2 micrograms selenium (13 percent DV)
- 2.1 milligrams iron (12 percent DV)
- 301 milligrams potassium (9 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligram thiamine (8 percent DV)
- 0.8 milligram pantothenic acid (8 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligram copper (7 percent DV)
- 22.1 milligrams magnesium (6 percent DV)
1. Excellent Iron Source
As a red meat, lamb inherently has a lot more iron than other protein sources like chicken or fish. In addition, since lamb is an animal source of iron, it contains heme iron rather than the non-heme iron found in plants. Heme iron is the more absorbable form of iron so consuming red meat like lamb can help to improve and prevent iron deficiency and anemia symptoms.
How much more absorbable is the heme iron in lamb meat than non-heme plant iron? According to the National Institutes of Health, the bioavailability of iron is approximately 14 percent to 18 percent when someone consumes a diet that includes significant quantities of meat, seafood as well as vitamin C, which boosts iron absorption. For vegetarian eaters, the bioavailability of iron from their meat-free diets is significantly lower at only 5 percent to 12 percent. (4)
2. Nervous System Health Promoter
The National Institute of Health’s Dietary Office estimates that somewhere between 1.5 percent to 15 percent of people in the U.S. are deficient in vitamin B12. (5) Other studies, like one published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2000, indicate that this number might be even higher, with up to 39 percent of the population possibly suffering from a vitamin B12 deficiency. (6) Lamb is an awesome source of B12 with just three ounces of lamb meat providing just under half of most people’s daily B12 requirements.
But that’s not all — lamb is also loaded with other essential B vitamins, including vitamin B6, niacin (vitamin B3), riboflavin (vitamin B2) and pantothenic acid (vitamin B5). Vitamin B12 as well as these other B vitamins help our nervous systems function as they should, and vitamin B12 ensures that the actual nerve cells are in a healthy state. (7) In case you’re not entirely sure why the nervous system is so important, this system is essentially the body’s electrical wiring that’s responsible for helping the entire body properly communicate and function.
3. Immune Booster
As you can see from the nutrition info in this article, lamb is also loaded with immune-boosting zinc. This nutrient can be found in cells throughout our bodies, and it’s absolutely essential to optimal immune health, along with wound healing, DNA and protein synthesis, as well as growth and development in children.
When it comes to immune health, if you don’t get enough zinc on a regular basis, your immune system is not going to function as it should, which means you’re more likely to have all kinds of health problems ranging from the common cold to more serious infections like pneumonia. (8)
Consuming lamb meat and other zinc-rich foods can help keep your zinc levels in a healthy place and boost your overall immune function. In addition, zinc helps enable optimal senses of taste and smell (two very important things when you’re consuming some tasty lamb meat).
4. Rich Source of Healthy Fats like Omega-3 Fatty Acids and CLA
Lamb does contain fat, but a significant portion of that fat is anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. In fact, most pieces of lamb contain even more omega-3s than beef. Many people are aware of the many benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, but not too many realize that lamb meat is a noteworthy source of these healthy fatty acids.
Grass-fed lamb meat also provides its consumers with conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). (9) CLA is the name given to group of chemicals found in the fatty acid called linoleic acid. Why is it so awesome that lamb contains this group of chemicals? For starters, CLA has been shown to help aid fat loss, improve lean muscle mass and animal studies have even shown it may be a potential cancer fighter (especially breast cancer) in humans. (10, 11, 12)
5. Protein Powerhouse
As a type of meat and, more specifically, a type of red meat, lamb is loaded with vital protein. Just one three-ounce serving of lamb meat contains over 23 grams of protein. Protein intake is important to everyone, but the more active you are, the more important it is that you get enough protein in your diet. Protein does so much for the body, including providing it with slow-burning, sustainable fuel. It also helps your body build, repair and maintain muscle mass.
The protein found in lamb meat is made of essential amino acids, which can only be obtained through our diets. Animal protein sources like lamb meat are considered “complete proteins” because they contain all essential amino acids. Other non-meat protein sources, like vegetables, grains and nuts, typically do not contain at least one or more essential amino acids. (13)
How to Cook
Lamb meat is typically available fresh and/or frozen at your nearest grocery store. Many health stores carry lamb meat too, and much of the time it’s local lamb meat. As with any meat, always opt for local lamb meat when you can.
It’s also best to buy organic and grass-fed to get the highest-quality lamb meat possible. Just like grass-fed beef has a bumped-up array of nutrients and health benefits, so does grass-fed lamb meat. Grass-fed lamb is significantly higher in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. If your goal is to get a piece of lamb that’s lower in fat, opt for cuts from the leg or the loin. You can also trim all visible fat on any cut of lamb you buy.
There are a lot of ways to use and cook lamb meat. Many fans of lamb really love lamb loin chops, which are said to be one of the most tender cuts of lamb meat. In the culinary world, lamb loin chops are sometimes referred to as “the porterhouse steak of the lamb” to give you a beef comparison. (14)
A Garlic Lamb Roast Recipe and other rack of lamb recipes are very popular, especially around holidays like Easter and Passover, or for other large gatherings. But if you want to cut down the price, time and effort, you can make Herb-Roasted Lamb Chops at home.
Some key USDA guidelines for buying and cooking lamb meat include:
- Make lamb the last thing you put in your grocery cart, and put it in a plastic bag before putting it in your cart.
- Refrigerate the lamb meat right when you get home at a temperature of 40 degrees F or less.
- Rinsing raw lamb meat before cooking is not necessary.
- Cook lamb patties and ground lamb mixtures to a safe minimum internal temperature of 160°F as measured by a food thermometer.
- Cook all lamb organs and other parts (such as heart, kidney, liver and tongue) to 160°F.
- Cook all raw lamb steaks, chops and roasts to a minimum internal temperature of 145°F.
- For safety and quality, allow cooked lamb meat to rest for at least three minutes before carving or consuming.
- Use cooked lamb within two hours or one hour if the air temperature is greater than 90°F.
- Use ground lamb or stew meat within one to two days; lamb chops, roasts and steaks within three to five days; or freeze at 0°F or below.
- Lamb kept frozen continuously is considered safe indefinitely.
In case you’re at a loss for a delicious lamb recipe, here are some of my favorite ways to consume lamb. These lamb recipes are loaded with flavor as well as nutrients:
Lamb has been considered a religious symbol, specifically a symbol of sacrifice, since ancient times. When humans started domesticating animals, sheep were one of the first animals on the domestication list. To this day, lamb is very often the main course of a Easter meal or a Passover seder.
Why is lamb the meat of choice at these religious meals? Roast lamb was first eaten at Passover by people of the Jewish faith. The symbolic meaning of this lamb consumption goes back to the Bible and a story in Exodus. This story describes how people in Egypt were experiencing the death of firstborn sons among other calamities. This is when Jews put the blood of a sacrificed lamb on their doorposts in hopes that God would “pass over” them and they would avoid any tragedies.
When some Jewish people began switching over to Christianity, they brought the lamb-eating tradition to Easter. In addition, Christians commonly refer to Jesus as the “Lamb of God,” so it makes sense that the food shows up at Easter meals when Christians are commemorating the resurrection of Jesus after his sacrifice. (15) That’s why it’s one the top 10 Bible foods that heal.
On a per capita basis, New Zealand, Australia, Greece, Uruguay and Ireland are the top consumers of lamb and mutton. If you see “spring lamb” on a lamb meat label, it means that the lamb was slaughtered between March and October. Lamb meat is often paired with mint jelly, especially in British cuisine. French recipes tend to advise cooking lamb for less time.
Risks and Side Effects
It’s possible to be allergic to any type of meat. If you experience a stuffy nose, a runny nose, feel nauseous or suddenly have a rash after consuming lamb, then it’s possible that you’re allergic to lamb. Discontinue consumption of lamb and seek medical attention if allergic reaction symptoms are severe. If you’re not sure if you’re allergic to lamb, food allergy testing is a mart idea. (16)
Lamb, like other red meat, does contain a significant amount of cholesterol so it should be enjoyed in moderation, especially if you have high cholesterol. Trimming lamb fat can help keep the cholesterol levels of lamb meat down.
Follow all USDA guidelines for purchasing, handling and cooking to ensure safety of the lamb meat you’re consuming.
Another concerning fact about lamb meat is the environment impact of consuming it. According to the Environmental Working Group, lamb has the highest emissions: (17)
Lamb has the greatest impact, generating 39.3 kg (86.4 lbs) of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) for each kilo eaten – about 50 percent more than beef. While beef and lamb generate comparable amounts of methane and require similar quantities of feed, lamb generates more emissions per kilo in part because it produces less edible meat relative to the sheep’s live weight. Since just one percent of the meat consumed by Americans is lamb, however, it contributes very little to overall U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
This is even more reason to consume lamb in moderation, and you should be aware how much you consume. You certainly don’t want to overdo it, both for your own health and the health of the environment.
So are you thinking about having some lamb chops for dinner tonight? In moderation, high-quality (organic and grass-fed) lamb meat is an awesome, healthy protein source that offers a wide range of concentrated and health-boosting nutrients.
For instance, lamb is an excellent iron source, nervous system health promoter, immune booster, rich source of healthy fats and protein powerhouse.
Lamb is often forgotten about or overlooked on restaurant menus and grocery lists, but after reading this article and trying out some of my lamb recipes, I think you just may want to add lamb to your rotation of healthy meat options.