Does Red Meat Cause Inflammation? | Chris Kresser
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Does Red Meat Cause Inflammation?

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Sources of red meat, such as this steak, may cause inflammation. iStock.com/eddieberman

So far in my series on red meat, I’ve discussed why red meat is good for you and why grass fed is a better choice than grain fed. We now know that red meat is a healthy choice, due to its high nutritive value and superior fatty acid profile among other reasons. In the comments on these posts, however, I’ve noticed a few readers have mentioned other components in red meat that are concerning, due to evidence for the potential for inflammation or carcinogenesis.

Yet is this evidence strong enough to advise a reduction in red meat, or is this yet another false alarm creating unnecessary fear of eating meat?

Red meat and inflammation: another myth bites the dust.Tweet This

Two different controlled trials have measured inflammation markers in response to increased red meat intake, and both have found that red meat does not elevate these markers. The first study concludes that increasing red meat consumption by replacing carbohydrates in the diet of non-anemic individuals actually reduces markers of inflammation. (1) The other study showed that in anemic women, inflammation markers on a diet high in red meat were not significantly different from those on a diet high in oily fish. (2) This evidence suggests that red meat is not more inflammatory than other meats for most people, and is potentially less inflammatory than dietary carbohydrates. However, I’d like to discuss a couple of other specific mechanisms that are often blamed for inflammation.

Neu5Gc

Despite the lack of controlled trials demonstrating that red meat is inflammatory, there has been recent concern over a compound in red meat called Neu5Gc. (3) Neu5Gc is a monosaccharide that acts as a type of signaling molecule in mammalian cells, and one of its functions is to help the immune system distinguish between ‘self’ cells and ‘foreign’ cells. (4) Humans lost the ability to produce Neu5Gc millions of years ago through a genetic mutation, although we still produce the closely related compound Neu5Ac. (5) Humans are unique in this respect, because most other mammals still produce Neu5Gc, which is why that compound is found in mammalian meat.

When humans consume red meat and milk products, we incorporate some of this compound into our own tissues, especially tissues that grow at a fast pace such as fetuses, epithelial and endothelial tissue, and tumors. (6) The concern is that most of us also have anti-Neu5Gc antibodies circulating in our blood, and some researchers have suggested that these antibodies react with the Neu5Gc in our tissues to create chronic inflammation, leading to chronic diseases such as cancer.

The problem is that researchers are nowhere near proving that hypothesis. Research is in the very earliest stages, and while some fascinating hypotheses involving this molecule are being generated, the studies needed to confirm or refute these hypotheses are nonexistent. Most of the studies done on the topic acknowledge that at this point, any role in chronic inflammation is speculative, but many who have cited their research neglect to acknowledge that limitation. Thus begins a new round of fear mongering at the expense of red meat.

In the absence of conclusive evidence one way or another, it can be helpful to remember that red meat has been part of the human diet for much of our history, and remains an important dietary element of many healthy cultures. For example, the traditional diet of the Masai was composed almost entirely of red meat, blood, and milk – all high in Neu5Gc – yet they were free from modern inflammatory diseases. (7) If Neu5Gc really caused significant inflammation, the Masai should’ve been the first to know, because they probably couldn’t have designed a diet higher in Neu5Gc if they tried.

Arachidonic Acid

Arachidonic acid (AA) is often cited as a source of inflammation, and because AA is found primarily in eggs and meat, this concern could contribute to the view that red meat is inflammatory. AA is an essential omega-6 fatty acid that is a vital component of cell membranes and plays an important role in the inflammatory response. (8) It’s especially necessary during periods of bodily growth or repair, and is thus a natural and important component of breast milk. (9) AA is sometimes portrayed as something to be avoided entirely simply because it is ‘inflammatory,’ but as usual, that view drastically oversimplifies what actually happens in the body.

It’s true that AA plays a role in inflammation, but that’s a good thing! It ensures that our body responds properly to a physical insult or pathogen, and it also helps ensure that the inflammatory response is turned off when it’s no longer needed. AA interacts with other omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in intricate and subtle ways, and an imbalance in any of those fats has undesirable effects. For example, low doses of EPA tend to increase tissue levels of AA, while high doses decrease levels of AA, which probably explains why the benefits of fish oil supplementation are lost at higher doses. (10)  In epidemiological studies, higher plasma levels of both AA and the long-chain omega-3 PUFA were associated with the lowest levels of inflammatory markers. (11, 12) And clinical studies have found that adding up to 1,200 mg of AA per day—which is 12 times higher than the average intake of AA in the U.S.— to the diet has no discernible effect on the production of inflammatory cytokines. (13, 14) What’s more, our Paleolithic ancestors (who were largely free of chronic, inflammatory disease) consumed at least twice the amount of AA that the average American does today. (15)

Finally, it’s important to note that red meat actually has a lower concentration of AA than other meats because of its lower overall PUFA content. (16)(17) Additionally, red meat has been shown to increase tissue concentrations of both AA and the long chain omega-3s DHA and EPA, preserving the all-important balance of omega-3 and omega-6. (18)

Charred meat and cancer

The final concern I want to address involves compounds that are produced when meat is cooked, including advanced glycation end products (AGEs), heterocyclic amines (HAs), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Again, this applies to all meat, not just red meat, but it can still contribute to the perception that red meat is unhealthy.

HAs and PAHs have both been shown to cause cancer in animal models, and although these results can’t necessarily be extrapolated to humans, it’s probably wise to limit exposure to these two compounds. (19)(20) HAs and PAHs are formed when meat is cooked using high-heat or dry cooking methods such as frying, grilling, or smoking. But while cooked meat is the only significant source of HAs, PAHs are a ubiquitous environmental contaminant, and the bulk of dietary PAHs actually come from vegetables and grains. (21) In fact, levels of PAH in leafy vegetables are comparable to levels in smoked meat! However, the highest food levels of PAH are found in charred meats that have been cooked over an open flame.

AGEs are different from the other compounds in that they can be formed both endogenously and exogenously. (22) Like HAs and PAHs, AGEs are formed when foods – particularly meat – are cooked, although they are also naturally present even in uncooked meat. However, dietary AGEs do not tell the whole story, because they can also form through various metabolic pathways in the body. One study showed that while omnivores generally have higher dietary intakes of AGEs than vegetarians, vegetarians actually end up with higher concentrations of AGEs in their plasma. (23) The authors hypothesized that their results were due to the increased fructose intake of vegetarians, although another plausible mechanism appears to be the inhibition of AGE formation by carnosine, an amino acid found in meat. (24)(25) Either way, I wouldn’t be terribly concerned about AGEs in meat, although I still recommend favoring lower-heat cooking methods to avoid HAs and PAHs.

If you do want to grill or fry your meats, you can significantly reduce the formation of all of these compounds by using an acidic marinade, which has the added bonus of tasting great! Marinating beef for one hour reduced AGE formation by over half, and marinades can cut HA formation in meat by up to 90%. (26)

Overall, there’s no good evidence that red meat is more inflammatory than other meats, and some evidence indicating that it’s less inflammatory. Just like any other food, it’s certainly possible for people to have individual intolerances to red meat that might induce inflammation, but there’s no reason for most people to restrict red meat on the basis of inflammation. Additionally, AGEs from meat are probably not a concern, and meat eaters might even be better off when it comes to plasma levels of AGEs. Any concerns about other compounds produced by cooking meat can be minimized simply by favoring wet or low-heat cooking methods, or using a marinade when high-heat methods are desired.

I hope I’ve addressed all the remaining health concerns with eating red meat, but I’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

117 Comments

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  1. Dr. Kresser, I didn’t see any mention in your article of ground beef, i.e., hamburger. Most of the ground beef that I see at the supermarket is either 80 / 20 else 73 / 27 beef to fat. Has anyone looked at the effects of eating beef fat without the beef, in the kind of quantities that a typical American burger-lover eats? Perhaps throw in a bag of French fries cooked in lard for good measure? Thanks!

  2. Yes, the information provided in the youtube clip Vegout linked to needs to be addressed.

  3. Will I get a response? I am getting rid of pills,and insulin in my life at age 68. Single male with two dogs that walks 10 miles a day and change to a plant based diet with fish. No more insulin so far for me. I have diabetes 2 and I want this out of my body. I cannot eat red meat, pork, processed sugar, processed food and absolutely no dairy! Will I ever be able too again? I am doing this and it is so hard. If this works why can I not help others. I am not certified! Really!!

  4. I find most of the post humorous. The people claiming red meat causes them pain don’t appear to acknowledge that it could be their body that is the problem and not the red meat. Millions of people eat red meat and it doesn’t cause them any problems. I have a nerve disorder and, yes, if I eat too many foods that caise inflammation I have pain. The problem is me…not the food.

    Do you want to live forever? I certainly do not. Some foods are better for us than others.

    I bet some of these people bad mouthing meat are smokers, drinkers and don’t exercise yet all their aches & pains are from the red meat.

    Every thing in moderation.

  5. There is one factor you need to look at for whether we should eat meat. Get up, walk up to a mirror and smile. You will see flat teeth and a couple pointed teeth. We are designed to be omnivores! You disagree, take it up with your maker! I learned this in sociology class when a civilized cutler becomes “over-civilized”. We start to seek out new age diet and lifestyle fads. Veganism is the farce of the past 20 years. What food manipulators like Monsanto does is an entire different discussion.

  6. I don’t know exactly what it is about meat, but eating it makes my joints swell. My mother and sisters have very bad arthritis, and their fingers are all twisted up. Mine started to do the same thing. Then I noticed that it only happened after I ate a nice big steak. If I ate beef all week … which we did when we bought whole grassfed beef … I could barely walk.

    I suspect that neu5gc is the culprit. Fish and chicken and eggs I can eat all day, even the high-purine versions. I’ve mostly dropped beef, pork, and lamb from my diet and my joints thank me. Yes, they have good stuff in them, but actually eggs and shellfish are higher in nutrients than mammal meat is.

    So sure, they haven’t proved it. So what? It’s easy enough for me to do my own experiment in this case. I can also look at people I know who eat a lot of beef … even grass-fed beef … and see how they age vs. the chicken/egg/fish eaters. So far the beef eaters seem to have far more arthritis. In the Lewis and Clark journals, Lewis noted that the Indians had high rates of “rheumatic problems” … their diet of deer meat and buffalo didn’t save their joints even back then.

    I also suspect that part of the issue is taurine. Yes, there is taurine in beef, but not nearly as much as there is in raw milk or seafood. The Maasai don’t eat all that much meat, but they do drink a lot of milk which is loaded with taurine. The taurine would protect their blood vessels and heart. Also I think there may be less neu5gc in milk, and more ac.

    If you look at heart disease and fat, the correlation isn’t very clear. But if you look at heart disease and taurine excretion, there is a very clear correlation. Plus giving more taurine to a person helps heal the heart. The only connection with fat I can find is that taurine is used to make bile, so in a higher-fat diet you use up the taurine to digest the food. That’s not an issue if say, you are an Inuit eating a lot of raw fish. But it’s a huge issue if you are a vegan or eating a typical low-taurine American diet.

    The amount of taurine in the food you eat largely depends on the cooking method too. Most American food has the taurine cooked out of it. Humans can synthesize it, but the researchers are now thinking we aren’t very good at making it, so the people getting it in their diets are healthier.

    • Heather, I can appreciate your comment. I have been eating paleo for about four years now, and didn’t come across the idea that red meat might be inflammatory until the last six months. Long before that, I noticed a major difference in my RA when I eat beef. One serving is not a huge problem, but if I eat if for more than one meal in a row (which I would typically do, since I try to batch cook every two to three days), my joints will get worse and worse. And the beef I eat is 100% grass fed, raised by someone I went to high school with that I trust implicitly.

      As always, it depends on the person…but I truly do believe there’s something about red meat that does NOT agree with me.

      • I have to agree also. I have given up red meat (which was 100% grass fed) and pork. I have Lupus, RA & Sjogrens Syndrome…all of which come with severe joint pain send swelling. Since giving those up, I have noticed a remarkable difference in swelling and pain, not to mention, my IBS is more under control!

  7. The first study sited seems to be supported by Meat and Livestock Australia Limited. This makes me wonder about the credibility of the study?

      • Red meat is very good for you in moderation (and balanced with vegetables). What do you think our pre-historic ancestors ate? A bunch of chicken? Or let me guess they were completely vegan. Give me a break. And the World Health Organization study on red meat and carcinogens that have recently come out are easily taken out of context by the uninformed and used as fuel by vegans and anti red meat eaters.
        1). There is considerable evidence that the chlorophyl and other compounds present in green vegetables very effectively negate the potentially carcinogenic compounds formed by your liver from high red meat consumption Source: http://cebp.aacrjournals.org/content/15/4/717.long
        (High meat consumption can potentially cause cancer… if you’re not eating your veggies)
        2). We treat our meat badly. Not only are the cows, pork and chicken we eat mostly sick, unhealthy animals, but some of the ways we process it that are so integrated into our society are pretty terrible. Quality/whole cuts of meat is a whole other world.
        3). A significant portion of the WHO study was based on the compounds that form from cooking red meat over high temperatures and charring it. Try not to do that all the time and you’ll be fine.
        4). Bacon is only considered carcinogenic because of the nitrates being cooked at high temperatures which form nitrosamines. Many people are scared of the term “nitrates” but guess what, your body naturally produces nitrates and needs it to survive. The whole “uncured bacon” thing is not going to save you either because most “uncured bacon” is preserved with celery powder, which is fully capable of forming nitrosamines when cooked at high temperature. Don’t burn your bacon people! Cook it in the oven instead of pan fry it if you’re worried.

        The bottom line is people need to chill the eff out about the red meat thing. It’s very good for you in moderation and balanced with veggies (and I don’t mean a bunch of grains, which should be balanced as well). If you’re one of those people who’s going to be scared into veganism because of the WHO study, not only are your taste buds missing out but your long term health is as well.

        • I doubt Mr. Flynn hunts. Otherwise he would know that hunters are not always successful. I doubt very much that our ancestors ate meat with great frequency or on a regular basis. If he wants a to emulate our ancestors I recommend that he gorge himself on meat 5 or 6 times a year and eat berries and roots the remainder of his days, perhaps fasting (24 hour days, please) 2 or 3 days per week.

          • We hardly ever hunted alone, so did we eat meat most days in pre history? Yes we did by a large margin. Why does everyone promoting no red meat beleave we were mostly vegan or vegatarian. When we lived in area where meat(game) was widely advalible guess what we did. We hunted down and ate it. Now sense science has proven we are super predators(killing the alphas of herds and other animals) there should be little dout we ate meat daily. Alfa are the diggest portion of meat so we hunt and share. Yes hunt by oneself is very in effective, hunting as a group far more effective. We have always hunted in groups its only modern(800 bcu) man that hunts by himself, this is usually some kind of proving themself against nature deal. So ya if you go out and hunt by your lonesome then odds of you bring home super not so good and berries and roots it is. This is not how evolved though.

      • “Meat is bad for you”…er… based on what evidence exactly ? Do you think humans are naturally vegetarians? Can you point to any vegan/vegetarian civilisation at any time in human history?

    • Yeah, it’s funny because he accuses other people of not mentioning the limitations of the studies they cite 😛 Pretty much brings this whole article into question. It is a rather large piece of info to ommit.

  8. I am a lchf convert and have had great results from this lifestyle. My friend has RA and is now in a wheelchair. She is convinced that red meat and animal fats make her condition worse. As all I have read suggests that animal protein and fat do not raise inflammation is it different for RA sufferers?

    • I have had RA since I was 16 and YES meat and dairy make it a lot worse and cause inflammation. For me, soda also causes flare ups.

      • Hi Holly,

        I have psoriasis and share a similar response that you have to dairy. Eggs are a trigger for me as well. However, fresh red meat doesn’t cause inflammation in my case. I typically eat high quality bison and grass-fed steak. Red meat certainly might be a trigger in your case and should be avoided. What has helped a great deal has been eating according to the AIP diet. http://aiplifestyle.com/

    • Hi Sarah,

      The premise of this experiment is flawed. Mice are not carnivorous, they are plant eaters. You may as well feed meat to rabbits. Of course you will get a bad result..

  9. If you are going to site a study that indicates that red meat does not cause inflammation, you should at least have the decency to choose a study that has a control group of people who refrain from eating red meat…

    The results of the sited study (although correct) cannot show that the consumption of red meat causes inflammation.

    QUITE SIMPLY, THE STUDY IS RIGGED.

  10. From raw-milk-facts.com: Continual development encroaching on their semi-arid grazing lands, poor supplies of clean water, lack of sanitation, non-existent medical care and high levels of waterborne disease all take their toll. Many of their children die before reaching the age of five.

  11. It is not wise to use the Masai as an example of health. Their average lifespan is about 45 years old.

    • why do you think that is? I don’t suppose infant mortality or poor medical science has anything to do with it…?

      • The life expectancy of the Masai is 50 years, so its not just an issue of infant deaths decreasing the average life span figure. They actually do have a high rate of atherosclerosis from the meat they eat, but they also are extremely physically active because of their lifestyles, so that’s another factor. They also eat lots of fresh plant foods and herbs. Even if an American wanted to eat as much meat as they do, they would have to make sure they got as much exercise and they ate as many beneficial plant foods as well.

  12. Chris, how would you respond to the mini-article, see below. My wife and I eat Paleo and have been for almost 2 years. Thank you:

    Why a high-fat diet – even healthy
    fat – isn’t good for your arteries

    On Wednesday, I showed you how a particular fat — olive oil — can help your arteries. The polyphenols in this amazing fat help your cells that line your arteries stay healthy. These endothelial cells depend on polyphenols for their health. But another study shows that they don’t rely on the fat.
    As you may know, I’m not a fan of the Atkins diet, which is a high-fat diet. Yes, it will help you lose weight. But it has a hidden dark side.
    A study on 20 obese volunteers between the ages of 29 and 39 looked at the impact of a low-fat diet and a high-fat diet on endothelial function. The American Heart Association recommends a “low-fat” diet of 30% calories from fat. Atkins recommends a low-carbohydrate diet that has lots more fat. In this study, the researchers randomized the participants to eat either the AHA recommendations or the Atkins diet. They kept total calories the same for the two groups.
    Both groups lost about the same amount of weight. The researchers then measured their endothelial function by brachial flow mediated dilation, an accepted marker of endothelial function. They found that it was the low-fat group that had significant improvement in their endothelial function. This is a measure of the ability of your arteries to dilate.
    If the AHA “low fat” diet beats Atkins high-fat diet in terms of endothelial function, think of what a lower-fat diet can do. Pritikin and Ornish have proven it out that a 10% dietary fat intake is optimal. Atkins helps you lose weight. But the hidden cost to you may be much higher than the excess pounds. High fat is not the way to go.
    The reason olive oil helps your arteries is not the fat content. It’s the polyphenol content. That’s why you shouldn’t eat a lot of any fat. There’s just not enough polyphenols in a high-fat diet to keep your arteries healthy. You’ll find an abundance of polyphenols in plant foods, not most high-fat foods. So stick to a diet high in veggies and fruits. You’ll see the pounds drop off – and your arteries won’t clog from too much fat.

    Yours for better health and medical freedom,

    Robert J. Rowen, MD
    Source: “Benefit of low-fat over low-carbohydrate diet on endothelial health in obesity,” Phillips SA, Jurva JW, et al, Hypertension, 2008; 51(2): 376-82.

  13. I was just wondering that kangaroo can not be good for someone who has had a triple bypass…..correct? I understand that its a red meat…related to heart disease? Is that correct? I have a friend whom has heart disease…eats kangaroo almost 3 times a week…not good!