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. Have you come across any evidence that red meat raises cortisol levels? I went to a continuing education seminar that seemed pretty spot-on about nutrition except the speaker kept saying it was best to minimize red meat consumption because of its ability to spike cortisol.

    • Great to know Michele, if true. Rather than avoid cortisol-spiking, it may be best to eat red meat for breakfast and a supper of veggies should help relax you.

  2. Chris,
    May I have the link to the 2nd reference you gave (regarding women and anemia)? I’m working with a teen gal who has iron-deficient anemia and her nurse mother is still with-holding red meat from her diet. I’d love some assistance with research to support the red meat and anemia link.
    Thank you!
    Debi Reese, PT, PCS

  3. Hi Chris,

    Thank you – highly informative!
    You have just skimmed-the-surface on AA, however. It is PgE2 a derivative of AA that is inflammatory. This is more than compensated for because the pancreatic ligand PgE2 sequestors dietary zinc to form the main ‘pool’ of zinc for cells ie.M-Zn-taurine (where M is ‘membrane’. Think of some “hair” … here M would be skin; connected at 90 would be a follicle(zinc) and to the follicle, a shaft(taurine) is connected..
    this inocuos duo is critical because bound-taurine shows its Zwitterion activity, giving cells a small negative charge, so cells will not merge. [This charge may prove to be protective of EMF pulses.] This duo also acts as the cell’s K+-ion pump. Potassium+ on cell’s insides and sodium+ on the outside of cell membranes.{ref. Symposia on Taurine University of Montreal 1972 & ’74, eds. R. Huxtable & A. Barbeau}

    It is nice to know that only in meats is the amino acid taurine found. [Because the zinc ion is still on cell’s exterior, I believe that the M will prove to be membrane-AA, where transformed into PgE2 it will once again sequestor zinc and shepherd it through cellular walls, to be used by the cell’s manufacturing apparatuses.]

    Hope this helps.

  4. Thank you, Chris, for a balanced and thought-provoking article.

    Due to personal issues around methods of slaughter and potential unlabelled religious meat in my meat sources, I have all but given up meat. I do eat a lot of fish.

    I wonder whether you subscribe to the notion of “total anti/inflammation”; that we can balance up, if you like, inflammatory foods with anti-inflammatory foods, like many fish. If so, I wonder what the pattern might me.

  5. Where does grilling on a George Foreman fall? I assume it’s better than an open flame, but then I would think the Teflon would be a bigger concern…

    • Just a warning for those who have pet birds – overheated Teflon is very dangerous, don’t use it. The fumes will kill birds.

  6. Great article Chris! Grass-fed red meat still can use a strong defender. So many years it’s been bashed!

    Thanks also for the defense of arachidonic acid, which, of course comes from many other sources than just red meat, but has also been bashed by those who know too little about human physiology. I would add that, not only is it invaluable functioning as AA, but from it our bodies derive so many other valuable substances, like: 1. prostacyclin, the most potent anti-aggretory agent and inhibitor of platelet adhesion; 2. prostaglandin1 (PGE1), the body’s most powerful natural anti-inflammatory agent (stronger than PGE3 that derives from alpha-linolenic acid); 3. eicosanoids; 4. other enzymes that are critical to health!

  7. Chris, WHat about acidity. I thought I learned in my nutrition program that it is commonly thought that meat is acidic, due to it’s ash acidity, but that it it in reality, does not create an acidifying effect on the body. I assume it is true that acidity of the body creates inflammation. Does meat acidifying the body and thus cause inflammation? My thought is that if yes, perhaps the answer in no for grass fed beef with more omega 3 makeup.

  8. Wonderful, more reasons why I eat red meat almost daily 🙂 I knew there were reasons why my body wants it so bad. Now I just have to remember all of what you just told me so I can regurgitate it to the doubters out there when I get told I am killing myself with red meat.

  9. can you recommend some wet and lo heat methods for cooking meat? I use a flavorware on my counter usually cooking the meat at about 350 degrees. It’s great for steaks and hamburgers.

    • Hi Rob,
      I am a stickler for preventing rancidity or otherwise (from heat, light, or prolonged air exposure) ruining the unsaturated fats in foods. Therefore I do things that probably are thought unsavory by typical cooks. But still, I suggest using only roasting (where the oven temp can be controlled and kept between 200 and 300 degrees), boiling, and steaming if you want to get the best value from the meat and minimize the toxins (including the fats you can turn to toxins by overheating). Other tricks are to cook in a way that, though the outside is well done, you have a lot of rare meat left in the cut. I always like to remember that the main purpose, physiologically, for heating meat is to kill excessive surface germs. While some vegetables gain in food value in some ways (release of minerals) by being cooked, I don’t think there is any similar value gain when heating animal products. It’s all just esthetics. And esthetics is culture. And culture’s values must always be tested if you are interested in health.
      Best of health to you!

  10. Thanks, Chris. What about the effects of hormones and antibiotics in red meat? Should they be a concern? Do the benefits outweigh the concern? Should we perhaps eat less of this type commercial beef than grass-fed beef, for example?
    It’s easy enough these days, in most places, to avoid hormones, antibiotics, etc., in chicken, since healthier alternatives are readily available. Not so with beef. Avoiding commercial beef is still very difficult.
    Thanks.
    ~~~

  11. What’s crazy is that many times research is done…it is done on an isolate. This drives me crazy. Yes, the isolate itself may be toxic or problem causing, but when it’s in whole synergistic form, the way nature intended it to be, with whatever supporting nutrients it is combined with, it can become beneficial. Science can be very misled in this respect. Yes, we may understand the behavior of each component/chemical/gene, but that doesn’t always give the whole picture.

    • your comment made me so happy. What you say is SO important and needs to be kept in mind ALL the time. Unfortunately science works in a way to look at isolates for real evidence, but what kind of evidence do we got from it in the end???

  12. can you comment on preparation of ground meat?
    I purchase meat in bulk from a local organic farm, and with the side of beef I get a lot of ground meat.
    other than frying, Im not sure how to prepare in the most healthful way.
    can you help?
    thanks.

    • Meatballs and meatloaf come to mind. Many ethnic cutures have them, think about the Swedes, Germans, Russians…ah, and the also have stuffed cabbage leaves and stuffed bell peppers. ,

    • I love to make chili with lots of sauted chopped veggies, such as onions, peppers, garlic, celery, mushrooms, etc. Brown the meat slowly, drain off the juices, add the sauted veggies, some organic diced tomatoes and tomato sauce, chili powder, cumin, oregano, basil, sage, etc. Simmer for a while. You can put it in containers in your freezer for easy paleo meals. This is good with ground turkey also.

    • I like to microwave my ground meats in a bowl with a cover. Very steamy, wet process, cooks evenly throughout, and stews the meat in its own juices. If it’s not ground, we like to use our crock pot.

    • I use ground beef in chili (try subbing chopped veggies for the beans) and often in stews instead of stew meat.

  13. Great article Chris, especially for avid grillers and smokers like myself.

    @Julie Rider – Any marinade with lime or lemon juice, or any type of vinegar will be acidic enough.

    Here is a basic beef marinade – swap or add-in your favorite spices:
    1/4 cup cooking oil – olive
    1/4 cup red wine vinegar
    2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
    1 tablespoon salt
    1 teaspoon black pepper
    1 teaspoon dried oregano

    Optional:
    1 tsp beef boulion (reduce salt to 1/2 tablespoon above)
    1 tsp thyme

  14. I have been buying Braunshweiger (smoked liver sausage) from a local farmer. Do you feel that consumption should be limted?

  15. At the moment I am struggling with a gallbladder inflammation. Even when I eat lean red meat, there is some pain coming up, while at the same time I become very tired. No problems however with all fish even not with fat parts of salmon and lean chicken also gives no problems. I prepare my meat on low heat.

    • Does that happen with grass fed beef as well? And have you ever tried Himalayan salt (particularly the sole solution) and/or raw beets and other great gallbladder supporting foods?

    • Red meat can still be hard to digest if the digestive system is out of whack. Do you experience digestive distress along with pain and tiredness?

      Try slow cooking some stews! People love slow cookers, but I do mine in the oven to better control temp. Long and slow cooking (say, 6 hrs at 250 for chuck roast) makes beef *way* more digestible for me when I need it to be.

      • Thanks for your remarks. In my case, I don’t think the red meat is the course of the inflammation, probably saturated fat is, but red meat makes it worse. No, I cannot find grass fed meat here, I don’t eat meat except some fish at the moment and yes I use supporting foods, juices and supplements.
        I am on my way to a flush but my doctor still wants me to wait. I will use your advice for the stew later.

        • I had gallbladder pain a several years ago and did a four day gallbladder cleanse. The fifth day I passed several stones and the pain completely went away. My doctor looked at my gallbladder with his ultrasound a few years later and confirmed that my gallbladder was clear. If this is the kind of flush you are talking about I would say for me it was totally worth it!

  16. Have you seen this?

    “Differences in postprandial inflammatory responses to a ‘modern’ v. traditional meat meal: a preliminary study.”

    “…We conclude that the metaflammatory reaction to ingestion of a ‘new’ form of hybridised beef (wagyu) is indicative of a low-grade, systemic, immune reaction when compared with lean game meat (kangaroo). Further studies using isoenergetic intake and isolating fatty acid components of meats are proposed.”

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20377925