Ever wonder what those juicy ribs or lamb chops do to your health? This is a really great question when embarking on an Anti-Inflammatory Diet, because it’s always helpful to know which are inflammatory foods to our body, and which are anti-inflammatory foods.
Many people are being diagnosed with chronic disease and, in their quest for the perfect diet, have questions as to whether they should eat red meat, or animal products at all. This is understandable with the rise in popularity of the plant-based diet that eliminates animal protein and animal fat, and touting the huge health benfits.
So let’s start out by quickly reviewing what chronic inflammation is, why it matters to our health, and figure out how red meat may or may not fit into your personal anti-inflammatory diet.
Table of Contents
What is chronic inflammation?
Inflammation occurs as the body’s natural immune response when an injury occurs or when the body senses a viral or bacterial attack. This is acute inflammation, and indicates the body is doing its job. Low grade inflammation, however, is a different story.
Chronic inflammation is when lifestyle choices (including a poor diet, weight gain, no exercise, severe stress, smoking, and drug use) create low grade inflammation in the body with an increase of inflammatory markers like c reactive protein. When left unchecked, this low grade inflammation contributes to chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, heart disease, inflammatory disease and conditions, cancer, and autoimmune conditions.
The number one way to counteract chronic inflammation is to embark on a journey of an overall healthy diet via anti-inflammatory eating.
This generally includes eliminating processed food, fried foods, sugar, and refined carbohydrates, and increasing vegetables (especially green vegetables and other brightly colored veggies), whole grains, and healthy oils that contain anti-inflammatory compounds like olive oil and avocado oil.
Which meats are red meats?
There are several benefits of eating red meat, from minerals and vitamins to proteins. But every once in a while there’s a little confusion on which meats are technically red (anybody else grow up hearing the pork commercial calling it ‘the other white meat’??)
There are different types of meats available in the food market so let’s define which meats are red meat.
Mammals are the basic source of red meat protein that we eat. Mammal red meats include cattle, buffalo, sheep, lamb, deer, and goat.
The alternative to red meat is non-red meat (sometimes called white meat): poultry meat and fish meat. Nowadays, poultry meat (mostly chicken and turkey) is a popular alternative to red meat in many dishes.
Fish is gaining popularity as well, as wild-caught fatty fish have been shown to be a vital part of an anti-inflammatory diet.
What does the science show?
This tends to be a loaded question because many outlets claim that studies have shown red meat to be inflammatory, but there were nuances to each study that don’t necessarily translate to humans, or to your specific body and lifestyle.
Part of the problem is that studies have relied on personal food intake diaries, which are historically inaccurate. A second problem is that these studies aren’t specifying what form the meat is in (ie, processed, grilled, baked, etc). And lastly, the quality or source of the meat isn’t being factored in these studies.
So let’s start with the elephants in the room:
N-Glycolylneuraminic acid (Neu5Gc) is a sialic acid molecule present in mammals except for humans. This molecule is not synthesized in humans and is taken up by humans from other mammals in their diet.
This molecule is present in red meats such as lamb, beef, and pork. This theory is that the Neu5Gc molecule triggers the inflammatory process as humans may have an antibody against it.
The problem is that there still isn’t conclusive evidence on this as many of the studies are speculative, or aren’t translatable to the human body.
Arachidonic acid (AA) is the polyunsaturated omega 6 fatty acid present all over the body, starting from liver and muscle cells to brain cells. Arachidonic acid has a critical role in the body’s inflammatory process.
In regular metabolic cycles, arachidonic acid does not cause inflammation. The metabolism of the arachidonic acid predicts its role as pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory.
Red meat does contain AA, but in much smaller amounts than other meats. But studies have indicated, regardless, that higher levels of AA and omega 3 PUFAs in the blood correlated to lower inflammation in the body.
As red meat contains saturated fats, an automatic assumption is that red meat is an inflammatory food. However, the source is just as important, as studies have shown that grass fed beef actually has balanced ratios of saturated fat, omega 3 and omega 6.
In addition, the type of fatty acids- particularly stearic acid–is much higher in grass fed animals, which does not contribute to high cholesterol levels.
Source and How It’s Prepared
Sources and the effect
The source of saturated fats decides whether the fats will cause inflammation in the body. This is due to grain-fed animals (feed-lot animals) being fed high amounts of grains to fatten them up. These usually consist of lots of omega 6 fats in addition to being heavily sprayed by chemicals (which are inflammatory in themselves.)
Studies in the past have never distinguished between the source of the red meat, nor the way it was cooked or prepared. Newer research is showing that this, does, in fact have a huge effect on the way red meat reacts in the body once consumed.
Grass-fed vs. grain-fed
One of the most exciting things in newer research is evidence that organic grass fed beef actually has a balanced ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 PUFAs. The studies show that the omega 6 doesn’t increase, but the omega 3 is significantly increased.
We already discussed the difference in saturated fat from grass fed vs grain fed animals, but grass fed animals also are higher in vitamins and nutrients.
Why do omegas matter?
Omega-3 fats are polyunsaturated fatty acids that have a beneficial effect on the human body as it manages inflammation levels. Omega 3s should be balanced with omega 6s to ensure proper balance of inflammation in the body.
How red meat is prepared
A secondary factor to take into account with red meat is how it’s prepared.
Cutting the fat
Although grass fed beef can have more favorable fat ratios, studies are still indicating that lean red meat is more beneficial to health overall than high fat red meat.
Recent studies have even gone as far as to compare a diet with lean red meat added back into the diet of those with hyperlipidemia and have shown that this addition doesn’t increase lipid levels.
Let’s get into the details of the inflammatory property of processed meats. Processed meats are cured, salted, mechanically separated, smoked for flavors, and artificially preserved to protect their taste and increase their lifespan.
Meat in processed forms like this are highly inflammatory and should absolutely be avoided. Examples of processed meat are cured bacon, meat jerkies, salami, and hot dogs.
One discovery in the past decade is that when meat is charred, it produces advanced glycation end products (or AGEs). Although these are present in many foods we eat, the body is able to rid itself of AGEs unless there are really large amounts.
Adding high heat to meats can create these larger amounts, which have been connected with developing or worsening chronic diseases.
Studies have shown that cooking with wet heat, lower heat, or adding acidic marinades like vinegar or lemon juice can drastically cut the AGEs produced when cooking meat.
Conditions that should possibly avoid red meat
It is a painful joint disease caused by the uric acid crystal deposition in the toe and other joints of the body. Gout attacks are the episodes of pain experienced by the individual suffering from that disease. Red meat has a higher quantity of purines which is the cause of the high levels of uric acid crystal in the body. Consuming red meat increases the chance of gout attacks.
Although some anecdotal evidence suggests red meat may cause flareups for those with rheumatoid arthritis, currently no studies give conclusive evidence of that. One of the main factors suggested to cause the correlation is the saturated fat content.
If you have arthritis, a safe option would be to try an elimination diet (or period) where you take all red meat out for a period, assess how you feel, then reintroduce lean cuts to test for flareups.
Allergies or intolerances
Aside from specific conditions that may trigger inflammation, it is possible to have an allergy to red meat (with a true reaction from the immune system) or even a sensitivity. Either will trigger inflammatory processes.
If you find that you are allergic to red meat (or other meat) you may decide to look into a plant based diet, or even a plant forward which limits animal products.
Heart disease or cardiovascular disease
This one can be tough to determine, again because of the variation in biochemistry and DNA. There is a mutation that causes certain people to break down fats differently, causing a much higher increased risk factor for heart damage and artery damage. This is a concern with red meat consumption because of the concentration of saturated fat.
Aside from that, multiple studies have shown that lean red meat can actually have favorable effects on lipid panels, which lowers risk of heart disease and cardiovascular disease.
If these conditions are a concern for you, having bloodwork run before and after an elimination period and then reintroduction of red meat can give you a much better idea of how lean red meat will react in your body and your biochemistry.
Choosing red meat
From where can you get the idea of the contents of the meat that you are consuming? Of course, if you are consuming packaged red meat, all the information is available on the packaged product.
Understanding what food labels mean can be really important in choosing your meats. This is because food companies are notorious for using loopholes in labeling laws to make foods ‘appear’ to have more healthy qualities than they actually do sometimes. Here is what to look for and avoid when looking for red meat options.
This means the animal has not been given growth hormones or antibiotics, it was given feed and/or forage that was 100% organic, and were raised in living conditions similar to their natural habitat. Like a field of grass.
Grass-Fed or Pastured
This label means that the animal only consumed grass and forage its whole life, but per the USDA label, it has nothing to do with whether or not that animal had antibiotics or hormones. The American Grassfed Approved label, however, means that they were raised in a pasture, were 100% grass or forage fed, and were never given antibiotics or hormones. (Look for ‘100% Grass-Fed’ on the label.)
This means that the finished packaged meat has been minimally processed and isn’t allowed any artificial ingredients added in. It has nothing to do with how the animal was raised, what it ate, or if it was given antibiotics or hormones.
No antibiotics ever or Raised without hormones
This label indicates that the animal was never given added hormones. However- adding hormones to poultry is illegal anyway. Growers are permitted to give hormones to cows and sheep, though, unless certified organic or grass-fed or grass-pastured.
Fed vegetarian diet
All this means is that the animals weren’t fed animal byproducts. Instead they were fed grains, usually covered in pesticides, and usually soy and corn, which are high in omega 6s.
What if I can’t find organic or grass-fed?
If your store or butcher doesn’t have organic or grass-fed, grass-finished is the next best option. If that’s not available, look for ‘Natural’ but with the least amount of added ingredients. (It’s not uncommon for companies to pump meat full of liquid, including added sugars.)
Takeaways and Recommendations
Considering the information we have regarding potential inflammatory pathways of the Neu5Gc molecule, it is still unclear how this, along with saturated fat content, affect total inflammation in the body. Especially when we factor in the differences in each person’s biological makeup.
Other factors like quality of meat and preparation being studied would give much more valid information, as would a randomized, controlled trial.
Further, many studies are concluding that there are distinct differences in the way inflammation is induced in the body when the person is within target BMI vs overweight. The evidence suggests that body fat could be a primary driver of inflammation triggered by foods when the same foods don’t elicit the same inflammatory response in those who are at target BMI.
This is obviously different for everyone, however, when also factoring in conditions that also increase sensitivity to certain components in food, including red meat.
Again, the bottom line recommendation is to perform a strict elimination diet to discern if red meat is inflammatory to your body, on a personal level.
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