Red meat is arguably one of the most controversial foods in the human diet, especially due to conflicting information that has been shared over the past decades. As with any story, there are always two sides, however, in the case of red meat the sides are not actually telling the same story. So let’s discuss red meat, its benefits, and its downfalls and answer the oh-so-common question; does meat cause inflammation?
What is inflammation?
Inflammation itself refers to inflammation at the cellular level in the body, and in excess, inflammation is the root of disease and illness. Therefore, minimizing inflammation in the body from factors that we can control, such as diet, exercise, and environment, is critically important to our health. The term “red meat” typically refers to beef, however, sometimes also includes veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat. From a logical perspective, it is important to consider that cultures from around the world have been consuming red meat for thousands of years without concern for inflammation. In fact, the consumption of red meat was an integral part of the human diet that can be traced back to hunter-gathers, however, it does beg the question, is the meat we are eating today comparable to the meat from thousands of years ago?
First and foremost, it is important to understand that the format in which you eat food has a huge impact on its health benefits. In the same way an oatmeal cookie is not the same as oatmeal, and ketchup is not the same as a tomato, processed forms of red meat are not the same as natural forms of red meat. Hot dogs, ham, sausages, corned beef, beef jerky, and canned meats are NOT the same as a simple cut of meat. Any form of highly processed food is going to be inflammatory to the body, regardless of the source. Unfortunately, many of the studies surrounding red meat do not take this into account, and therefore paint the term “red meat” with a very (very) broad brush stroke.
In addition to the format that you consume your meat, the quality of the meat that you consume will also contribute to its potential level of inflammation. How an animal was raised is the single greatest contributing factor to the quality of the meat that is produced. For instance, a cow that was pastured, received a lot of sunlight, and consumed a natural diet of grass will produce a very different quality of meat than one that was confined to a barn, with little light, and fed a diet rich in corn and soybean. How an animal is fed and their access to the outdoors has a large impact on the health of the animal, and in turn, the quality of the meat they produce.
Cattle that consume a diet largely composed of grain have a higher profile of omega-6 fatty acids, which, in excess, are incredibly inflammatory to the human body. On the contrary, an animal fed a diet rich in grass produces a fatty acid profile rich in omega-3 fatty acids which are anti-inflammatory to the human body. In fact, the fatty acid profile of a pastured grass-fed cow naturally mimics the fatty acid profile of the human brain making it an ideal source of food and nutrients. In the same way grain or seed-based oils (such as corn, soybean, and canola) are not ideal for human consumption, because they are highly inflammatory, grains and seeds are also not ideal for cattle consumption due to the inflammation they can produce in the animal, and in turn, humans that consume their meat.
Correlation is not Causation
Another major reason that the evidence provided by many studies surrounding red meat is misleading is that the studies themselves are confusing and misleading. To date, the studies done on red meat are largely observational studies, meaning that participants report what they consume for the purposes of the study. As compared to a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials, which is the gold standard for research, observational studies have shortcomings in the fact that other contributing factors for inflammation are not accounted for. Yes, diet is a major contributor to inflammation in the body, if not the primary, but so is lack of exercise, lack of sleep, stress, smoking, alcohol, chemicals, environment, etc… and when these are not accounted for, it can be difficult to address what is actually causing the inflammation. Moreover, often the quality and format of the red meat itself are not addressed, and, therefore, grain-fed animals and formats of meat that include items such as hot dogs, ham, corned beef, beef jerky, and canned meats are included in studies when it is both the quality and the format of the meat that has the largest impact on inflammation.
Think about it, there is a big difference between a “couch potato” that regularly consumes processed meats, in white buns, cooked in vegetable oils, topped with ketchup with a side of soda, as compared to a healthy individual who exercises regularly and consumes grass-fed beef occasionally as part of a diet rich in whole foods with an abundant amount of vegetables and water. When factors such as overall diet, exercise, stress, sleep, and environment are not accounted for, and both of these individuals are lumped into a study as “meat eaters”, the data on what causes inflammation can be misleading.
It is also important to understand that in observational studies correlation is not always causation. Yes, people who eat red meat might be more prone to inflammation, but people who eat red meat might also be more prone to drive a truck, however, that does not mean that eating red meat causes you to drive a truck. People who eat red meat might also be more prone to eating processed forms of red meat, eating junk food, drinking soda, and not exercising which all contribute to an increase in overall inflammation.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to food and nutrition context matters. In fact, it matters a lot. Does meat cause inflammation? No. Red meat is not inflammatory because it is red meat. Red meat CAN be inflammatory based on the format, quality, and quantity that you consume. As with everything in nutrition, it is important to focus on whole natural real food, know where your food comes from, ask questions, be inquisitive, and get to know your farmer whenever possible.