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Does (Red) Meat Cause Inflammation?

Chronic, low-grade inflammation has been linked to a variety of ailments, ranging from heart disease and rheumatoid arthritis to asthma and psoriasis. This type of inflammation has been associated with certain dietary habits, which has made so-called anti-inflammatory diets extremely popular.

The science behind anti-inflammatory diets is simple: by eating fewer foods with inflammatory properties and more foods with anti-inflammatory properties you can reduce chronic inflammation throughout your body. But figuring out which foods cause inflammation and which foods curb it is not always easy. Red meat, for example, contains several pro-inflammatory compounds including saturated fat, arachidonic acid, heme iron and advanced glycation end products. But if you look at studies that have investigated the relationship between red meat intake and markers of chronic inflammation you will notice that not all types of red meat have been linked to high levels of inflammation. In fact, early research suggests that as long as you stick to lean cuts of red meat (or poultry) and avoid processed meats which may be loaded with inflammatory chemicals, eating meat in moderation should not be a problem. In fact, it might even be good against low-grade inflammation. To get the details, keep reading.

The Inflammatory Potential of Meat

Many meat products contain high amounts of saturated fat, and epidemiological studies suggest that diets rich in this type of fat tend to promote inflammation (1). In addition, red meat contains arachidonic acid (AA), an omega-6 fatty acid that the body uses for making hormones called eicosanoids. According to a paper published in the October 2005 issue of the British Journal of Dermatology, eicosanoids formed from omega-6 fatty acids (and particularly from arachidonic acid) tend to be pro-inflammatory in nature, while those derived from omega-3 fatty acids tend to be anti-inflammatory (2).

Red Meat

In addition, it has been proposed that the high amounts of heme iron found in red meat might be problematic if the body's binding capacity of iron is exceeded. This is because heme iron increases oxidative stress in the body, which in turn promotes inflammation (3). Finally, meat (and particularly cooked meat) contains advanced glycation end products (AGEs) which may have pro-inflammatory activity (4).

The Research

A number of studies have investigated the relationship between red meat intake and inflammation, and some of them have found a positive association between meat intake and plasma concentrations of cross-reactive protein, or CRP, which is a common marker for chronic, low-grade inflammation (5, 6, 7). Also some studies investigating associations between meat intake and inflammatory diseases have tied high red and processed meat intake to worsening symptoms. For example, a study that looked at the potential benefits of the Mediterranean diet for psoriasis sufferers found that the Psoriasis Area Severity Index (PASI) score, which is used for measuring the severity of psoriatic lesions, was positively correlated with the consumption of red and processed meats (8). This study also found a positive association between the level of inflammation and psoriasis severity.

But before you draw any definite conclusions about the pro-inflammatory properties of red meat, or claim that red meat is bad for psoriasis sufferers, you should note that the studies referred to above looked at associations, not cause-and-effect relationships. In fact, one of these studies found that Body Mass Index (BMI) accounted for a significant proportion of the association between red meat intake and CRP levels, and once the data were adjusted for BMI, the association was no longer statistically significant (6).

What's more, a Dutch study published in the journal Diabetes Care found that high CRP levels were positively associated with processed meat intake, but not with red meat or poultry intake (9). And, yet another study, published in the February 2007 edition of The Journal of Nutrition, found that when some carbohydrates in the diet were replaced with unprocessed lean red meat, markers of chronic inflammation actually went down (10).

The Bottom Line

Although more research is in order, there seems to be no good reason why moderate amounts of lean red meat should not be part of an anti-inflammatory diet, as long as you skip the processed stuff and also consume plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables which are the cornerstone of every anti-inflammatory diet.

Book You May Like
In The Anti-Inflammation Diet and Recipe Book, Jessica Black, N.D., presents a complete program for how to eat and cook to fight chronic inflammation and its consequences. The first part of the book explains the benefits of the anti-inflammatory diet with an accessible discussion of the science behind it. The second half of the book contains recipes for mouthwatering anti-inflammatory meals and menus that even novice cooks can master. This terrific guide and cookbook is available here on Amazon.