Young man stroking chin while wondering whether red meat causes inflammation

Does Red Meat Cause Inflammation?

Medically reviewed on Feb 25, 2024 by Jillian Foglesong Stabile, MD, FAAFP. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.

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Red meat, like beef, pork, lamb, and venison, are popular dinner staples but are not essential to our daily nutrient intake. Red meat does contain high amounts of beneficial protein and essential nutrients, like zinc and selenium, but medical professionals attest that we can acquire the same share from other foodstuffs, such as poultry, fish, eggs, and plant-based proteins. [1]

So, why do healthcare providers recommend limiting red meat intake? Harvard Health Publishing shares that processed red meats can put you at a significantly higher risk for heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. [1] The commonalities between these three diseases? Obesity, insulin resistance, and inflammation. [2]

The Effects of Red Meat on the Body

The average American dietary intake comprises a significant amount of red and processed meat, namely beef. The production and consumption of red meat can adversely affect the environment and our overall health, respectively. Particularly, the high levels of saturated fats in red meat are known to cause inflammation within the body. [3]

For that reason, healthcare authorities, like the EAT-Lancet Commission and the American Heart Association, recommend consuming no more than 98 grams of red meat a week—ideally, adding red meat to your plate no more than twice weekly. [3]

That said, when eaten in moderation, red meat intake isn’t entirely detrimental to your health. Consuming red meat delivers a bevy of nutrients, including [4]:

  • Protein – Red meat is a rich source of high-quality protein, essential for muscle development, repair, and overall body function.
  • Fat – While red meat contains fats, choosing lean cuts and moderating consumption can provide essential fatty acids without excessive saturated fat intake.
  • Carbohydrates – Red meat is not a significant source of carbohydrates, making it a suitable choice for low-carb diets.
  • Vitamin B12 – An important nutrient for nerve function and the production of red blood cells, red meat is a particularly good source of vitamin B12, especially for those following a non-vegetarian diet.
  • Zinc – Red meat is a valuable source of zinc, an essential mineral crucial for immune function, wound healing, and DNA synthesis.
  • Selenium – This trace mineral found in red meat plays a role in antioxidant defense systems, supporting overall health.
  • Niacin – Red meat contains niacin, which is important for energy metabolism, skin health, and the function of the nervous system.
  • Iron– Red meat provides heme iron, a form of iron that is easily absorbed by the body and important for preventing iron-deficiency anemia.

To make healthier meat choices, consider adding red meat as a side dish, rather than your main course, or swapping red meat for chicken, turkey, or plant-based protein. [1] Additionally, it’s important to balance your dietary intake with foods from every food group, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.

While considering healthier alternatives to red meat, one might wonder, “Does chicken cause inflammation?” Comparing different protein sources is essential for a balanced anti-inflammatory diet. All that said, adding red meat to the majority of your meals is not considered healthy. [1]

Health Risks of Regular Red Meat Consumption

Regularly consuming red meat may put you at a higher risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers, due to its inflammatory properties and potential link to other health concerns.

Red Meat and Heart Disease

When digesting red meat, the gut bacteria work to break down high levels of saturated fat and subsequently produce a chemical byproduct, called trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO). Many studies have identified TMAO as a primary cause of heart disease. [5]

Why is this? High levels of TMAO are thought to be associated with increased inflammation. [6] Chronic inflammation, in effect, is a key contributor to the development and progression of various cardiovascular conditions and atherosclerosis, the buildup of plaques composed of cholesterol, immune cells, and inflammatory substances within the artery walls. [7]

Red Meat and Diabetes

Diabetes is characterized by high blood sugar levels, which can develop when the immune system begins to attack insulin-producing cells responsible for storing glucose in the cells, as is the case with type 1 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes, on the other hand, occurs as a result of insulin deficiency or insulin resistance, when the body doesn’t respond normally to insulin. [8]

In the case of type 1 diabetes, emerging research suggests that the insulin-producing cells, in the pancreas, become inflamed when the immune cells attack, which can ultimately lead to the destruction of these insulin-producing cells. [9]

The path from inflammation to type 2 diabetes is a bit more complicated. Fat accumulation, which can be further propagated by red meat consumption, is a major contributor to insulin resistance and inflammation, which can both lead to diabetes. [9]

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Red Meat and Certain Cancers

Research suggests that consuming red meat can put you at a higher risk of developing rectal and colon cancer, as well as prostate and pancreatic cancer. Namely, processed red meats often contain additives like nitrites and nitrates, used for preservation and color. These compounds can form nitrosamines, which are potential carcinogens associated with cancer risk. [10]

Studies have also found that increased consumption of red meat can lead to the development of inflammatory bowel disease, which is a risk factor for both colon and rectal cancer. [11, 12]

Prioritize Your Health With Everlywell

Does red meat cause inflammation? It can, which may put you at a higher risk of developing serious conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and colon and rectum cancer.

To stay on top of your health, enlist Everlywell. We offer a variety of at-home tests including the Heart Health Test, and HbA1c Test to monitor your blood sugar levels. Or, schedule a virtual care visit to connect with a licensed healthcare provider.

Jumpstart your health today with Everlywell.

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  1. What’s the beef with red meat? Harvard Health Publishing. Published February 1, 2020. Medical Citation URL. Accessed January 18, 2024.
  2. Cancer, Diabetes and Heart Disease: A Paradigm Shift. AICR. Published August 2, 2012. Medical Citation URL. Accessed January 18, 2024.
  3. Frank S, et al. How Americans eat red and processed meat: an analysis of the contribution of thirteen different food groups. Public Health Nutr. Published February 21, 2022. Medical Citation URL. Accessed January 18, 2024.
  4. Beef, ground, 80% lean meat / 20% fat, raw. FoodData Central. Published April 1, 2019. Medical Citation URL. Accessed January 18, 2024.
  5. Eating red meat daily triples heart disease-related chemical. NIH. Published January 8, 2019. Medical Citation URL. Accessed January 18, 2024.
  6. Zhu Y, et al. Gut microbiota in atherosclerosis: focus on trimethylamine N‐oxide. APMIS. Published March 30, 2020. Medical Citation URL. Accessed January 18, 2024.
  7. Henein M, et al. The Role of Inflammation in Cardiovascular Disease. Int J Mol Sci. Published October 26, 2022. Medical Citation URL. Accessed January 18, 2024.
  8. Diabetes. Cleveland Clinic. Published February 17, 2023. Medical Citation URL. Accessed January 18, 2024.
  9. Tsalamandris S, et al. The Role of Inflammation in Diabetes: Current Concepts and Future Perspectives. Eur Cardiol. Published April 14, 2019. Medical Citation URL. Accessed January 18, 2024.
  10. Red Meat and Processed Meat Consumption. National Cancer Institute. Medical Citation URL. Accessed January 18, 2024.
  11. Ge J, et al. Meat intake and risk of inflammatory bowel disease: A meta-analysis. Turk J Gastroenterol. Medical Citation URL. Accessed January 18, 2024.
  12. Terzic J, et al. Inflammation and Colon Cancer. Gastroenterology. Published May 2010. Medical Citation URL. Accessed January 18, 2024.

Jillian Foglesong Stabile, MD, FAAFP is a board-certified Family Physician. Since completing her residency training in 2010, she’s been practicing full-scope family medicine in a rural setting. Dr. Foglesong Stabile’s practice includes caring for patients of all ages for preventative care as well as chronic disease management. She also provides prenatal care and delivers babies. Dr. Foglesong Stabile completed a teaching fellowship in 2020 and teaches the family medicine clerkship for one of her local medical schools. Dr. Foglesong Stabile’s favorite thing about family medicine is the variety of patients she sees in her clinical practice.
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