Does Red Meat Cause Inflammation?

August 8, 2018



So this little article popped up a fe days back on the One Football app.  Smalling states red meat causes inflammation. That's a pretty huge statement to make and as soon as I read it I thought. Where's he got that from. Let's look a bit deeper and strap on in to see if it holds water, and get some clarity:

Most people know what acute inflammation looks and feels like. You sprain your ankle, there's redness, swelling etc. Very physical signs as the body goes through the first stage of a healing process. 

What Chris is referring to is systemic, chronic inflammation that you can't necessarily see or feel on but is going on inside your body. Dr Barry Sears (Zone Diet author) once called it 'silent inflammation'. Basically all forms of diseases are a type of inflammation in his eyes. 

What causes chronic inflammation?

- smoking
- outdoor and indoor air pollution
- endocrine disruptors and environmental chemicals
- less daily activity
- sleep deprivation and artificial lighting
- chronic stress
- too many omega-6 fats (e.g.eggs, nuts), not enough, omega-3s (e.g. grass fed beef/oily fish like mackerel, salmon, sardines)
- fast foods
- obesity

Now the only info I could find relating to meat causing inflammation was mainly around processed meats or meat consumption in combination with other animal products like eggs and dairy. 

Smalling refers to niggles he used to pick up and how pre season was often tough for him but has been breezy since he went vegan. What he has failed to highlight is that  he has taken more than just meat out of his diet. It may well actually be dairy or eggs that are his problem not meat per say. 

Food elimination/reintroduction protocols ( e.g. autoimmune protocol) can establish what you can or cannot tolerate (or intolerance testing). He's not given himself the chance to find that out and instead is perpetuating a generalisation (possibly) being suggested in Mr & Mrs Smalling's Vegan circles. 



I've actually worked with a few clients who've had issues with eggs after they started eating more of them.. and a simple reduction in frequency of consumption solved the issue. 

A recent veggie convert client had also removed all animal products, done so on this inflammation idea. They were reticent to reintroduce any form of animal protein because another professional coach had convinced her that much, of it causing her inflamed joints.

The irony is she'd worked with me before and improved her rheumatoid arthritis from increased omega 3 supplementation and by taking grains and dairy out of her diet...but not animal protein. 

It's very easy for some people to get swayed and they forget how to assess these things rationally. 

Red Meat (in particular processed meat) does have some serious ties to cancers of the colon/rectal areas to be of concern. Especially if compounded by smoking, drinking and little exercise. The inflammation tag for red meat alone is misguided at best.  It's possibly come about from this:



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.


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.


Sometimes these myths come about from chinese whispers or a lack of clarity in analysis of the science. Occasionally, it may well just be to support an agenda in pushing a diet too...but that's another story. 


Direct studies on red meat and inflammation 

There are two controlled trial studies that show eating red meat does not increase inflammation (inflammatory blood markers).  One of the studies showed that replacing carbohydrates (bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, and breakfast cereals) with red meat actually decreased inflammation. (1) The other study showed that a diet high in red meat versus a diet high in oily fish (food high in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids) showed no marked difference in inflammation. (2) What these studies suggest is that eating red meat is no more inflammatory than other meats and likely less inflammatory than eating carbohydrates.  (Dr. Collins - see references below)


Quoting individual studies does not mean definitive (A causes B). For that to be stated requires a heavy body of studies, ideally done on humans that have concluded the same things.  


For example on the red meat causing cancer debate: "As there have been no interventions, it cannot be concluded that red meat causes cancer or mortality. It is associated, but causation has not yet been established." (

Unfortunately, with Smalling being a high profile sportsman people may add some authority to his statements but the truth is it's not as simple as red meat causes inflammation. Other foods can too (see the Nightshades in Paleo literature), along with the lifestyle factors mentioned above. It's then whether you wish to investigate and look to find the specific culprit or the combination of factors that contribute to your inflammation issues.  




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