Is Red Meat Bad For Your Autoimmune Health?
If you have an autoimmune disease, you know that cutting red meat from the diet is often one of the first pieces of dietary advice out there. Do a Google search on “red meat and autoimmunity”, and find this notion at every click. But is ditching red meat really the right thing to do, or does it stem from a widely-held, yet unsubstantiated view that red meat kills? Do some digging, and you will notice that there are no definitive case-control studies or clinical trials that conclude that unprocessed red meat worsens autoimmune diseases or causes excessive inflammation.
As far as autoimmunity itself, there has been work that has shed a great amount of light on its root causes and points to key dietary and lifestyle changes as options. Lowering inflammation from as many angles as possible is a piece of the puzzle, and there are certainly some promising changes a person with autoimmune disease can make.
The studies which “prove” that red meat is inflammatory and increases chronic disease and death risk are observational studies; which means that they can only identify correlation–not causation. Observational studies are meant to spark hypotheses which should then be tested and replicated to identify cause and effect. They are only a starting point in the scientific process, yet year after year, observational study after observational study comes out and is represented by the media as fact.
What’s more, data gathering for observational studies is often shoddy, such as with Food Frequency Questionnaires (FFQ’s). These rely on a person’s memory, honesty and accuracy about what they ate over a considerable amount of time—years, in fact. Do you remember what you ate for lunch last Wednesday? I sure don’t! Furthermore, FFQ’s do not typically discern between conventionally farmed and grass-fed meats, and there is a significant difference in fatty acid profiles between the two, with grass-fed meats having a far lower n-6 to n-3 ratio. In simple terms, this means more anti-inflammatory Omega-3 fatty acids and less inflammatory Omega-6 fatty acids.
Food Frequency Questionnaires generalize meat intake, so that unprocessed meats are lumped in with processed and cured meats. Although higher meat and meat fat intakes have been associated with higher risk and symptomology of Rheumatoid Arthritis, one review article in the British Journal of Nutrition, explores the possibility of nitrite, coupled with added sugar in cured meats, being a likely culprit in the onset and exacerbation of symptoms in RA. RA patients have been found to have increased concentrations of nitrite, nitrate and nitric oxide in their blood serum, synovial (joint) tissues, or urine.
A further issue with observational studies and the “gold standard” FFQ’s they employ, is that foods with both a high carbohydrate and protein content, such as hamburgers and pizzas, are not differentiated from lean and unprocessed meat intake. How is that fair? Also, we know that a high-carbohydrate/high-glycemic load diet will induce inflammation and increase chronic disease risk.
One major conventional strike against red meat has been its saturated fat content. Saturated fat has found to increase inflammation, but when high saturated fat intakes were studied in conjunction with low-carbohydrate intakes, inflammatory effects were found to be limited. Lifestyle factors, which might increase disease risk, are often overlooked in observational studies. Some examples include physical activity and stress levels.
There is a widely accepted theory that since iron is a pro-oxidant (promoter of oxidation and inflammation), eating red meat, which is rich in the readily used heme form of iron, would increase inflammation for a person with an autoimmune disease. While this notion is certainly plausible, a 2007 study published in the Journal of Nutrition looked at inflammatory markers of 60 people after an increase in unprocessed red med and concurrent lowering of carbohydrate intake. The authors concluded that, “…our results suggest that partial replacement of dietary carbohydrate with protein from lean red meat does not elevate oxidative stress or inflammation.”
So, perhaps what is most important is not so much eliminating red meat, but the balance of the overall diet and being careful not to consume excessive carbohydrate along with red meat. And, of course, the quality of the meat you eat is critical. Choosing lean cuts of grass-fed organic meat will yield a more beneficial n-6 to n-3 ratio and may help to decrease inflammation and related symptoms.
Dr. Alesio Fasano, one of the world’s top researchers on autoimmunity and the influence of gluten, has concluded that in order for autoimmunity to occur, there must be a perfect storm of genetic susceptibility, an environmental trigger and altered barrier function, which includes leaky gut and intestinal microbial imbalance. This means that even if the right genetics are present, disease development will not occur unless barrier function is compromised. A leaky gut allows proteins and even toxins produced by microbes living in the gut to cross the brush border and interact with the immune system, making otherwise harmless foods inflammatory.
Furthermore, thinking upstream, digestion must be working properly to ensure that proteins are broken down and do not reach the brush border intact. Only when undigested proteins reach a leaky gut can they cross the brush border and cause an immune response. Therefore, let us not forget to examine faulty digestion and its causes and effects, as well as leaky gut and barrier-protective microbiota as major characters in the autoimmune story. The topic of leaky gut’s contribution to autoimmune onset has been explored elsewhere on AutoimmuneMom.com in the link above. Red meat, along with other meats and foods, can certainly be an issue for a person with faulty digestion, leaky gut and/or microbial imbalance, as any food can become a trigger under these circumstances.
The debate over whether red meat causes and/or worsens autoimmunity will likely continue on for years to come, but I would challenge you to think in terms of quality and quantity of the red meat (and other flesh) you consume. Just as important, balance your intake with plenty of fresh vegetables and high-antioxidant foods; be moderate with your carbohydrate consumption and regulate your glycemic load. Include fish in your diet, particularly those with a high omega-3 content such as wild salmon, trout and sardines, and/or take a high-quality daily fish oil or EPA/DHA supplement, as omega-3 fatty acids may be useful in the management of inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.
Grass-fed meats are rich in omega-3 as well. Having a balanced and diverse microbiota protects your brush border, so eat an array of lacto-fermented pro-and prebiotic- rich foods, take a good quality probiotic and be very conservative and vigilant regarding your exposure to alcohol, antibiotics, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, anti-bacterial soaps, hand sanitizers, chlorine and other substances that kill off your beneficial microbes and reduce the diversity of your microbiome.
Avoid inflammatory foods such as refined sugars and flours, trans-fats, fried and burned foods, refined vegetable oils, gluten and any suspected or confirmed food trigger. Heal your digestion and your gut. Get moderate daily exercise. Last but far from least, take time to relax and enjoy the company of family and good friends, perhaps even over a juicy grass-fed steak, a small serving of herbed quinoa and a large, exquisitely colorful salad.
About the Author
Angie King-Nosseir MS, RD is an Integrative and Functional Registered Dietitian, with a passion for walking with people along their path toward health transformation. Angie has a Master’s degree in Nutrition, is a Certified LEAP Therapist, corporate wellness health coach, freelance nutrition and wellness writer, and certified yoga instructor. She is trained in Functional Nutrition and Medicine through the Institute for Functional Medicine and in Food as Medicine through the Center for Mind-Body Medicine.
This blog post was originally published by AutoimmuneMom.com, written by Angie King-Nosseir, and first published on Aug 22, 2014.
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