Might red meat be linked to pain issues? You’ll often hear “I’m trying to eat less meat” or “I eat chicken and fish…but not red meat”. These statements are rarely evidence-based. The latest well-conducted evidence show that red meat is not linked to heart disease. If you are vegetarian or vegan, I totally respect that, and have been vegetarian in the past. But because of animal issues, not health reasons.
But that’s not what we’re talking about on this website. We talk about…pain! People have been speculating that because of the latest red meat study, we might also presume that red meat might be bad for pain. These people are very very wrong. I won’t get into why the study is bad. Some people who write about the “paleo” diet, such as Robb Wolf, Mark Sisson/Denise Minger, and J. Stanton, do a good job of pointing out the study’s flaws. My full time job is reviewing medical evidence, grading study quality, and synthesizing results. Trust me, this study says not much about anything.
What I will do is point out things in red meat that can help pain and things that might (but probably not) cause pain.
First up to bat: saturated fat! Saturated fat might not be directly linked to pain, but it displaces inflammatory omega-6 oils that may be associated with pain. Second is B vitamins. Red meat is higher in B vitamins than most other non-fortified foods, and B-vitamins are involved in energy metabolism. This is important because fatigue is associated with pain conditions (read: fibro). Other related substances in meat include carnitine, which helps you burn fat, and CLA, which plays a role in metabolism as well. Third is the high level of creatine in red meat, which helps in building muscle and preventing one from having low muscle mass and not being resilient against injury. There are many more things, such as as cartilage from meat that is still on the bone, but let’s not get too much into this without talking about potential pitfalls with red meat.
What about ways in which red meat can cause pain? There are a couple:
Iron: Red meat is high in iron. This might be good for people who are anemic, which can compound pain issues. But it could be bad over long periods to get too much iron, because it could potentially lead to excess iron being deposited in joints. And iron is easily oxidized in the body, which is bad. Neu5Gc: This is a molecule that is part of red meat and not widely reported on. We don’t know much about it, but it may be linked to inflammation. My suspicion is that it has a very minor role, but I’ll definitely be keeping track of new research. Hormones: If your meat is not pastured on grass, and it’s fed lots of hormones, these may pass on to you. Exogenous hormones and chemicals that cause your own hormones to go out of wack may be bad for pain because of the immune response your body would launch, as well as other potential pathways. Also, there may be a connection between meat and gout, but the link is likely stronger between sugar and gout.
So there you have it. If you are scared of red meat causing your pain, I’d say there are a lot of things to be scared of beforehand. Be scared of sitting too much–it can tense your back muscles and cause spasm and imbalance, along with joint impingement. Be scared of eating too much grains and sugar–it is definitely linked to inflammation. Be scared of your doctor–some doctors will operate on you at the drop of a hat instead of going over other treatment options first. Then if you have time left over, you can think about being scared of red meat.