Recent decades have seen an abundance of research connecting chronic inflammation to a long list of diseases and conditions, especially the so-called “lifestyle” diseases and those typically associated with aging, including heart disease, kidney disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, depression, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer’s. Over the same period, study after study has shown that people who eat plant-based diets such as the Mediterranean Diet, rather than consuming the meat-heavy Standard American Diet, enjoy lower risk of such diseases. So it’s reasonable to wonder…Is red meat inflammatory? And if so, does cutting back on red meat mean less inflammation and thus less disease?

The story of meat and inflammation is slightly more complicated than one might think.

Inflammation and disease

Inflammation is the body’s natural response to injury. When you suffer an acute injury, inflammation is an early and temporary step in the healing process. But when the injury comes in the form of repeated exposure to harmful foods, environmental stimuli or stress, your organs—especially including your blood vessels—persist in a long-term state of near-constant inflammation. It’s this second form of inflammation, called chronic inflammation, that’s been linked to diseases.

Medical experts can get an idea of how much chronic inflammation a patient suffers from by looking for certain “biomarkers,” chemicals in the blood that indicate the presence of inflammation processes. The most well-known such biomarker is called C-Reactive Protein, or CRP.

Increased levels of chronic inflammation are a normal part of aging. As we get older, our cells have an increasingly difficult time dividing and regenerating, and these “senescent” cells produce more inflammatory molecules, even in the absence of injury. But while some chronic inflammation is inevitable, we can control how much inflammation we live with by making good lifestyle choices such as refraining from smoking, getting enough exercise, and eating a healthy diet.

Plant-based diets and health

Multiple studies demonstrate the superiority of various aspects of the Mediterranean Diet and its offshoots such as the DASH diet in comparison to the Standard American Diet. When people eat American-style instead of Mediterranean-style—that is, when their diets contain refined grains, processed meats and added sugars, rather than whole grains, fruits, vegetables and healthy fats—they trigger their bodies’ immune response, and disease follows. But does the Mediterranean diet preserve health and lower inflammation because it contains so little meat, or for some other reason? For example, a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who ate whole grains instead of refined grains such as white flour were better able to manage their weight, had lower cholesterol…and had lower levels of chronic inflammation. But swapping white bread for wheat bread has nothing to do with meat consumption. So does the Mediterranean Diet lower inflammation through its emphasis on whole grains, rather than by eschewing meat?

But what about inflammation?

As we’ve seen, plant-based diets appear to lower the risk of a myriad of bad outcomes including heart attack, stroke, and death, but what role does reduced inflammation play in improving outcomes? Given the nature of nutritional research, it’s difficult to draw a straight, definitive line between eating patterns, inflammation levels, and outcomes. However, with each additional study, a clearer picture emerges. In 2021, Harvard researchers studying 412 participants found that the DASH diet reduced levels of the inflammation biomarker CRP by 13%.

Putting the pieces together, so far we can say that:

  • The Mediterranean and DASH diets favor plant-based foods over meats
  • The DASH diet lowers levels of CRP (an inflammation biomarker)
  • The DASH diet is associated with lower risk of disease and death

But what we cannot say is that the Mediterranean and DASH diets improve health outcomes because they involve reduced consumption of red meat, which causes inflammation. In 2022 and 2023, two separate research teams undertook to learn whether those dots could be connected. The results of the two teams, while conflicting slightly with each other, both at least partially exonerate red meat when it comes to inflammation.

One team, a diverse group of international researchers including investigators from the United States Department of Agriculture, examined data on more than 3,600 adults by studying levels of inflammation-linked biomarkers that result specifically from meat consumption. Their finding? Neither processed nor unprocessed meats were linked to increased levels of these biomarkers except among people with high body mass index (BMI).

That’s significant, because excess body weight is known to be a key driver of inflammation in and of itself, and is linked to cardiovascular disease, dementia, high blood pressure, and diabetes. If the study’s finding holds up under further investigation, meat-eaters might not need to worry about an inflammatory disease pathway unless they’re overweight.

But the other team’s finding reflect less well on red meat. These researchers conducted a meta-analysis of more than 40 randomized controlled trials (considered the gold standard in medical research) on various inflammation biomarkers linked to red meat. What they found that processed red meat indeed increased the presence of inflammation biomarkers, while unprocessed red meat did not.

The takeaway

It’s tempting to come away from these studies with the idea that a person of normal BMI could eat unprocessed red meat without worrying about inflammation. While that may be technically true, at least within the limited context of these two studies, there’s more to think about. First, a great deal of additional research must be done before we can say anything conclusive about red meat and inflammation. And second, as explored above, there remains overwhelming evidence of harm associated with a meat-heavy diet (and overwhelming evidence of the health benefits of plant-based diets). The question, then, is not whether eating a lot of meat is unhealthy, but whether inflammation is the reason why eating a lot of meat is unhealthy. Whichever way the inflammation question finally lands, it makes sense to eat more plants than animals if you wish to avoid diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, and early death.

Finally, it bears underscoring that processed meats appear to be particularly bad for you and that we now have at least some evidence that inflammation plays a part in that. Leaving the question of inflammation aside, meats that have been smoked, salted, cured and fermented (such as hot dogs, sausages, jerkies, and bacon) have been labeled carcinogenic to humans because of their association with stomach and colorectal cancers. Removing them from the diet altogether would be wise.

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