Red meat is bad for endometriosis: myth or reality?

Author of the blog I Love Being Healthy

⏰ READING TIME: 3 minutes

Welcome back!
I hope you are ready to get through a new content with me, today, about red meat: is it inflammatory or not? Can we include it in our diet?

PLEASE NOTE: If you are 100% morally and ethically against meat consumption, you can stop reading this article, I respect your opinion and have no intention of persuading you otherwise 😊

1. Where does the “fear” of consuming red meat come from?

The concept of limiting or eliminating the consumption of red meat is so rooted in the “community” of women affected by endometriosis that I am not sure about where to start. First of all, there’s a lot of rumours about it (it raises the cholesterol level, induces cancers, obstructs the arteries, …), but they never specify that all this significantly depends on the provenance of said meat (besides the weekly amount consumed!).

Today, I’d like to talk about three false myths about the relationship between red meat and endometriosis:

  1. The consumption of red meat induces endometriosis
  2. All red meat is rich in estrogens
  3. Red meat induces and worsens inflammation

I won’t hide the fact that, for at least the first year and a half after starting to follow an anti-inflammatory diet, I had completely banished red meat. But the truth is that many things about nutrition (and the endometriosis diet) are not black or white: we are in a sort of grey area and, thus, some nutritional recommendations are good for some of us but not for others. This is why the support of a nutritionist is paramount. Anyway, what I am about to tell you within this article is in favour of the (moderate, though) consumption of healthy animals, grass-fed and raised on pasture, NOT of an indiscriminate consumption of red meat!

It is absolutely not recommended to feed on animals stuffed with chemicals and raised in factory farms! But let’s come to our myths 😊

2. Eating red meat causes endometriosis

Various studies have revealed a strong connection of the endometriosis condition with diets rich in red meat and poor in green vegetables and fresh fruit. This is consistent with the findings of other studies that have reported similar correlations of such nutrition regimes with endometrial cancer and uterine fibroids (non-cancerous tumours of the uterus).
One of the first, and perhaps the most known, studies about it dates back to 2004 (you find it here [1]). The data were collected in Northern Italy, between 1984 and 1999. 504 healthy women were compared with other 504 women laparoscopically diagnosed with endometriosis; the results showed that the subjects eating red meat every day had twice as high the risk of developing endometriosis, while those regularly consuming 7 or more portions of fruit and vegetables per week exhibited a 40% less probability for it.
In summary, this article suggests that a diet rich in red meat leads to a higher endometriosis risk, confirming our theories. Note, though, that the presented data were recorded via questionnaires about nutritional habits and life style; thus, they were based on memory, estimations and personal evaluations and not obtained in a controlled environment. Therefore, they are not definitive and should be further analysed.

Anything more recent?
Of course. A study conducted in 2018 (you find it here [2]), on data collected between 1991 and 2013 within the Nurses’ Health Study II [3], is one of the investigations on a larger scale about the risk factors for the major chronic diseases affecting women. First of all, it has demonstrated a statistical association between endometriosis risk and red meat consumption but, in this case, the comparison was performed between women eating more than two portions of red meat per day (that is, we are talking about a LOOOT of meat here!) with those having only one or less of them per week.
Moreover, all the other factors involved must be considered. The participants to the Nurses’ Health Study II that were eating more red meat were ALSO among those less physically active and with the highest incidence of smokers, the less regular intake of multivitamins, the highest body mass index (BMI) and the highest inclination to alcohol consumption.
I mean: if I smoke, drink, don’t eat many vegetables, make almost no physical exercises and eat 2 steaks per day… it’s obvious that my life style is bad for endometriosis and, besides, it makes me prone to a lot of health problems! But this issue cannot be explained by simply saying: “eating red meat causes endometriosis”.
The most recent study that I could find about this topic was conducted in 2019 on 156 Iranian women (ehere/a> [4]). These are its main findings:

  • Regular consumption of red meat can even reduce the endometriosis risk, but how? This is because the average meat consumption in the Iranian population is lower than that in the Italian [1] and American [2] populations, for which the correlation was observed for constant daily consumption. This is due also to the better quality of the meat; for example, when the Italian study [1] was conducted, there was dioxin contamination of both human and animal foods in Italy, which might have altered the results.
  • The consumption of higher levels of (animal) proteins is associated with reduced endometriosis risk. This seems due to the fact that plant-based foods lack many types of essential amino acids and, thus, have less impact than the animal-based ones. Besides, a protein-rich diet helps to improve the lipid profile and weight loss, thus being more effective on the immune and hormonal system.
Conclusion? Your life style matters more than your nutritional choices when it comes to living with and fighting endometriosis but, for now, there’s no certainty that the consumption of red meat induces endometriosis. That being said, not all the meat types are the same and some of them might actually promote the development of the disease, as we’ll see in a bit. On the other hand, scientific studies have demonstrated that smoking, being sedentary, eating processed foods and drinking sweetened beverages increase your chances of developing a chronic disease, whether you have endometriosis or not.

3. The high hormone and chemical levels in red meat worsen/induce endometriosis

This might be true. But it’s valid for those animals raised in unhealthy conditions, that is, fed with antibiotics, cereals stuffed with pesticides, hormones and other chemical additives. Growth hormones are administered to animals to make them gain weight faster (with the purpose of producing and selling more meat!).
In contrast, the consumption of meat from healthy, pasture bred animals, living and eating as they are supposed to or, however, in sustainable conditions, does not raise the estrogen levels in humans. They are not completely free of hormones (as living beings, they obviously have their own digestive, thyroid, adrenal and sexual hormones), but such hormone levels will be minimal and natural (not synthetic, as the growth hormones!) and won’t be actively absorbed by our organism.
The problems arise when we eat animals administered with growth hormones: our body assimilates them almost as they were administered directly to us.

Conclusion? Healthy animals (bovines), which eat grass or forage and are naturally raised (without the administration of drugs or hormones), do not cause problems, while those bred in factory farms are really harmful to our health and rich in growth hormones, chemicals and antibiotics.

4. Red meat causes pain and inflammation

Perhaps, you have read that red meat consumption raises the levels of inflammatory prostaglandins. Do you want to know what they are?
Prostaglandins are molecules that make us heal by initially getting inflamed the interested area, so as to improve its circulation, and then acting as anti-inflammatories to conclude the healing process. There are three types of prostaglandins:

  • PG1: it is (usually) anti-inflammatory and consists of Omega-6 fatty acids;
  • PG2: it is inflammatory, instead, and consists of saturated fats;
  • PG3: it is anti-inflammatory and consists of Omega-3 fatty acids.

If you get hurt, let’s say you injure your hand with a knife, PG2 rushes to the wounded area to get it inflamed, increasing the inflow of blood and white blood cells and allowing better circulation. Once the healing process has begun, PG1 and PG3 arrive to reduce the inflammation and let the wound on your hand heal.
Now that you have a general idea of how this process works, you probably understand that PG2 is not necessarily the enemy, but the situation must be evaluated as a whole. In our case, we are referring to the pain (and inflammation) that endometriosis lesions, nodules and cysts cause us. Different scenarios can occur:

  • OMEGA 3 DEFICIENCY: often, we don’t get enough Omega 3 through the diet. If you don’t have enough Omega 3, you can’t produce PG3 and, thus, your pain won’t fade even if you eliminate all the PG2 saturated fats (and, thus, the red meat, which contains them) from your diet. For your information, another important symptom of Omega 3 deficiency is the chronic fatigue syndrome!
How much Omega 3 is enough? Some organizations recommend a minimum dose combined with 200–500 mg of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) + DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) per day. But we usually consume, on average, a quarter of this recommended amount (for example, by eating 2 portions of oily fishes per week); our ancestors, instead, consumed between 1.5 and 31 times more of it!! [5]
  • IMBALANCE IN THE OMEGA 6/OMEGA 3 RATIO: the consumption of Omega 6 and Omega 3 must be balanced, with a ratio between 3:1 and 1:1. Nonetheless, we usually ingest Omega 6 in excess (they are found in vegetable oils and, thus, are present in any packaged and processed food we buy; they are also widely used in restaurants, for example for frying, because of their low costs).
    When Omega 6 and Omega 3 are NOT balanced, serious inflammation occurs. And guess what? The animals bred in factory farms suffer from this disorder because they follow an unnatural diet, mainly based on cereals. They present an average Omega 6/Omega 3 ratio between 14:1 and 17:1. Grass-fed (that is, pasture bred) animals, instead, generally have a ratio between 3:1 and 1:1, which is perfect! They also contain, globally, good levels of Omega 3 and, thus, are even useful to fight the inflammation, rather than fueling it.
Conclusion? If you don’t ingest enough Omega 3, your body remains inflamed, without reaching the second healing phase. The best sources of Omega 3 are fished cold-water fishes, such as sardines, anchovies, mackerels and salmons (wild! Bred fishes present the same problems as bred animals; hence, you should highly reduce their consumption), as well as organic eggs and grass-fed meat. Dietary supplements are recommended only if you think you’re not ingesting enough of it.

If you are wondering… yes, Omega 3 can be obtained also through a vegetable diet (for example, linseed oil, chia seeds, hemp seeds, green leafy vegetables, tubers, nuts and pumpkins are rich in Omega 3).
However, the plant sources of Omega 3 are harder to convert into PG3:

As you can see, these are a lot of chemical reactions for a sick body! Just because the human body can potentially make this conversion, it doesn’t mean that yours can actually do it when your health is compromised since these reactions can occur only if you have proper digestive and hepatic functions and the correct amounts of zinc, magnesium and vitamin B6. This means that, if you suffer from a chronic disease such as endometriosis, you might not be able to effectively perform this conversion; this is why I suggest you talk about it with your expert and seriously consider the possibility of taking your Omega 3 from animal sources (no conversion required!! There is a direct passage from animal Omega 3 to PG3), at least until you’ll feel better or won’t be too inflamed anymore!

Last tip: meat must NOT be at the centre of your nutrition! Moderate consumption of grass-fed, organic meat cannot hurt you, though, on the contrary!!
Anyway, give priority to consuming many vegetables, reducing the sugars, balancing your glycaemic index… and remember to go for a nice, long walk every day 😊

Ps: Please, leave a comment to let me know which topics you’d like to read on the next articles of this blog and if you like this format! Thank you in advance for your help.

Follow Lia on Instagram: @ilovebeinghealthy_88

 

Bibliography

[1] Parazzini, F., Chiaffarino, F., Surace, M., Chatenoud, L., Cipriani, S., Chiantera, V., … & Fedele, L. (2004). Selected food intake and risk of endometriosis. Human Reproduction, 19(8), 1755-1759, su https://academic.oup.com/humrep/article/19/8/1755/2356458. URL consultato il 10 ottobre 2020.

[2] Yamamoto, A., Harris, H. R., Vitonis, A. F., Chavarro, J. E., & Missmer, S. A. (2018). A prospective cohort study of meat and fish consumption and endometriosis risk. American journal of obstetrics and gynecology, 219(2), 178-e1, su https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0002937818304447?casa_token=LBu-Bt15pNIAAAAA:UdPi6o6l4FW1AtvvFQ1VhjTj-7gxpgx9cODTzR4R6l7t6EdjVoxDGEuCPRz0Ubk8xpuzhUAS. URL consultato il 10 ottobre 2020.

[3] Nurses’ Health Study, su https://www.nurseshealthstudy.org/. URL consultato il 10 ottobre 2020.

[4] Samaneh, Y., ShahidehJahanian, S., Azadeh, M., & Anoshirvan, K. (2019). The association of food consumption and nutrient intake with endometriosis risk in Iranian women: A case-control study. International Journal of Reproductive BioMedicine, 17(9), 661, su https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6804327/. URL consultato il 10 ottobre 2020.

[5] Red Meat and Endo: A Scientific Deep Dive, su https://www.healendo.com/blog-1/2020/6/16/red-meat-and-endo-lets-debunk-the-myth?rq=MEAT. URL consultato il 10 ottobre 2020.

 

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