Where did the Endo Red Meat Fear Come From?

The red meat fear is so engrained in the endo community it's hard to know where to begin. There is, of course, all the mishandled information about red meat and why it raises cholesterol, causes cancer, clogs arteries and more, but I'll just save that information for the "All meat is not created equal" section since indeed it can be true depending on the source! However, it's unfair to say all meat does these things when a well-sourced meat can indeed help heal.

Here, though, I want to dispel the three main myths specifically surrounding red meat and endo. The main issues I pulled out relating to endo and red meat are:

  • Red meat consumption causes endometriosis,
  • All red meat is high in estrogen,
  • Red meat causes and worsens inflammation

These three issues are all woven tightly into the endometriosis creation story, so often repeated they're taken as fact. I was so scared of red meat for a while that even looking at a steak would make me want to curl up fetal. But each of these stories has a point of conception, as well as truth behind the seemingly black-and-white facade. There's a lot of grey area in all things nutrition related, which is why as you read you'll see I'm only making a case for eating healthy, grass-fed, organic, and pastured animals rather than all red meat, and I'm never saying it's okay to eat chemical laden, factory farmed creatures. For more on that you can find that information in the "All meat is not created equal" section. But for now, let's focus on these myths.

Myth #1) Eating Red Meat Causes Endometriosis

Healthy Women.org writes “Several studies find a strong connection between endometriosis and diets high in red meat and low in green vegetables and fresh fruit. This fits with other studies finding similar connections between these eating patterns and endometrial cancer and fibroids (noncancerous tumors of the uterus). One seminal study in this area compared 504 healthy women and 504 women with endometriosis, finding that women who ate beef every day were nearly twice as likely to have endometriosis, while those who got seven or more fruit and vegetable servings a week were at least 40 percent less likely”

I use this quote because it succinctly sums up our beliefs about the relationship between red meat and endo. That diets high in red meat lead to endometriosis. Unfortunately, it’s misleading and here’s exactly why. There has never been a controlled study conducted that gives us direct evidence that red meat consumption causes endometriosis. The info we're given has been gleaned from questionnaires of lifestyle behaviors, which don't give us concrete evidence either way. Better put, one of the main studies this quote references is based on the Nurses Health Study, one of the longest and largest investigations into the risk factors for major chronic diseases in women. In order to collect such large swaths of information, participants are asked to fill out questionnaires on their lifestyle habits, and then the information is tallied together for results. That means these "results" were based on memory, estimates, and personal biases rather than conducted in a controlled environment. That's why these "results" aren't conclusive at all, and should really be suggestions as to what needs to be better studied. Like ... how red meat consumption affects endometriosis. 

If you want real scientific results, what we need instead is a controlled study, where two groups of women are eating and doing the exact same thing every day, with the exception that one control group ate meat. Why don't they do this? Because that’s incredibly expensive, and it’s much cheaper to distribute a lifestyle questionnaire.

Questionnaires like this have many issues, but the big take away here is that they allow researchers to make claims by pulling out one lifestyle and relating it to an outcome without showing all the lifestyle factors involved. Simply put, in the Nurses Study the people eating the most red meat were ALSO the least physically active, the most likely to smoke, the least likely to take a multivitamin, and had higher BMIs (a measure of obesity), higher alcohol intake, and a trend towards less healthy non-red-meat food choices. (1). I’m imagining my family in inland California right now, who eat lots of Costco steaks, smoke, drink, refuse fresh veggies, and never exercise. This indeed is a lifestyle that’s bad for endometriosis, and could lead to severe health problems, but cannot be at all correlated back to "red meat causes endometriosis".

Takeaway? Your lifestyle matters as much as your food choices in combatting endo, but there's no proven evidence anywhere (literally) that eating meat will cause endometriosis. There's simply no study out there that has researched this in a controlled experiment. That being said, I do believe some meat will make your endo worse, while some will heal it, all of which I lay out in the Meat that Hurts and meat that Heals section. What we can glean from these studies, however, is that smoking, being sedentary, eating factory farmed foods, drinking soda and consuming processed, nutrient poor foods will all increase your susceptibility to chronic disease, endo or not

Myth #2) High Hormone and Chemical Levels in Red Meat hurt/cause endo: 

 happy, grass fed animals don't have the synthetic hormone burden we so often associate with red meat.

happy, grass fed animals don't have the synthetic hormone burden we so often associate with red meat.

This can be very true, but again, only for unhealthy feedlot animals being fed antibiotics, pesticide laden grains, hormones, and other chemical additives. Growth-hormones in factory farmed animals are added so the animals get fatter much faster than they would without synthetic hormones being injected. This means a faster turnover for stalls, more marbled, unhealthy meat, and extra money lining the pockets of investors. This is sad, cruel, and will indeed increase estrogen levels in animals raised this way. 

However, healthy animals living and eating the way they're supposed to will have normal hormone levels that don't result in higher estrogen levels in humans. These guys are the ones we want to love, appreciate, care for, and, well, eat :) I'm not saying they won't have hormones at all, since all living beings have a wide variety of hormones (digestive, thyroid, adrenal, sex, etc) coursing through our bodies all day long. In dispelling that myth, we find that in healthy, grazing animals, hormones will be both minimal and naturally occurring (not synthetic) so our bodies won't actively absorb them into our system. That's why some indigenous groups eat majority animal products without becoming a hormone wasteland. The issue really is synthetically injected "Growth Hormones", which our bodies will indeed absorb as if we were shot up with them as well. You need to be concerned about these hormones, not the other naturally occurring ones. Remember, not all hormones are created equal.

Takeaway? Healthy animals eating fresh grass or forage that are raised organically (i.e. not injected with drugs) won’t have this issue, but factory farmed animals will indeed be bad for your health, and high in human growth hormones along with other antibiotics and chemicals.

Myth #3) Red Meat Causes Pain and Inflammation

This was actually the first thing I read about meat consumption relating to endo pain, that red meat causes the inflammatory prostaglandin to increase, thus increasing inflammation. I didn’t know anything about prostaglandins and the endo book I read seemed quite scientific, so I never questioned and continued on a vegetarian trend. Sadly, this info is also misleading and stopped me, for many years, from eating an incredibly nutritious source of protein, fat, and nutrients found in animal meat.

Want to learn a little about prostaglandins? Here’s a super basic summary for the scientifically inept like me:

Prostaglandins are hormones that deal with healing through first inflaming an area to bring circulation in, and then anti-inflaming so healing can finish. There are 3 types: PG1, PG2, PG3. 

  • PG1 is (usually) anti-inflammatory and made from omega-6 fatty acids. 
  • PG2 is inflammatory, and made from saturated fats. 
  • PG3 is anti-inflammatory, and is made from omega-3 fatty acids.

When you get hurt, PG2 rushes to the scene to inflame it, bringing healing blood and circulation to the area. As it heals, PG1 and PG3 then come to anti-inflame the area, allowing the tissue to heal.

Hey now, don’t hate on PG2, you need to inflame before you anti-inflame! It's what allows white blood cells into an area, like a superhighway. But you can see here why someone might jump to the conclusion of “Well simply stop the saturated fat intake if you have excess inflammation since it's the main ingredient for PG2”. Right? Not necessarily. Really, the bigger issue is twofold:

 See how easy it is to eat too many omega-6 fats if you cook with or eat processed foods that rely on these mostly bad fats (minus the sesame, peanut, walnut, and flax)? way too easy.

See how easy it is to eat too many omega-6 fats if you cook with or eat processed foods that rely on these mostly bad fats (minus the sesame, peanut, walnut, and flax)? way too easy.

  1. Omega-3 Deficit: Often the biggest issue is that we’re not getting nearly enough omega 3’s - indeed fatty acid deficiency is an epidemic worldwide! If you don't have omega-3 you literally can't make PG3 and the pain will persist no matter how much saturated fats you cut from your diet. You might be able to relate if you've totally cut out all red meat and still have earth shattering pain. Another big time symptoms of omega-3 deficiency is chronic fatigue, just FYI.
  2. Omega 6:3 ratio imbalance: As a human, your omega 6 consumption needs to be balanced with your omega 3 consumption in a ratio ranging between 3:1 - 1:1. However, many of us are getting wayyyyyy too many omega-6, which are found in vegetable oils and therefor nearly all processed, prepackaged, and restaurant foods. When the Omega 6:3 balance is off (many Americans are consuming a ratio of 25:1) it causes, you guessed it, rampant inflammation!

And guess what, factory farmed animals have this same imbalance that we get when eating an unnatural diet since they've also been fed an abnormal diet. So when you eat factory farmed animals you can indeed experience more inflammation from this reason, along with many others. Feedlot beef differs depending on the source, but can average around 14:1.

Grass-fed meat, on the other hand, has a ratio of 3:1-1:1, the perfect ratio! It also has 2-4x the amount of omega 3's, so it's actually beneficial to eat for inflammation control, rather than harmful. 

Here’s another bit of food for thought: optimal ancestral diets tend to be made up of a mixture of approximately 96% saturated and monounsaturated fats (depending on where you live one would be higher than the other), and only 4% polyunsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats are your omegas and, you read it right, should make up only 4% of your total fat intake. That's only a tiny amount! You don’t need much of these important fats to meet your quota, but indeed most people still aren’t getting nearly enough omega 3's in quantity nor quality, yet often way too many Omega 6's from refined vegetable oils (such as corn, sunflower, soy, canola, grape seed, etc), fried foods, processed snacks, most processed foods in general, and margarine.

Takeaway? Saturated fat is not to blame for your endo pain. Lack of omegas, imbalanced omegas, and quality of omegas are much more likely the culprit (not to mention any chemical additives, dioxin levels, and endocrine disruptors in feedlot animals). Without proper quality omega 3’s, your body can inflame all day without the second burst of healing ever occurring, and with too many omega 6's your imbalance will cause the inflammation you're trying to avoid.

The best omega 3 rich foods for healing include wild caught cold water fish such as sardines, anchovies, mackerel, and salmon {farm raised fish will have the same issues as factory farmed animals, so avoid these}, as well as pastured eggs, and grass-fed meats and diary. I recommend supplementing with a very specific fish oil unless you're eating lots of the aforementioned foods every day.

A note on plant sources of Omega 3: plant sources of omega-3's are harder to convert into PG3 because they actually need to be converted from the their original form to ALA (alpha linolenic acid) before it can turn into EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), and then finally into PG3. That's a lot of chemical reactions for a sick body to do! Just because a human body can do this conversion doesn't mean yours can if your health is impaired, as this conversion relies on proper digestive function, liver function, and zinc/magnesium/b6. That means if you suffer from a chronic condition like endometriosis you may not be able to do much or any of this conversion, which is why I seriously recommend getting your omega 3's from animal sources (no conversion needed) until your health is back to normal.