I’ve always thought that my body couldn't handle red meat was because I grew up eating 80 percent vegetarian. My family didn’t have a lot of money and our nightly dinners had six to 12 people at them, so expensive meat wasn’t an option. Plus, my mom’s a vegetarian and even though my dad was the primary parent for dinner, that definitely influenced our groceries. We ate a lot of grains, eggs, and plant-based proteins in our house and as an adult, I’ve mostly stuck to that way of eating. That is, until I met my boyfriend.
My boyfriend is a carnivore. Nothing makes him happier than a perfectly cooked ribeye steak. (The man will barely even order it in restaurants anymore, because he’s figured out the exact way to cook it.) He’s like Ron Swanson — he eats meat at basically every meal, and that works for him. It gives him the energy he needs, without sugar spikes, and helps him build muscle.
Can you see the problem here? We’re opposites. I’ve eaten more meat since we got together and I’ve found over the years that adding meat to my diet leads to gut upset (which is a polite way of saying farts and poops), and sluggishness. My body is pretty clear: Meat and I don’t get along.
Or so I thought. It turns out that the way our bodies respond to eating meat is a bit more complicated than “boyfriend likes, girlfriend doesn’t.” Here's what health experts have to say.
1. We Are What We Eat (And What They Eat)
According to Dr. Steven R. Gundry, MD, medical director of the The International Heart and Lung Institute and The Centers for Restorative Medicine, the meat we eat these days isn’t “just” meat.
“Humans are omnivores and a such can eat and tolerate ‘meat’ without a problem,” Dr. Gundry tells Bustle. “As I show my NYT's bestselling book, The Plant Paradox, you are what you eat, but you are what the thing you are eating, ate. If you feed a cow, pig, chicken or fish, soybeans, wheat, or corn, and give them antibiotics, the animal is not longer an animal that eats grass or bugs. Most of my patients who say they cannot eat or react to meat poorly, are reacting to the way the animal has been fed, not the animal protein, itself.”
As a result, a lot of nutritionists recommend eating only grass-fed beef and organic meats that haven’t had hormones added. (And here I was thinking it was just a marketing gimmick to get me to spend more money!)
2. It Might Be More About The Sides...
But in addition to what the animal was fed, the way we feed ourselves might also be a factor when it seems like your body can’t tolerate meat.
“Some meats, like fattier cuts of steak and burgers are more difficult to digest for anyone,” Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, and New York City- based performance nutritionist, tells Bustle. “A larger portion also means slower digestion, and sometimes when people eat meat they also eat it with other heavy foods, like meatloaf with mashed potatoes and gravy, or barbecue with mac and cheese. In these cases the foods you’re consuming meat with add to the symptoms.”
That one definitely resonates for me. Who doesn’t love fries with their burger or mashed potatoes with their steak? I mean, steak frites is even considered a complete dinner, in more than one culture! But when I think about it, I don’t really eat those heavy, fried foods except with meat. So maybe some of the problems I’ve had have more to do with those side dishes, and less to do with the meat itself.
3. It's Probably NOT Your Gut Bacteria's Fault
Also, it turns out I was wrong about my hypothesis about my gut not being able to tolerate meat because I grew up mostly vegetarian.
“We’re learning more about the gut microbiome every day, but we do know that it’s always changing, so while the makeup of it early in life is important, it does change,” Sass says. “In fact, we know that there’s a shift in the microbiome within three to four days of changing how you eat.”
4. You Might Be Allergic
Finally, it’s possible that you might be straight up allergic to meat, which is a whole other issue. Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN, CLC of Maya Feller Nutrition, tells Bustle that while meat allergies are rare, they do exist. Symptoms of a meat allergy are similar to that of other allergies people may be more familiar with: itching and burning around the mouth and lips, swelling of the lips, tongue, and throat, and even anaphylactic shock. A meat allergy can also cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
But just because your body feels a little icky after eating mean doesn’t mean you have a meat allergy. You might just be responding to one of the other reasons.
If you’re feeling like your body doesn’t tolerate meat properly, consider eating smaller portions, eating only grass-fed and hormone-free meats, and switching out those mashed potatoes for a side salad.