High Meat Diet Risks Gut Pain
Another day, another health threat that often refuses to give us clear symptoms. Diverticulitis can develop when small, bulging pouches in the colon, diverticula, become inflamed or infected. The good news? It’s fixable.
It’s tricky though. Not only can you be symptom free for years, but when symptoms do appear, they can present similarly to many other ailments:
- Severe belly pain, usually in the lower left side, that’s sometimes aggravated by moving
- Fever and chills
- Bloating and gas
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Nausea and vomiting
- Lack of appetite
Symptoms can last from a few hours to a week or more. Your doctor can search for signs using:
- Blood test
- Digital rectal exam
- CT scan
Mainstream treatment options include antibiotics or, in severe cases, surgery. But there are far more preferable options, of course, especially a healthy diet.
What causes diverticulitis?
It’s thought that lack of dietary fiber is a likely cause of diverticulitis. Without fiber to bulk up the stool, the colon has to work harder to move the stool forward. The additional pressure could cause pouches to form in weak spots along the colon. These may invite bacteria and infection.
Incidence of the disease is low in Asia and Africa, where diets tend to be higher in fiber, which certainly supports this hypothesis.
Is meat part of the problem?
There’s now evidence that high consumption of red meat is associated with an increased risk for diverticulitis.
Some blame a molecule in red meat called Neu5Gc. Our bodies can’t digest it, so after it’s ingested, the body creates anti-Neu5Gc antibodies. This immune system response causes inflammation, which, when chronic, is often an open door to all sorts of disease, including heart disease and cancers of the colon and rectum, and possibly of the esophagus and lungs.
Of meat and men
A recent study analyzed data from 46,461 men to test the association between meat consumption and the risk for diverticulitis.
Data were gathered on consumption of:
- Red meat, in total
- Red meat, processed—smoked, cured, salted, or chemically preserved e.g., bacon, sausage, deli meats
- Red meat, unprocessed
This was a large, long-term study that launched in 1986 and concluded in 2012. The men provided data every 2 years on demographics, lifestyle, medical history, and disease outcomes. They were questioned on diet every 4 years.
- Men with the highest total red meat consumption had the highest risk for diverticulitis
- Relative risk for diverticulitis increased by 18 percent for each serving of red meat per week, but showed no additional risk from more than 6 servings per week
- Substituting poultry or fish for one serving of unprocessed red meat per day reduced the relative risk by 20 percent
- There was no increased diverticulitis risk associated with fish or poultry consumption
- Interestingly, increased consumption of unprocessed red meat increased the risk
This last finding is contrary to the conventional wisdom that “processed = bad and unprocessed = OK.” Bodies are complicated, and the things you eat can affect you in more than one way. Specifically for diverticulitis, it seems that processed meat puts you marginally less at risk, but it’s clear that there are other reasons to cut back on processed red meat, like cold cuts and sausages larded up with salts, nitrites, nitrates, or smoke.
A 2010 Harvard study found that eating processed meat was associated with a 42 percent higher risk of heart disease and a 19 percent higher risk of type 2 diabetes.
A 2015 World Health Organisation (WHO) report concluded that eating processed meat raises the risk of colon cancer and that consuming other red meats “probably” raises the risk as well.
It seems clear that red meat is a risk factor for diverticulitis, and that substituting another protein—like fish with healthy omega-3 EFAs or plant proteins packed with fiber—in some meals is good for your gut, and helps avoid problems like heart disease, diabetes, and colon cancer.
I enjoy all meat, but only unprocessed, fresh, local, humanely raised, grass fed, and organic. It’s a great source of protein and lots of other nutrients. Plus can we say “delicious?”
My opinion? It’s fine for you to enjoy unprocessed red meat 2–3 times a week. (Stick to a single serving at a time—2-3 ounces, about the size of a deck of cards.)
But, it’s great for you to raise your fiber intake. Countless studies show that eating fiber-rich foods can help prevent or control diverticular symptoms. I recommend:
- Women younger than 51—25 grams of fiber daily
- Women 51 and older—21 grams daily
- Men younger than 51—38 grams of fiber daily
- Men 51 and older—30 grams daily
Here are a few fiber-rich foods to enjoy in your meals:
- 100% whole-grain breads, pastas, and cereals
- Beans (kidney beans and black beans, for example)
- Fresh fruits (apples, pears, prunes)
- Vegetables (squash, potatoes, peas, spinach)
If losing weight is an issue, fiber is your pal for that, also. It gives you that satisfied, “full” feel sooner than non-fibrous foods, so you’re comfortably full sooner, thereby cutting down on calories sooner.
So fiber up and occasionally enjoy your healthy meatballs, lamb chops, veal stew, burgers, and all the other fine meat dishes. That’s the way to not be overly worried about diverticulitis.
If you have symptoms, of course, make sure you get checked for the disease, and for others with similar symptoms.
Take good care.
- Micha, Renata et al. “Red and Processed Meat Consumption and Risk of Incident Coronary Heart Disease, Stroke, and Diabetes Mellitus: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis” Circulation. Published May 17, 2010. Last accessed March 4, 2017.
- Garcia, Jennifer. “Red Meat Intake Linked to Diverticulitis Risk” Medscape. Published January 10, 2017. Last accessed March 4, 2017.
- “Diverticulitis – Topic Overview” WebMD. Reviewed May 8, 2016. Last accessed March 4, 2017.
- O’Connor, Anahad. “Meat Is Linked to Higher Cancer Risk, W.H.O. Report Finds” New York Times. Published October 26, 2015. Last accessed March 4, 2017.
- “Eating processed meats, but not unprocessed red meats, may raise risk of heart disease and diabetes” Harvard. Published May 17, 2010. Last accessed March 4, 2017.
Last Updated: August 16, 2018
Originally Published: March 27, 2017