11 Things that Could Happen if You Eat too Much Meat
Every person's dietary needs are different, but if you're noticing these effects, it might be time to cut back on meat.
What happens when you eat too much meat?
You’ve probably heard varying opinions on whether eating meat is good or bad for you. Although the right answer is still very murky, experts and researchers have found that eating too much meat can worsen your risk for several health issues. Here are some things that could happen to your body if you eat too much meat.
You could feel sleepy
Protein has a reputation for providing energy that lasts, so you might be surprised when a meat-heavy diet leaves you dragging. While protein sticks with you because it takes a while to digest, it won’t give you the immediate boost that carbohydrates do: Carbs quickly break down into the body’s most readily available energy source, glucose, says registered dietitian nutritionist Caroline Passerrello, spokesperson for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Because your brain can only use glucose for energy, its energy supply can lag when your diet features slow-to-digest protein. The fuel is “taking a little longer to get to your brain, so you’re a little less focused,” says Passerrello. The same is true for muscles, which also run on glucose, she points out. The result: fatigue and brain fog.
Your hair and skin might not look their best
If you’re overdoing your meat portions, there’s a good chance you’re skimping on other food groups. Vitamin C is rarely found in animal products, so if you’re eating meat in place of produce, you could become deficient. Vitamin C plays a role in forming collagen, a protein that gives structure to skin, hair, nails, bones, and more. If you’re deficient, you might notice changes in your body, says registered dietitian nutritionist Jenna Braddock, founder of makehealthyeasy.com. “Your skin could be rough and bumpy. You might see some interesting body hair growth,” she says.
Passerrello adds that her clients have raved about how much better their skin looks after cutting back on animal products to make room for a more plant-based diet. Braddock recommends eating dark, leafy greens every day—a cup of kale alone packs in more than a day’s worth of vitamin C. (But these are the nutrients you might miss out on if you’re vegetarian or vegan.)
You could get sick more often
Your skin isn’t the only place you’ll see a vitamin C deficiency. If you feel like you can’t beat a cold, you might want to tweak your eating habits. “If you’re on a keto diet, you’re probably not eating much fruit, which is one of the best sources of vitamin C,” says Braddock. Luckily, you can get the nutrients you need from vegetables, too, like broccoli and peppers.
You could get constipated
Meat has hardly any fiber, which you’d normally get from fruits, veggies, and whole grains. Constipation and painful bowel movements are some of the first signs you’re lacking in fiber, says Braddock. Get your system regular again by adding healthy carbs like whole grains or—better yet—fruits and veggies. “Going back to fruits and vegetables is one of the best ways to get fiber because you’re also getting really wonderful nutrients along with it,” says Braddock. (Check out these 13 things that could happen if you start a vegan diet.)
Your heart could be in danger
Another benefit of fiber is that it helps keep your body from absorbing cholesterol, and that can protect your heart. If your meat choices are red and processed meats—especially at the expense of produce, whole grains, and other fiber sources—the toll on your heart is even worse. Those types of meats are high in saturated fats, which research suggests raises “bad” LDL cholesterol and, in turn, raises the risk of heart disease.
Braddock points out research in the Annals of Internal Medicine that questions whether all saturated fats are unhealthy, but the evidence on processed meat like salami, hot dogs, and bacon is pretty grim—these choices are clearly hard on the heart. The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fats 5 to 6 percent of total calories, or 13 calories in a 2,000-calorie diet. (Here are the best kinds of meat to eat for your health.)
Your body might have to battle inflammation
The saturated fats in meat can boost inflammation in the body, research in the European Journal of Nutrition found. Plus, meat is severely lacking in inflammation-fighting antioxidants compared to produce. “The reason there’s a recommendation for people to ‘eat a colorful diet’ is each of those colors you find in fruits and vegetables as pigments is a different group of antioxidants that do different things and benefit the body in different ways,” says Braddock. To make sure you’re getting enough, she recommends adding one extra fruit or vegetable every day. Set a goal of having at least two cups at dinner and lunch, one cup at breakfast, and extras as snacks, she says. You can also consider trying the flexitarian diet to cut back on meat without giving it up completely.
You’re more likely to develop kidney stones
Excessive protein can take a toll on your kidneys. Specifically, animal-based proteins are full of compounds called purines, which break down into uric acid; too much uric acid increases the risk of kidney stones, says Passerrello. Most people shouldn’t have too much trouble breaking down the proteins, she says, but watch your intake if you have a family history of kidney trouble. (Watch out for these other silent signs you could be eating too much protein.)
You might gain weight
You’ve probably heard that protein is the ultimate tool in translating your work at the gym to the toned body you want. While it’s true that the body relies on protein for rebuilding muscle, too much can have an undesired side effect: “If you eat more protein than what your body needs, you don’t store it as protein—you store it as fat,” says Braddock. “It’s not beneficial unless you’re also increasing your body’s demand.”
Your cancer risk could increase
Studies show that eating a lot of red meat could increase your chance of colorectal cancer. The 2018 report, Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Cancer: A Global Perspective from the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research found that eating more than 18 ounces of red meat a week could raise the risk of colorectal cancer.
In fact, eating processed meat regularly in any amount can leave you more vulnerable to stomach and colorectal cancers, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research. Scientists haven’t confirmed the reason for that link, but it might be connected with the saturated fats in those products, says Passerrello. Try swapping some beef, pork, and processed meats for poultry or plant-based proteins like legumes. (Here are 13 more foods you should never eat if you don’t want cancer.)
You might become dehydrated
Thanks to the increase in uric acid from processing those proteins, you might notice you’re extra thirsty on a meat-heavy diet. “The kidneys do need more water to dilute those toxic waste products,” says Passerrello. “To produce that urine, we need to pull [water] out of our bodies.” That could leave you dehydrated if you aren’t careful, so make sure you sip plenty of water to make up for it.
You could contribute to climate change
Even if you aren’t worried about your health risk, there’s another reason you might want to cut back on meat: the environment. By cutting out all or some meat and replacing those calories with fruits and vegetables, you could play a part in reducing greenhouse gases. “Even by slightly reducing your animal protein consumption, you can help eat a little more sustainably,” says Braddock.
Next, check out these 10 things that could happen if you give up red meat.
- Caroline Passerrello, MS, RDN, LDN, spokesperson for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
- Jenna Braddock, MSH, RD, CSSD, LDN, founder of MakeHealthyEasy.com
- Annals of Internal Medicine: "Association of Dietary, Circulating, and Supplement Fatty Acids With Coronary Risk"
- The American Heart Association: "Saturated Fat"
- European Journal of Nutrition: "Consumption of red meat and whole-grain bread in relation to biomarkers of obesity, inflammation, glucose metabolism and oxidative stress"
- 2018 Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: A Global Perspective
- American Institute for Cancer Research: "Bacon, Hot Dogs and Lunch Meat – Is it Processed Meat?"