I recently spent a few days with my uncle, who definitely does not eat much meat at all (my sense is primarily for frugal and in part ideological reasons), and we got into some discussions about diets. He mentioned that when he eats much meat at all, he gets a lot of gas. Since I ended up cooking a lot for him those few days, and he’ll eat pretty much whatever is put in front of him (he just eats a lot less meat when he’s choosing what to put on his plate), I found out that this is indeed true! The evening after we had steak — and he maybe had only an eighth of what I ate — was definitely a noisy one!
Is this a problem? Does having gas from eating meat mean that we shouldn’t be eating meat? Why do certain people have gas from eating meat, while for others it causes no gas whatsoever? Can people change from gas-spewing meat-eaters to calm and happy meat eaters? (Sneak preview: Yup, well, at least I did.) Even people who really desperately want to eat lots of meat find that it makes them bloated and really unhappy. What gives?
One of the consequences of being on a vegetarian diet long-term is that our bodies stop making as much of what is necessary to digest meat. Whether it does this as an adaptation to the diet or as a consequence of inferior nutrition is entirely up for debate. And frankly I don’t know that that would be a worthwhile debate to have.
So, how does the body process meat? And in particular, high-protein muscle meat, which often seems to be the biggest problem for the gas-induced folks.
Meat protein begins its digestion in the mouth, in the physical act of chewing. As I understand it, not a lot of chemical digestion of protein happens in the mouth, but the mastication process certainly helps break down the tissues and fibers. This is why we have molars.
But chemically-speaking, protein digestion really starts to happen in the stomach. Specifically, there are two major players in this process: pepsin and hydrochloric acid (HCl). Without ample amounts of either of these two friendly processors, protein digestion is going to be inhibited.
Although some protein can be digested further down the intestinal tract by additional processes, it must begin vigorously in the stomach. If not, there is bound to be some undigested food that finds its way to unfriendly bacterial pockets further along the intestinal tract (these unfriendlies generally can’t live in the stomach though because of the high-acid environment). Undigested food that moves past where it should be properly digested = food for unfriendlies, which almost always means gas as a byproduct of their enjoying your meal for you, usually with the attendant uncomfortable bloating.
So, how do we avoid this unfortunate occurrence?
Well, there are a number of strategies that might help:
- Theoretically, chewing more thoroughly might help meat digestion. The longer you chew, the more information you are giving your body to try to encourage it to up all the various processes down the digestive line that are necessary for protein. The tastes in the mouth trigger what gets excreted in the stomach, which in turn tells the gall bladder and further folks on down the line what needs to happen next.
- Stimulate stomach acid production. Supposedly two substances which help with this are bone broth and sauerkraut. Having a cup of bone-broth-based soup as an appetizer might just be a culinary tradition with some beneficial anatomical consequences behind it. For a long time when I was trying to increase my stomach acid production I would take a shot of sauerkraut juice before dinner as well. It’s pretty delicious stuff, actually!
- Supplement stomach acid. I’ve written a lot about this already, so I’ll send you there if you want to learn more. But from personal experience, I know that one of the times I got the most gassy in my recovery period was when I ate significant amounts of muscle protein and forgot to take, or didn’t take enough, supplemental HCl with pepsin. Eventually, my stomach got back on its own two “feet” and now produces sufficient amounts of these substances on its own, but it took a good long while to make that happen.
- Consider eating meat that is not heavily muscle-based tissue:
- Choose cuts that have a lot of connective tissues and fats in addition to muscle — for example, ribs or slow-cooked, melt-in-your-mouth roasts might be a better choice than steak or boneless-skinless chicken breast.
- Organ meats like liver (and that includes foie gras and pâté), sweetbreads, tripe, brain, gizzards, even skin (skin is an organ, right?) pack a whallop of nutrition and your belly may have an easier time digesting them than muscle meats. This may not apply to heart though, as heart is in large part muscle tissue (although generally more nutritious).
- Bone broth (and even the bones themselves). I mentioned it before, but bone broth bears repeating. On a daily basis. Even if you can’t digest meat at all, you likely should be able to handle bone broth. It’s incredibly soothing and healing for the gut, and if you’re having gut problems, it should be consumed daily, if not three times daily. Bone broth will help get you to a place where you can more easily eat meat in all its delicious forms without pain and punishment to those around you.
- Try different meats. If you don’t stomach beef well, maybe chicken is something you can handle better. And seafood, especially if it is sourced from pollution-free waters like wild Alaskan salmon, can be such a good thing for the human body. Test out different types of meat, record your intake, and then record observations about how you feel afterwards. Does your body feel good or bad afterwards? Do you have gas or bloating? What does your poop look like? Take all of these considerations into account when trying to decide how best to up your meat intake.
What have you done to help your body digest meat more effectively? The more tricks that we can have in our collective toolbag, the better!
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