That triple-steak burger might feel awesome while you’re stuffing it in your mouth, but don’t act surprised if you need to change into a new dry shirt afterwards. I’m talking of course about the dreaded “meat sweats” — that hot and flustered feeling you get after you’ve eaten one too many sausages at the family barbeque or anything ‘meaty’ for that matter.
A lot of people anecdotally swear it happens to them every Thanksgiving and there are quite a few references to meat sweats in pop culture, such as this clip of the always-hilarious Joey from Friends.
But are meat sweats a real thing? Well, let me start by saying that meat sweats are not a medical condition, in the sense that it has never been formally recognized or described by medical doctors. There isn’t even any study that has attempted to directly study this anecdotal phenomenon, which is a bit of a shame because it clearly has Ig Nobel Prize-winning vibes.
However, that doesn’t mean that meat sweats aren’t real or that scientists are clueless about it.
Meat sweats is a colloquial term used to describe the feeling of being uncomfortably hot and sweaty after eating a large amount of meat. This condition is not widely known or studied, but it is a common experience for many people who love meat. If you’ve never experienced this firsthand before — either because you’re a moderate eater or just lucky — it’s enough to watch Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Championship online to see daring men and women wipe steam off their faces as they cram dozens of hot dogs in their mouths. You’ll immediately understand what it means.
While I couldn’t find any mention of “meat sweats” in official medical dictionaries, there are some studies that mention it in relation to digestion mechanisms. In fact, the best explanation we now have for this phenomenon is that we start sweating after a copious high-protein meal because our guts are literally overworked.
On average, a person uses about 10% of their daily energy expenditure digesting and absorbing food, producing heat as a byproduct. This biological process is known as thermogenesis. However, protein takes the most energy to digest, with up to 30% of all the calories in the consumed protein going towards digesting it. All of this burned energy literally generates significant heat in the gut.
The difference in thermogenesis between protein and other macronutrients is so pronounced that some nutritionists used it as an argument for supporting high-protein diets for weight loss.
So what happens is that in order to turn all that delicious Christmas dinner into fuel, the body’s digestive system goes into overdrive if it has to process a lot of protein. The process generates heat, which triggers the sweat glands to kick in to cool us off. This effect is amplified if you consume alcohol, which is equally calorie-taxing to digest as protein.
It is possible for a vegetarian to experience meat sweats, although it is less likely than for someone who regularly eats meat. Meat sweats are typically associated with the body’s increased metabolic activity while digesting protein-rich foods, so a vegetarian who eats a large amount of protein-rich plant-based foods such as beans, lentils, or tofu may experience meat sweats.
It is also possible for a vegetarian to have an allergic reaction to certain plant-based proteins, which could cause sweating but also other symptoms, such as hives, rash, digestive problems, or a life-threatening condition called anaphylaxis. However, these scenarios are less common than meat sweats occurring after eating meat. A study published in 2000 found that the human body uses slightly more energy to break down animal protein than vegetable-based proteins, like soy.
Some argue that meat sweats are actually caused by food allergies and intolerances. Just like some people are allergic to shellfish, others may be allergic to red meat. However, sweating is rarely an allergy symptom, so this line of thought is not supported. What’s more plausible, though exceedingly rare, is for a patient to experience meat sweats if they suffer from Frey’s syndrome. This rare, neurological disorder causes a person to sweat excessively while eating.
Frey syndrome, also known as auriculotemporal syndrome, can occur after parotid gland surgery. The parotid gland is one of the largest salivary glands, and it is located in front of and below the ear. Surgery on the parotid gland, such as for the removal of a tumor, can damage the nerves that control the gland, so the patient will sweat excessively on the cheek, forehead, and around the ears shortly after eating certain foods, specifically foods that produce a strong salivary response such as sour, spicy or salty foods.
Are meat sweats the same thing as a food coma?
Meat sweats are not the same thing as a food coma. The latter condition actually has a formal medical term, called postprandial somnolence. A food coma is the feeling of sleepiness, drowsiness, or lethargy that’s sometimes experienced following a copious meal.
While both meat sweats and a food coma can occur after eating a large meal, they are different physical and physiological reactions to food. Meals rich in carbs, fat, and protein have all been linked to food comas, whereas meat sweats are exclusively linked to high-protein diets. Meat sweats are related to the body’s increased metabolism and perspiration, while a food coma is related to changes in blood circulation, hormone levels, and blood sugar.
Meat sweats vs. other medical conditions that cause sweating: what’s the difference?
While meat sweats may be unpleasant, this is not a real medical condition and as such does not require treatment. Research shows that digestive thermogenesis can last more than 6 hours post-meal, so you just have to wait it out, unfortunately.
However, there are other medical conditions that can cause excessive sweating, and it is important to understand the differences between these conditions and meat sweats.
One common medical condition that can cause excessive sweating is hyperhidrosis, which is characterized by excessive sweating in the hands, feet, underarms, or other areas of the body. This condition can be caused by factors such as genetics, hormonal imbalances, or certain medications, and it can interfere with daily activities and cause social embarrassment. Hyperhidrosis is typically treated with antiperspirants, iontophoresis, or medications that can reduce sweating.
Excessive sweating may also be a sign of fever, which is the body’s response to infection or inflammation in the body. Fever occurs when the body’s temperature rises above its normal level, and it can cause sweating as the body tries to cool down. While fever is a natural response to illness and can help the body fight infection, it can also be dangerous if it reaches high levels.
How to prevent meat sweats: tips and tricks for staying cool after a big meal
As there is no real treatment for meat sweats, the best thing you can do is to take steps to prevent it from appearing in the first place. Eating a large amount of meat in one go can significantly increase the body’s metabolic activity, so it’s safer to eat smaller portions of meat and spread them out over the course of the day.
It’s also a good idea to avoid combining large high-protein meals with alcohol. If possible, try not to add spices to high-protein foods or use very mild seasonings as spicy foods like pepper contain chemicals that trigger the nerves that make your body feel warmer, so you sweat to cool it back down.
And if you’re particularly prone to meat sweats, you can try eating high-protein meals only in cool, comfortable environments. The body’s temperature is challenged as it is while eating meat, so might as well do yourself a favor and mind your environment.
Alternatively, you can choose to cut down on meat consumption in general, something that comes with other health benefits. Red meat and processed meats, including bacon, hot dogs, lunch meats, and cured meats, can cause inflammation. For instance, studies show that red meat intake is associated with higher levels of inflammatory markers like c-reactive protein (CRP), even when controlling for other dietary and lifestyle factors. Meanwhile, a high intake of whole grains reduces CRP. Red meat also triggers the production of trimethylamine N-oxide, or TMO, which the body needs to effectively digest and metabolize meat, but which also triggers inflammation in the process. These inflammatory compounds are present in meat regardless of whether it’s organic or grass-fed.
Many different chronic diseases, from cardiovascular disease to rheumatoid arthritis and certain cancers to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, are associated with inflammation. So by cutting back on meat consumption to only moderate levels you are effectively reducing the risk of almost all types of chronic diseases.