Posted on 21 July 2022
Perhaps this situation is familiar to you. You’re guzzling burgers at a summer barbecue. You know you’ve probably eaten a few too many, but they’re just so good that you can’t stop yourself. As you bite into what you tell yourself will be the last one, you feel yourself begin to sweat profusely. Before long your clothes are drenched and your brow is dripping. You have contracted the meat sweats.
With the recent levels of heat, an extra source of perspiration is the last thing anyone needs. Many people have experienced the so-called meat sweats, but are they even real? Can eating a lot of meat really cause you to sweat more, or is there something else going on? Should you be worried if you find that meat frequently makes you sweat?
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that not a lot of scientific research has been dedicated to this topic specifically. However, there is plenty of research dedicated to metabolic processes that could conceivably explain increased sweating following meat consumption. While we don’t know the cause for certain, the main contributor is probably something called the thermic effect of food.
As you probably know, we derive energy (calories) from the nutrients in the foods we eat, and this energy is used to power our cells. However, food calories aren’t instantly and freely available – first, food must be digested in the gut, its nutrients must be absorbed and delivered to our cells, and then our cells must further process those nutrients before they can be used as energy. All of this consumes calories – indeed, for a person consuming a normal diet, around 10% of the calories in the food they consume will be used for these processes. This additional calorie consumption is called the thermic effect of food (TEF).
Different nutrients have different TEFs. Sometimes, the TEF of a specific food or nutrient is represented as a percentage of the calories provided by that food or nutrient. For example, suppose you ate 100 calories worth of food. If 20 calories were required to process that food, you could say that it had an overall TEF of 20%. You might have heard the (erroneous) claim that you can lose weight by eating a lot of celery. This is predicated on the claim that celery has a high TEF, and so digesting celery burns more calories than it liberates. This would require celery to have a TEF of over 100%. Unfortunately for dieters, it’s only around 8%.
So, how do meat sweats factor into this? The processes responsible for the TEF generate heat, and that heat will raise the core body temperature slightly. Different nutrients have different TEFs, and as you may have guessed by now, proteins (which are abundant in meat) have the highest TEF. Generally, fats have a TEF of less than 5%, carbohydrates range from 5 to 15%, while proteins have TEFs of between 20 and 30%. This is because in comparison to other nutrients, proteins are large, complex molecules with many different chemical bonds that need to be broken down by different enzymes.
High TEF proteins aren’t the only possible explanation for the dreaded meat sweats. In fact, it’s quite possible that the texture of meat is also largely responsible for the phenomenon. Meat tends to require more physical exertion to consume – it’s generally harder to cut with a knife and harder to bite and chew through than most other foods. Finally, it’s worth considering that meat is more frequently eaten hot when compared to other foodstuffs. This probably isn’t enough to fully explain the sweating, but it probably doesn’t help either.
So, meat sweats are nothing to worry about if they happen once in a while. If they still bother you, your best bet is probably to either eat less meat (you’ll cool yourself and the planet in the process!) or find an alternative way of cooling yourself down. If you find yourself sweating very frequently during meals, however, this could be due to a variety of other health problems and would require assessment by a doctor.