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They say that stress sweat smells different from other sweat. But it’s a little convenient this saying looks past that other kind of sweat—the one we really don’t like talking about but everyone who has eaten one too many slices of greasy pepperoni pizza (or a whole turkey on Thanksgiving like Joey from Friends) knows all too well: the meat sweats. For those of you with more willpower around a pizza than the rest of us, the “meat sweats” are exactly what they sound like: excessive sweating that seems to be kicked off by a meaty meal. But even though a lot of us can attest to having experienced this phenomenon, science is torn on whether people get meat sweats.
Potential causes of meat sweats
One thing researchers do agree on is that different foods cause different responses in our bodies and that the different macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) are broken down differently in our bodies. The thermic effect of food (TEF) is how much energy it takes to break down a food based on the composition of these three macronutrients. This causes an increase in thermogenesis, or the production of heat, which could theoretically raise your body temperature and cause sweating.
Protein is the most difficult macronutrient to break down. It takes more energy for your body to get it ready to use than carbs or fat. Put another way, it has a bigger thermogenic effect than the other macronutrients, so a high-protein meal would cause your body to expend more energy than a balanced meal or one that leaned heavily on either of the other two macronutrients. The difference is pronounced enough that it’s one reason some people support the idea that a high-protein diet is more conducive for weight loss than diet plans with different macronutrient ratios (Pesta, 2014). And research has also found that TEF can last beyond 6 hours post-dining, so you could be feeling that meaty meal for a while (Reed, 1996).
But it could be that the meat sweats are just a byproduct of a meal that’s larger than normal. In 2018, only 5% of American adults considered themselves vegetarian, according to a Gallup poll (Hrynowski, 2019). That’s a little over 16 million adults in the United States. That means, for almost 311 million American adults, a very large meal is likely to include meat. Following a meal, the human metabolism can increase by a not-insignificant 25%, and research has found that large meals have a larger effect on this change in metabolic rate than smaller meals (Secor, 2009).
Whether or not this increase in energy expenditure actually translates to body temperature and sweating, though, is still TBD.
How to increase metabolism with exercise, food, and lifestyle changes
But it could be Frey syndrome
In some rare cases, gustatory sweating (or sweating after ingesting certain foods) can be caused by Frey syndrome. Frey syndrome is a rare condition involving nerve damage and is generally caused by a previous surgery near the parotid glands, the body’s biggest salivary glands that are located just in front of the ears on either side of the face. While the condition is not entirely understood, one of the biggest signs of the condition is the development of sweating after eating within a year following surgery (Frey Syndrome, n.d.).
How to treat meat sweats
Unfortunately, much of this is trial and error if you feel like you’re suffering from the meat sweats. If you suspect you may have a meat allergy, see your healthcare provider and have them test you for food sensitivities—but it’s worth noting that neither food allergies or food intolerances typically cause sweating. You can also try playing around with your serving size to see if a more modest meat helping is enough to prevent the meat sweats from happening.
If you do cut down on your meat consumption, there are other health benefits. “Meat is an inflammatory product,” Dana Hunnes, Ph.D., RD, MPH, senior dietitian at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, and an adjunct assistant professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, explains. “There are compounds created by the consumption of meat called TMAO that significantly increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.” TMAO is a substance called trimethylamine N-oxide that your body creates when you digest and metabolize red meat. So if your body creates them, why are they so bad? “They are inflammatory, they encourage clogging of the arteries, and constriction of blood vessels,” Hunnes says.
But it’s not just your heart that may benefit from cutting the burgers. Hunnes underscores that 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 replacing inflammatory meat products with anti-inflammatory plant products, we are reducing our risk for all types of chronic disease from cardiovascular diseases (heart disease and stroke) to diabetes to cancer,” she summarizes.
Why do we sweat?
If it is actually Frey syndrome
Frey syndrome isn’t perfectly understood, but there are treatments for gustatory sweating. Botulinum toxin type A (which you probably know as the brand name Botox) successfully reduces gustatory sweating, one study found. And the researchers suggest it should be the first line of treatment for this condition since it can be easily reinjected when it wears off and symptoms return. In their study, researchers found that the sweating was reduced by the injections and that the sweating responded to new injections once the effects of the initial treatments wore off (Laccourreye, 1999).
- Frey Syndrome. (n.d.). Retrieved February 11, 2020, from https://rarediseases.org/rare-diseases/frey-syndrome/
- Hrynowski, Z. (2019, October 11). What Percentage of Americans Are Vegetarian? Retrieved February 10, 2020, from https://news.gallup.com/poll/267074/percentage-americans-vegetarian.aspx
- Laccourreye, O., Akl, E., Gutierrez-Fonseca, R., Garcia, D., Brasnu, D., & Bonan, B. (1999). Recurrent Gustatory Sweating (Frey Syndrome) After Intracutaneous Injection of Botulinum Toxin Type A. Archives of Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery, 125(3), 283. doi: 10.1001/archotol.125.3.283, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10190799
- Secor, S. M. (2009). Specific dynamic action: a review of the postprandial metabolic response. Journal of Comparative Physiology B, 179(1), 1–56. doi: 10.1007/s00360-008-0283-7, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18597096
- Reed, G. W., & Hill, J. O. (1996). Measuring the thermic effect of food. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 63(2), 164–169. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/63.2.164, https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/63/2/164/4650492
Dr. Mike is a licensed physician and the Director, Medical Content & Education at Ro.