Spend some time around an overzealous meat lover and at some point you will likely hear them mutter something—between bites of some carnivorous catastrophe—about “the meat sweats.”
A notorious affliction of rabid meatheads, like competitive eaters or anyone who applauded KFC’s Double Down sandwich, meat sweats refers to some people’s self-proclaimed tendency to schvitz during or soon after a fleshy feast.
These sweats supposedly only hit when one eats too much meat. Other foods don’t have the same effect. They never strike alongside nausea, rashes, trouble breathing, or any other signs of a food intolerance or allergy. But eaters can reportedly sweat so hard that they soak their clothes or sheets. And sometimes they may feel like they don’t want to touch meat for a few hours or days after an episode. But such aversions are fleeting.
The concept of the meat sweats has been bandied about in American culture since at least the mid-1990s. It is so entrenched in some media and eater spheres that the validity of the phenomena is just a given for many. Some ambitious eaters even wear a self-purported bout of meat sweats like a badge of honor—proof of their virility, their voraciousness for that sweet, greasy flesh. Retailers play on this pride with meat sweats-themed merchandise. Yet for all the term’s cultural longevity and acceptance, there is no real proof that the meat sweats are (or aren’t) a real phenomenon.
Scientists have never actually studied whether or not the meat sweats exist. This is not surprising because, well, why would they? They have seemingly never been linked in anecdotes to dire outcomes or any wider dietary or gastric issues. Even the meat lobby doesn’t seem that interested in the issue; Janet Riley of the North American Meat Institute tells me that they’ve never even been asked about the validity of meat sweats. This leaves us with anecdotes, but only from a few meat eaters here and there, hardly consistent with robust reports from across the population over time.
Yet articles still regularly surface arguing that meat sweats probably are real because there’s a solid scientific explanation for them: diet-induced thermogenesis. As New York-based dietician Natalie Rizzo explains it, when we digest our food, our bodies produce heat as they break down compounds we’ve consumed. “The body breaks down carbs pretty easily,” she says, “but it takes more energy to metabolize protein.” If one eats enough meat, in theory this process could generate enough for someone to “experience an increase in core temperature and start to sweat.”
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This explanation is not as solid as it seems, though. The elevated level of energy needed to break down meat proteins in our bodies versus other types of food is miniscule; the doctor in charge of WebMD once told Mic that digesting the average meat-centric meal probably produces as much energy as walking to the bathroom. The chances of those energy outputs leading to sweat-soaked clothes seem pretty low. This has led some publications to officially declare the meat sweats a myth.
Lest we lay meat sweats to bed too quickly, though, eating a few pounds of meat at a time like many extreme eaters do would produce much more energy than the average protein-heavy meal. Rizzo also points out that we all have different metabolic rates, meaning some of us may produce more heat from the same meal. Some people also sweat more readily. This means that for some people, Rizzo says, “meat sweats may actually be real,” even if others can metabolize the same protein-heavy meal without generating any perceptible heat or breaking a single bead of sweat.
Thermogenesis could also work in combination with the adrenaline or even the pain that hit when quickly scarfing down meat, or with some other underlying condition like irritable bowl syndrome. These factors could goose up an eater’s propensity to sweat alongside whatever heat the meat itself is generating. There may also be other sweat-producing, meat-specific chemical reactions involved in a particularly massive carnivorous binge we are as of yet unaware of.
None of this proves that the beloved concept of meat sweats is a legitimate gastric complaint, or badge of honor. All it proves is that there’s a lot we don’t know with certainty about how inhaling an entire pig affects the human body. We probably won’t know for sure, either, until someone reports something worrying about a purported episode of meat sweats, prompting intrepid researchers to really put these claimed episodes under the microscope.
For now, the best anyone can say is this: If you feel like you sweat when you eat super meaty meals and you like it, bully for you. If you feel like you sweat when you eat super meaty meals and you don’t like it, then stop eating meat by the pound in one sitting. Keep it to even just one steak and you should be fine.
This article originally appeared on Tonic.