A new study shows that carnitine, and bacteria in the gut are the link between red meat and heart disease. For years, the medical community has made it abundantly clear that eating too much red meat was linked to heart disease in many cases, but for years, the common agreement was that red meat contains fat that can clog the arteries and make it more difficult for the heart to do its job.
Scientists at the Cleveland Clinic have discovered that the link between red meat and heart disease might not be fat at all. It might actually have more to do with the bacteria in the gut and a chemical known as carnitine, and the way they react to each other that are the link to heart disease.
In their study, researchers found that the fat and cholesterol in red meat actually only account for a fraction of the frequent red meat eaters that have heart disease. Another factor that might have affected some common red meat eaters was how salty red meat can be. The study, however, shows that the process may be more complicated than excess fat that the body cannot process.
The author of the study, Dr. Stanley Hazen, “Carnitine metabolism suggests a new way to help explain why a diet rich in red meat promotes atherosclerosis.” Dr. Hazen is the head of rehabilitation and preventative cardiology at the Miller Family Heart and Vascular Institute located in the Cleveland Clinic.
According to the study, a compound known as TMAO, or trimethylamine-N-oxide, is produced when the gut bacteria break down carnitine. Carnitine is found in red meats. When a diet is rich in red meat, it promotes the growth of the bacteria that breaks down carnitine, and that increases the body’s production of TMAO.
Over 2,500 heart patients were evaluated, and it was discovered that elevated levels of carnitine in patients that also had high levels of TMAO were linked to an increased risk of stroke, cardiac events and heart attacks. Those that eat meat and vegetables had higher levels of TMAO than those that were vegan and vegetarians.
When vegans and vegetarians were given an increase of carnitine, their TMAO levels did not increase, which suggests to researchers that the difference is in the bacteria in the gut. According to scientists, those that eat meat regularly will likely have different bacteria in the gut, because the body has adjusted to long term patterns of eating meat. The meat eaters’ gut bacteria are more likely to produce TMAO when carnitine because of the bacteria that are present.
Meat eaters take heart, though. It is possible to make the gut bacteria work well when enjoying a Mediterranean style diet, which is high in fruits and vegetables, with only modest amounts of dairy, meat, fish and alcohol, and plenty of whole grains and nuts is still a good blueprint for an overall healthy lifestyle.
Researchers have also said that there is much more studying to be done in this matter, so at this time, no findings are definitive, but what has been discovered is extraordinarily promising in the progress toward fighting cardiovascular disease.