Not Avoiding Red Meat? Maybe You Should Be
One of the more striking aspects of the classic Mediterranean diet—which has been proven to reduce one’s risk of various common diseases—is the relative lack of red meat in the diet. While it’s not really a vegetarian diet, it certainly relies on plant foods more than the typical American diet. We’re a steak-and-potatoes kind of people in the USA (or a hamburgers-and-french-fries people, if you prefer). There’s no doubt about it; red meat is all-American.
It’s understandable. We produce some of the tastiest—and cheapest—beef in the world. In contrast, European beef is so expensive, and to be honest, so much less tender and appealing, that few people eat it routinely there. There’s an adage in France, for example, that you don’t go to a French restaurant to order beef. French chefs do many things well, but beef is not usually one of them.
Well, new research suggests it may be no coincidence that the extraordinarily healthful Mediterranean diet features very little red meat. We’ve known for some time that there seems to be a link between red meat consumption and heart disease. Scientists have long speculated that this is due to saturated fat in red meat, as well as heme iron. Saturated fat is linked to higher total and LDL-cholesterol levels, and heme iron encourages the kind of oxidation that is linked to atherosclerosis. So it was assumed that these components of red meat account for the apparent harmful effects of red meat consumption.
But some experts thought these factors alone could not explain red meat’s relationship with increased risks of heart disease and cancer. Now it appears that an amino acid abundant in red meat, and its effects on the bacteria living in our digestive tracts, may be the real culprit. I’ll delve deeper into this intriguing connection tomorrow.
Estruch R, Ros E, Salas-Salvadó J, Covas MI, Corella D, Arós F, et al. Primary prevention of cardiovascular disease with a Mediterranean diet. N Engl J Med. 2013 Apr 4;368(14):1279-90. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1200303. Epub 2013 Feb 25.
Koeth RA, Wang Z, Levison BS, Buffa JA, Org E, Sheehy BT, et al. Intestinal microbiota metabolism of l-carnitine, a nutrient in red meat, promotes atherosclerosis. Nat Med. 2013 Apr 7. doi: 10.1038/nm.3145. [Epub ahead of print]
Pan A, Sun Q, Bernstein AM, Schulze MB, Manson JE, Stampfer MJ, et al: Red Meat Consumption and Mortality: Results From 2 Prospective Cohort Studies. Arch Intern Med. 2012 Apr 9;172(7):555-63. doi: 10.1001/archinternmed.2011.2287. Epub 2012 Mar 12.