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Red Meat, Gut Bacteria and You

Apr. 30, 2013|632 views
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Yesterday I mentioned new findings that may explain why red meat can be bad for your health. Before anyone thinks I’m picking on beef, let me be clear: I’m not a militant vegetarian with an agenda. I am a Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine, though, and I’m interested in helping people achieve optimal health. I know from my training and experience that what we eat directly affects our health.


I’m not prejudiced against red meat per se, but the facts are clear: Numerous studies have shown that eating more red meat (and processed meats) is linked to a higher risk of common diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease (including stroke and atherosclerosis), and even certain types of cancer. This link is consistent, and it simply doesn’t apply to “white” meats, such as poultry or pork. And fish consumption tends to have the opposite effect, actually improving some health outcomes. So there seems to be something about red meat in particular that encourages disease.


Now scientists think they know what it is. The culprit appears to be L-carnitine, an amino acid abundant in beef. By itself, carnitine is an ordinary amino acid; one of the building blocks of protein. We can even make it in our bodies from two other amino acids. But in the gut, carnitine encourages a particular species of bacteria to thrive, to the detriment of other beneficial bacteria. Here’s the kicker: The new bacteria interact with the gut wall to produce a compound that promotes atherosclerosis.


Concentrations of this compound, trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO) are higher among people who consume carnitine (found not only in red meat, but in some energy drinks and dietary supplements). But because of the diversity of helpful bacteria living in their guts, vegetarians do not produce nearly as much TMAO after ingesting carnitine as meat eaters do. The takeaway message? To avoid heart disease—the number one killer—consider curtailing your consumption of red meat.


Feskens EJ, Sluik D, van Woudenbergh GJ. Meat consumption, diabetes, and its complications. Curr Diab Rep. 2013 Apr;13(2):298-306. doi: 10.1007/s11892-013-0365-0.


Kim DH, Grodstein F, Rosner B, Kang JH, Cook NR, Manson JE, et al. Seafood Types and Age-Related Cognitive Decline in the Women's Health Study. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2013 Apr 3. [Epub ahead of print]


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]


Norat T, Bingham S, Ferrari P, Slimani N, Jenab M, Mazuir M, et al. Meat, fish, and colorectal cancer risk: the European Prospective Investigation into cancer and nutrition. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2005 Jun 15;97(12):906-16.


Shay CM, Stamler J, Dyer AR, Brown IJ, Chan Q, Elliott P, et al. Nutrient and food intakes of middle-aged adults at low risk of cardiovascular disease: the international study of macro-/micronutrients and blood pressure (INTERMAP). Eur J Nutr. 2012 Dec;51(8):917-26. doi: 10.1007/s00394-011-0268-2. Epub 2011 Nov 6.


Sinha R, Cross AJ, Graubard BI, Leitzmann MF, Schatzkin A. Meat intake and mortality: a prospective study of over half a million people. Arch Intern Med. 2009 Mar 23;169(6):562-71. doi: 10.1001/archinternmed.2009.6.


Takata Y, Shu XO, Gao YT, Li H, Zhang X, Gao J, et al. Red meat and poultry intakes and risk of total and cause-specific mortality: results from cohort studies of Chinese adults in Shanghai. PLoS One. 2013;8(2):e56963. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0056963. Epub 2013 Feb 22.


Wang Z, Klipfell E, Bennett BJ, Koeth R, Levison BS, Dugar B, et al. Gut flora metabolism of phosphatidylcholine promotes cardiovascular disease. Nature. 2011 Apr 7;472(7341):57-63. doi: 10.1038/nature09922.


Wirfält E, Drake I, Wallström P. What do review papers conclude about food and dietary patterns? Food Nutr Res. 2013;57. doi: 10.3402/fnr.v57i0.20523. Epub 2013 Mar 4.

Tags:  mediterranean diet, organic, prevention