These Are Your Microbes on Meat
The Mediterranean Diet is considered one of the healthiest dietary patterns around. It has a few features that distinguish it from other diets. For one, virtually all fat calories in the Mediterranean diet come from extra virgin olive oil. This may well be one of the “secrets”—hiding in plain sight—of the diet’s phenomenal success. Olive oil is not only a healthful, monounsaturated, heart-healthy source of fat; it also contains potent natural antioxidant compounds that may play an important role in sustaining good health.
Another key aspect of the diet is the lack of added sugars. They simply didn’t exist in much of the Mediterranean basin, historically. Dates and honey provided the limited jolts of concentrated sweetness, on rare occasions. But these were treats, not everyday (all day) occurrences.
And finally, the diet features relatively little meat. Again, it was a matter of practicality. Meat was expensive, and farm animals precious. In the Mediterranean diet there’s ample consumption of protein from dairy, legumes, and health-healthy fish and seafood. But meat was used more often in small amounts, to add flavoring.
All of these components, and more (lots of fresh vegetables, fruits, and antioxidant-rich herbs, for example) explain why the diet results in lean, healthy bodies and strong immune systems. It also explains the exceptionally low susceptibility to common diseases, such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
But one aspect bears further scrutiny: The part about not eating much meat. Let’s face it. Few people in the world eat as much red meat as Americans. In fact, you have to visit the land of the Argentinian gauchos (cowboys) to find a higher per capita consumption of beef.
Consumption of red and processed meats has consistently been correlated, in study after study, with greater risks of serious diseases, including heart disease. We’ve known this for a long time. But, until recently, it wasn’t readily apparent why this was so.
Like so many other things these days, it all comes down to your gut microbiome. You know, the collection of microscopic critters living in everyone’s gut that outnumber our own cells by 10-to-1. The communities of microbes that help us extract nutrients from our food and help regulate our immunity, among other important functions.
As it turns out, when bacteria in the gut are confronted with meat—especially red meat, which is high in an amino acid called carnitine—they produce a breakdown product that actually promotes heart disease. This chemical, called TMAO, travels through the blood vessels, promoting inflammation in vessel walls. This is the initial, primary step in the genesis of atherosclerosis—the underlying cause of most heart disease.
So there you have it. Blame it on your gut microbiome if you will. Or take steps to remedy things. Slash your meat consumption. And embrace plant foods. As it turns out, your gut bacteria love plant foods. The most beneficial species appear to be encouraged to proliferate when the diet features plenty of…you guessed it: vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains. Just like the Mediterranean diet!