Researchers Find New Link Between Red Meat and Heart Disease

What happens in your gut after you consume red meat
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If you’re concerned about heart disease, here’s another reason to consider setting down your steak knife.  A new study adds to a growing body of literature linking red meat consumption with increased heart disease risk.

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Researchers have found that when we eat red meat, there is a set of reactions mediated by microbes in our gut. These gut microbe reactions are triggered by carnitine, a nutrient found in red meat. The study found that these reactions, which were previously unrecognized, contribute to the development of heart disease. 

“This adds to the growing body of data reinforcing a connection between red meat, carnitine ingestion and heart disease development,” says Stanley Hazen, MD, PhD, Vice Chair of Translational Research for the Lerner Research Institute and Section Head of Preventive Cardiology & Rehabilitation. Dr. Hazen led the study.

How this research builds on past studies

A previous study linked carnitine to the development of narrowing or hardening of the arteries, also called atherosclerosis, but this latest research took it a step further. It uncovered more details about a chain of reactions generated when microbes in the gut digest the carnitine in red meat.

Dr. Hazen says the results help us better understand how eating red meat is related to heart disease. It also allows researchers to develop better tools to fight it.

“We are now a step closer to developing drugs or tools to retard or block the development of heart disease by this pathway,” he says.

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Past findings related to red meat and heart disease risk include:

  • Discovery of a biomarker that identifies risk of heart disease: trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO). There is a global hunt in progress using cardiovascular fingerprints — scientists call them biomarkers — to identify the risk of heart disease. The most common biomarker for heart disease is the blood test for cholesterol levels, but a more recent example is C reactive protein (CRP). In 2011, researchers discovered TMAO, which is made by microbes that live in your gut. 

  • Research in 2013 reports the discovery that carnitine, abundant in red meat and also added to popular energy drinks, is metabolized to TMAO, a compound linked to clogged arteries

  • Finding that choline, a nutrient contained in egg yolks and fatty meats, also produces the byproduct TMAO. 

  • A study  of middle-aged Seventh-day Adventists, a group with historically lower rates of cardiovascular disease than the general population, suggests that a more vegetarian dietary pattern may be associated with reduced mortality and increased longevity. 

Should you change your diet?

Deciding whether or not to eat red meat is a very personal choice, Dr. Hazen says.

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“These studies do offer some powerful reasons to consider dropping or limiting red meat. It’s important to talk to your doctor. He or she can advise you based on your personal health history and individual heart disease risk.”




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