Research on meat-rich diets seems to repeatedly suggest cutting back on eating meat, but that doesn’t mean you have to eliminate it from your plate entirely.
A study on the health effects of meat-rich diets appears in the June 3 online edition of JAMA Internal Medicine. For the Adventist Health Study 2, researchers collected data from a pool of middle-aged Seventh-day Adventists, a group with historically lower rates of cardiovascular disease than the general population.
Participants answered questions about their eating habits and were then categorized according to their answers about how often they ate meat. Then, data was collected in subsequent years about how many in each group died from ischemic heart disease or cardiovascular disease.
The study’s findings gave yet again more support to the idea that in general, a more vegetarian dietary pattern may be associated with reduced mortality and increased longevity and could be useful in creating dietary guidelines for the public.
Before the Adventist study was published, Stanley Hazen, MD, PhD, Vice Chair of Translational Research for Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner Research Institute and Section Head of Preventive Cardiology & Rehabilitation, published his ground-breaking findings about a possible causal link between red meat and atherosclerosis (clogged blood vessels).
Dr. Hazen and his team discovered that in addition to cholesterol and saturated fat, a newly recognized substance in red meat that contributes to heart disease risks, is an amino acid called carnitine, which is particularly abundant in red meat. Carnitine’s metabolic end product, trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO), has proven links to atherosclerosis. The team showed in 2,595 subjects that elevated blood levels of carnitine predicted increased risk of heart attack, stroke and death. Further, in animal studies a diet rich in carnitine led to increased TMAO and atherosclerosis
Dr. Hazen’s data suggests that carnitine contributes to red meat’s association with heart disease by changing cholesterol metabolism, which along with saturated fat are generally regarded as the primary culprits of heart disease.
Dr. Hazen stresses that although the Adventist study raises good points, it has limitations. “The new study is interesting. But it needs to be interpreted cautiously as it is observational. It certainly adds to the substantial body of data arguing that reduction in red meat consumption, particularly to a more modest level, is probably a heart-healthy approach. But one also has to recognize that Adventists likely have additional ‘heart healthy’ lifestyle habits that were not statistically accounted for and may contribute to the substantial health benefits observed in this cohort.”
Rather than taking an all-or-nothing approach to meat in your diet, you can opt for a nutritious diet that limits the amount of red meat eaten and focuses mainly on fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean protein. Dr. Hazen also advises that in addition to a diet low in red meat consumption, a routine exercise or walking program are excellent ways to help lower heart disease risks.