July 19, 2014

Does Red Meat Cause Heart Disease?

It has long been assumed that red meat is a contributing factor to heart disease. In the past, the link between heart disease and red meat has been attributed to high levels of saturated fat and cholesterol, but a new study places the blame elsewhere…

The StudyRed Meat

A study led by Stanley Hazen, Chief of Cellular and Molecular Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner Research Institute, has found a link between heart disease (and other diseases) and carnitine, a compound abundant in red meat and also found in some dietary supplements and energy drinks.

Carnitine typically helps the body transport fatty acids into cells to be used as energy. But research conducted at the Cleveland Clinic found that certain bacteria in the digestive tract convert carnitine to another metabolite, called TMAO, which is said to promote atherosclerosis (the thickening of arteries).

Hazen and his team tested the carnitine and TMAO levels of omnivores, vegans and vegetarians, and examined records of 2,595 patients undergoing cardiac evaluations. Their findings indicated that patients with high TMAO levels, had more carnitine in their blood, and were more likely to develop cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, stroke and death.

Is Carnitine Actually to Blame?

Hazen’s research has been the subject of much controversy over the past few months. Critics were quick to point out two major flaws in his research. Firstly, the key assumption of the paper, that red meat can cause atherosclerosis, was never actually proven. Hazen himself even stated, “in truth, we did not examine this.” Secondly, the research asserts that red meat leads to atherosclerosis through the conversion of carnitine to TMAO. But it was not mentioned that most fish—which are considered extremely heart healthy—often have very high levels of TMAO.

Chris Masterjohn PhD, who is currently researching fat-soluble supplements at the University of Illinois, disagrees with Hazen’s claim, stating:

“Even if physiological levels of TMAO contribute to heart disease in humans (which is a big ‘if’ at this point) and even if red meat were to raise TMAO substantially more than most other foods (which appears to be false), it wouldn’t in any way whatsoever follow that eating red meat causes heart disease. The biological effects of a food cannot possibly be reduced to one of the biological effects of one of the food’s components. Believing such a thing would require believing not only that the particular component has no other relevant biological effects, but that there are no relevant biological effects of any of the other tens of thousands of components of that food.

…If the carnitine in red meat were promoting atherosclerosis through its conversion to TMAO, however, then red meat should be no more dangerous than potatoes and carrots and the real killer should be seafood. How likely is this to be true?”

The Verdict: Have your Steak and Eat It To

The flaws pointed out above are hard to refute. Hazen’s study simply lacks the evidence needed to support his claim. Furthermore, it goes against countless studies that have proven the health benefits associated with a seafood-rich diet.

According to Dr. Joseph Mercola, grass-fed, organically raised red meat is one of the most nutritious foods you can eat. It is processed and inorganic “red meats” that have given beef, pork, and lamb a bad rap. So…throw out the bologna you have in your fridge and go buy yourself a nice, grass-fed, organic piece of steak!

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References

Beck, Melina. Nutrition News. 2013.  http://www.nutritionnews.com/conditions/heart/new-red-meat-worries/

Husten, Larry. Forbes. 2013.  http://www.forbes.com/sites/larryhusten/2013/04/12/is-red-meat-a-fish-story-why-you-should-never-believe-health-headlines/

Mercola, Joseph. 2013. http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2013/04/22/eating-red-meat.aspx

Mercola, Joseph. http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2012/06/28/grass-fed-beef-a-healthy-diet.aspx