Research involving the diet seems complicated. One study says that drinking wine or eating chocolate is bad for you. The next says it is good for you in moderation. Wait, no it’s bad. This yo-yo effect often continues, arising from the limitations of each study. But there are some foods with a more consistent reputation. Eating green vegetables, for instance, is generally considered to be healthy. And eating a lot of red meat is thought to be unhealthy.
Overall meat consumption continues to rise in the U.S., and 58% of the meat consumed is red meat. People in the U.S. eat 5 ounces of meat per day on average, while the USDA recommends that adults take in about 6 ounces daily from the entire meat/beans group: meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts, seeds, beans and peas.
Eating a lot of red meat is known to contribute to heart disease, presumably due to the large amount of saturated fats and cholesterol in the meat. Or that is what we used to think. New research published in Nature Medicine indicates that the real culprit is a chemical in the red meat called L-carnitine. In a series of experiments on humans and mice, the researchers found that L-carnitine is broken down by gut bacteria to produce trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO), which previous research has linked to heart and artery damage. TMAO alters how cholesterol is metabolized so less is eliminated from the body, allowing more cholesterol to deposit and harden into the artery walls (atherosclerosis).
But the researchers also found that frequent meat eaters produced significantly more TMAO than vegetarians after consuming the same amount of L-carnitine. For instance, L-carnitine supplements (250 mg) were given to 80 healthy volunteers, including 24 who were long-term vegetarians or vegans. Several of the meat eaters and 1 committed vegan were also given an 8-ounce steak, containing 180 mg of L-carnitine. The lab tests showed that consuming L-carnitine increased the level of TMAO in the blood, but meat eaters made far more TMAO than vegetarians or vegans.
Fecal studies also showed that meat eaters and vegetarians had different types of bacteria in their guts, and the meat eaters had more of the bacteria involved in breaking down L-carnitine into TMAO. This was confirmed by giving the volunteers antibiotics for one week to suppress the gut bacteria, then repeating the L-carnitine supplement experiment. With suppressed levels of gut bacteria, the volunteers produced very little TMAO.