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By Dr. Mercola
Nearly 100 trillion bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microorganisms compose your body’s microflora, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that these tiny organisms play a major role in your health.
Gut microbes are particularly prominent in the news lately, and one of the most talked-about studies suggests bacteria in your gut may play a role in your risk of heart disease through a surprising mechanism: the breakdown of a widely consumed compound in protein known as L-carnitine.
As a result, the media has mounted a virtual campaign warning that red meat eaters may be at higher risk of heart disease. But does the research really back up that claim? Some nutritional experts disagree, pointing out the many weaknesses in the study, and why giving up meat to prevent heart disease may be premature, if not downright wrong.
This 6 person study may be one of the worst and most publicized since last year's media attack stating eggs were as bad for you as smoking.
Microflora Composition--A New Explanation for the Link Between Red Meat and Heart Disease?
It’s widely stated that eating red meat causes heart disease, an association that is often blamed (incorrectly) on its impact on cholesterol levels. Yet, research has repeatedly shown that the dietary cholesterol-heart disease connection is incorrect.
So while the featured study may offer intriguing clues to the importance of gut bacteria, and how gut bacteria is influenced by your diet, it’s doubtful that this latest hypothesis linking heart disease to red meat consumption via another pathway is entirely correct.
For example, a 2010 study from Harvard found no evidence that eating red meats leads to heart disease.
That said, the featured study published in Nature Medicine claims to shed some light on why some people who eat red meat develop heart disease while others do not – and the reason may come down to differences in gut bacteria.
The study, by researchers from the Cleveland Clinic, found that human gut bacteria can metabolize L-carnitine, a substance found in red meat, energy drinks and dietary supplements, and in so doing produce a byproduct called trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO). TMAO is thought to encourage fatty plaque deposits to form within arteries (atherosclerosis), and therefore, the more TMAO you have in your blood the greater your risk of heart disease might be.
Interestingly, people with diets high in L-carnitine, i.e. meat eaters, had a gut microbe composition that was more prone to forming TMAO, while vegetarians and vegans did not. Even after consuming large amounts of L-carnitine in a steak or supplement, the vegetarians and vegans in the study did not produce significant amounts of TMAO.
This, the authors believe, means that eating red meat alters your gut flora in a way that predisposes your body toward TMAO production, and subsequently, heart disease. This was confirmed by giving the omnivores a course of antibiotics, after which they did not produce TMAO. Stanley Hazen, MD, PhD, the study’s lead author, said in a statement:
“The bacteria living in our digestive tracts are dictated by our long-term dietary patterns… A diet high in carnitine actually shifts our gut microbe composition to those that like carnitine, making meat eaters even more susceptible to forming TMAO and its artery-clogging effects.”
Is Red Meat Being Inaccurately Singled Out as a Heart Disease Promoter?
The latest study is not the first to link gut bacteria to heart disease. In 2011, the same researchers, Hazen and colleagues, used data from nearly 2,000 people and showed that when the bacteria in your gut break down lecithin, a type of fat found in meat, eggs, dairy and other animal foods along with baked goods and dietary supplements, and its metabolite choline, it also leads to the creation of TMAO and, subsequently, increases your risk of heart disease.
In response to this and the current study, many have wondered whether red meat and other animal foods, along with supplements containing L-carnitine, lecithin or choline should be avoided. Chris Masterjohn PhD, who is currently researching fat-soluble supplements at the University of Illinois, rebutted the 2011 findings stating:
“...previous studies have shown that supplements with salts of free choline do in fact generate TMAO, but uncontaminated phosphatidylcholine, the main form of choline found in food, does not. Moreover, choline-rich foods like liver and eggs did not produce more TMAO than a control breakfast, but seafood, which is generally contaminated with some trimethylamine or TMAO, did.”
Masterjohn also disagrees with the group’s latest findings, in which the researchers claim that carnitine in red meat contributes to heart disease via the same pathway, i.e. the creation of TMAO. According to Masterjohn, incomplete reporting of data in the paper combined with “wild runaway inferences” by the press has generated a grossly misleading picture of red meat’s impact on heart disease, while simultaneously ignoring the food group that actually generates the most TMAO.
He points out that red meat is only one of many foods that increases TMAO when eaten, and cites data from a 1999 study that evaluated TMAO excretion following consumption of 46 different foods, which shows that red meat generated no more TMAO than fruits and vegetables. In fact, some veggies, such as peas, cauliflower and carrots generated more TMAO than beef did! Still, none of the foods generated TMAO at levels that were statistically different from the control.
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