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Why red meat is bad for the heart (and, no, it’s nothing to do with cholesterol)

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Too much red meat may be bad for our hearts—but it’s got nothing to do with fats and cholesterol.

The meat starts a sequence in the gut that has a bigger impact on cardiovascular disease than any other factor, say researchers at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science at Tufts University.

Meats such as beef, pork and venison produce metabolites—chemical byproducts of digestion—that can cause heart disease.  The biggest culprit is TMAO (trimethylamine N-oxide), which is produced by gut bacteria that digests red meat which, in turn, contains the chemical L-carnitine.

High levels of TMAO raises the risk of cardiovascular disease, chronic kidney disease and type 2 diabetes.  

The main focus down the years has been on saturated fats and cholesterol levels, says Meng Wang, one of the researchers, but TMAO could be a far bigger cause of heart disease, still the world’s leading cause of death.

The researchers assessed levels of metabolites in around 4,000 participants in the Cardiovascular Health Study, who were healthy and free of heart disease at the start of the trial.  

The researchers discovered that heart disease risk increased by 22 percent for every serving of red and processed meat in a day, and 10 percent of this increased risk was directly down to the levels of TMAO in the blood.

People with high blood sugar levels and inflammation could be especially susceptible to TMAO damage, the researchers think.

Fish, poultry, and eggs didn’t increase levels of TMAO.

Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology, 2022; doi: 10.1161/ATVBAHA.121.316533

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Article Topics: meat, nutrition
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