One of the most rewarding aspects of spreading the word on fitness and nutrition is when readers who were formerly stuck on the standard Western diet start to educate themselves on food as fuel and medicine and then share with me the new and exciting research they’ve come across. Much to my surprise (and delight), last night I received an article from one of my buddies at the gym who has been a tough sell in getting him to consider food differently, particularly the vegan alternative. When I saw “meat” in the title of the article, I immediately presumed it was some obscure, anecdotal piece touting the benefits of being a carnivore. As it turns out, it contained a credible, huge wake-up call to the medical community, with the most recent research suggesting that the sinister ingredient behind the disproportionately high incidence of heart disease among meat-eaters could be a digestive by-product chemical called TMAO (Trimethylamine N-oxide). It has been generally accepted that the saturated fat and cholesterol in meat were the culprits, but the relationship between heart disease and TMAO in the bloodstream is ten times greater!
In the Sunday New York Times, Gina Colata (why does that name make me think of pineapple and coconut?) reported on the new findings by Dr. Stanley Hazen of the Cleveland Clinic and it has heart specialists around the country buzzing. In a nutshell, it turns out that carnitine in red meat, also prevalent in chicken, fish and dairy products, acts as food for a very special bacteria in the gut. This particular bacteria then spits out the TMAO which invades the bloodstream. The TMAO then has a double-whammy effect in that it interferes with the normal mechanisms that remove excess cholesterol from our bodies and actually helps usher the cholesterol into the arteries and veins. The study has raised some serious concerns about the sports drinks that also have significant levels of carnitine.
A fascinating aspect of the study was that when the researchers fed a big juicy steak to volunteer vegans and vegetarians, unlike with regular meat-eaters, there was no spike in TMAO in their bloodstream after the meal. This led the investigators to conclude that the vegans and vegetarians did not have the particular bacteria in the gut responsible for digesting the carnitine and producing TMAO. The bad news for meat-eaters is that regardless of cholesterol levels, the real predictor for heart attacks is TMAO in the blood, which spikes every time a carnivore has a meal including animal products. You can read the complete New York Times article here.