East Jefferson General Hospital

Red meat consumers take note: according to a recent study published in the Archive of Internal Medicine, "eating red meat is associated with a sharply increased risk of death from cancer and heart disease."

Featured recently in The New York Times, this study was comprised of 121,342 men and women who were evaluated via questionnaire from 1980 through 2006. During this period 23,926 people from the group in question died — 5,910 suffered from cardiovascular disease, while 9,464 succumbed to cancer.

It was found that those who consumed larger (and more than occasional) portions of red meat "were less physically active and more likely to smoke and had a higher body mass index (BMI)." In fact, it was determined that daily increase of three ounces of red meat "was associated with a 12 percent greater risk of dying...including a 16 percent greater risk of cardiovascular death and a 10 percent greater risk of (death by cancer)."

While higher red meat consumption has long been associated with mortality, these new findings suggest that the risk is even greater than previously alleged. More so, researchers believe, "if the people in the study had eaten half as much (red) meat...deaths in the group would have declined 9.3 percent in men and 7.6 percent in women."

More recently in the April 7, 2013, online publication Nature Medicine, as reported on heart.org "that people who regularly eat red meat have an increased colonization of intestinal bacteria that break down the carnitine (an amino acid plentiful in red meat) into a metabolite that promotes increased cholesterol deposition in the artery wall."

When carnitine is digested in the stomach (after red meat consumption), it metabolizes in the liver, thus converting to Trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO), which has long been regarded as a "trigger of heart disease."

Cleveland Clinic researchers selected 51 omnivores (meat eaters) and 23 vegetarians and vegans, all of whom were requested to consume red meat (a sirloin steak). The evaluation concluded that TMAO almost doubled in regular meat eaters just a few hours after consumption. However, no TMAO was found in the vegetarians and vegan consumers, suggesting, "prolonged consumption of red meat increased the risk of developing heart disease."

In a study testing the impact of TMAO in mice, it was concluded that the development of atherosclerosis — caused by high levels of triglycerides (fat content in blood) and cholesterol — accelerated rapidly.

Not to muddy the waters but in the same week that the Nature Medicine article appeared, a separate study published online in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings and again reported on heart.org said, "a meta-analysis (13 controlled trials) concluded that including L-carnitine among other therapies given in the acute setting for MI (myocardial infarction) appears to significantly cut all-cause mortality and lead to fewer angina symptoms and ventricular arrhythmias." It goes without saying that more studies are needed to investigate this matter.

And, just yesterday in The New York Times, I read the following headline, "eggs too, may provoke bacteria to raise heart disease risk." The study the Times referenced appeared in the Wednesday issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. "In the case of eggs, the chain of events starts when the body digests lecithin (found in eggs) and breaks it into its constituent parts, including the chemical choline. Intestinal bacteria metabolize choline and release a substance that the liver converts to a chemical called TMAO (where have we heard that substance before). High levels of TMAO in the blood are linked to increased risk of heart disease and stroke."

As you can see the real culprit is TMAO, which is produced by gut flora, as a result of specific nutrients in red meat and eggs. It would seem prudent to be moderate in the consumption of red meat and eggs and back it up with probiotics like plain low fat yogurt, which promotes the creation of gut friendly bacteria. And a researcher at Brigham and Woman's Hospital agrees with me. "People might take probiotics to help grow bacteria that do not lead to increase in TMAO."

The American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR) has warned, "Eating more than 18 ounces of red meat per week increases the risk of colorectal cancer." Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer among adults worldwide, according to the AICR, and approximately 150,000 new cases are diagnosed annually, contributing to 50,000 deaths per year.

While early detection does save lives, it has been recommended that physical activity and sporadic consumption of processed and red meats can prevent the disease. I have not consumed red meat in over 33 years (and counting) as a result of this very reason.

Additionally, an increase in dietary fiber is "associated with a probable decrease in colorectal cancer." Researchers advise up to 30 grams of fiber a day for prevention. This amount of fiber can be found in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans."

The AICR recommends, "Beginning at age 50, you should have screening tests performed, even if you have no symptoms of colorectal cancer."

Red meat is a common dish found on most menus, and it is OK to consume, but it's important to practice moderation. Keep your diet in check, visit your doctor regularly, stay active, and enjoy a long, healthy life — I know I will! I pray.