Let me preface this blog by saying that I grew up eating a lot of red meat and like it as much as any one, but I’ve cut way back on my consumption of it over the past several years because of the chatter about its negative role in health issues. This is why a couple of recent articles concerning health and consumption of red meat caught my eye, and I think they are worthy of a further look. The first, an NBC News report in April reported that “researchers believe they have found a new link between the consumption of red meat and heart disease, and that link is called carnitine.” Heart disease joins the list of other health issues linked to red meat in recent years: Cancer, diabetes, and stroke. Yet Americans still eat more red meat (beef, pork, lamb, and veal) than poultry and seafood combined. Here’s some food for thought. So what is carnitine, and how did researchers zero in on it? Stanley Hazen, of the Cleveland Clinic, says “we’ve long recognized that two individuals could have the same LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol, but on develops heart disease and the other doesn’t-this started the hunt.” “First we said, ‘et’s look at all the compounds in blood that differ between people with heart disease and those who don’t, “says Hazen. “And we discovered that TAO was one of top things that tracked with risk.” So where does TMAO come from? When bacteria in our gut “eat” carnitine or choline, they make TMA (trimethylamine), which gets converted to TMAO (trimethylamine-N-oxide) in the liver. Carnitine is found largely in red meat. Egg yolks and liver have the highest levels of choline, but it’s also found in meat poultry fish, grains, veges, and other foods. You can’t get away from choline-it’s in everything, and you do need some in the diet-if you get none, you’d get a deficiency. Until more is known, you can hedge your bet by cutting back on red meat and ditching supplements of carnitine, choline, or lecithin (unless you’ve been instructed by your physician to take carnitine, which can happen with mitochondrial disorders or with long-term kidney dialysis). Hazen and colleagues at the Cleveland Clinic believe that carnitine leads to accelerated atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. Red meat can also contain N-nitroso compounds by using nitrates to color and preserve processed meats like bacon, sausage, and lunch meats. N-nitroso compounds cause cancer in laboratory animals. This might explain why processed-meat eaters have a higher risk of colorectal cancer. Amanda Cross of the National Cancer Institute cites a joint 2011 study by the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund, showing colon and rectal cancer risk rises by about 20% for every serving of red or processed meat you eat per day. Since 2002, the American Cancer Society has been advising Americans to limit consumption of red and processed meat to no more than 18 oz. (cooked weight) per week. An excellent cover story article in the June 2013 issue of Nutrition Action goes into great detail on the health issues and corresponding studies involving red meat.

In a second, somewhat related article, published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, was cited in today’s (6/4/13) issue of the Wall Street Journal. Green Is Good: Vegetarians Live Longer, Study Finds. The authors tracked 73,308 members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church for almost six years. Vegetarians in the study experienced 12% fewer deaths over the period. Dietary choices appeared to play a big role in protecting the participants from heart disease, from which vegetarians were 19% less likely to die than meat-eaters. Calorie intake didn’t seem to matter, and the advantage was stronger in men than women. There was no difference between the vegans and meat-eaters in terms of cancer occurrence.

I will continue to eat some red meat, but limit myself and family to once or twice a week, eating grass-fed, organic meat if I have control over it. It makes eating out a challenge, but my/our health is worth it. You decide for yourself.

Stay well, John R Blilie, M.S.