More Reasons to Avoid Red Meat

fiorentinaA diet rich in red meat – pork and bacon count too – has long been recognized as a risk factor for atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). The saturated fat content of lean red meat accounts for only some of the increase in heart risks. Carnitine, a compound found in red meat, may now be a culprit for additional risks, says Cleveland Clinic’s Heart and Vascular Institute’s Stan Hazen, MD, PhD, and his colleagues who did the research and authored the paper published on Sunday.

Carnitine gets its name from the Latin carnis, meaning “flesh,” because it is abundant in red meat; it is present at significantly lower levels in other forms of meat and dairy products. It is also sold in supplement form and found in some energy drinks. Carnitine may provide increased energy if taken in supplement form for a short period of time, but this new study suggests that long-term exposure to carnitine can lead to increased blood vessel hardening risk.

How you ask?

It has to do with the microbes that live in your gut – something called the “microbiome.” You have literally trillions of bacteria that live in your intestines and help you by aiding in digestion of food. Dr. Hazen’s study suggests that a diet with chronic exposure to meat, or carnitine, can shift the composition of the microbes within your gut toward those that are more prone to generate a metabolite that promotes heart disease. Comparison of omnivores (one that eats meat and animal products and plant-based foods) with vegans and vegetarians in the study showed dramatic differences in the microbiome and formation of the artery-clogging substance that helps LDL cholesterol deposit in your arteries’ walls.

How much red meat can you eat then without running into this problem?

“We don’t know,” says Dr. Hazen.

Other studies have suggested that occasional  meat eating, like once a month, doesn’t change the microbiome.

This new study, which included over 2,500 subjects, provides even more substantiation to the epidemiologic data published by Adam Bernstein MD, ScD and his colleagues at Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute, indicating that eating red meat more than once a week is associated with increased stroke risk, as well as other atherosclerotic processes like dementia, wrinkling, impotence and heart attacks.

What can you eat if you’re concerned about avoiding arterial disease? We’ve got solid proof that scrumptious foods like sun-ripened strawberries on oatmeal,  a handful of walnuts to get through that 4 o’clock slump, and grilled salmon, roasted veggies and a salad drizzled with olive oil for dinner can slash your risk for stroke and other cardiovascular disasters by a whopping 30%.

A recent headline-grabbing study from Spain overhauled the diets of 7,447 people. Two-thirds of the study participants followed heart-healthy Mediterranean diet plans – like Dr Oz’s and my recommendations in YOU: On a Diet (we have a revised edition out now) – plenty of produce, dried beans and fish, with an extra dose of good fats from olive oil or nuts. The study shows that the benefits of Mediterranean eating styles trump the typical fat-, sugar-, and chemical-laden North American diet – even if they were already taking medications for high cholesterol or high blood pressure.

Here are some additional guidelines, which Dr. Oz and I stand by:

Ban the five food felons. Skip all added sugars and all added syrups, any grain that isn’t 100% whole grain, and (most) saturated and trans fats. Those bad fats clog artery walls with plaque and fuel body-wide inflammation while added sugars, syrups and refined grains make blood sugar spike, crusting hemoglobin proteins in your red blood cells with sugar molecules. This damages artery walls, spurring plaque build-up.

Say “yes” to good fats. Aim for three servings of omega-3-rich fish every week and take 900mg of DHA omega-3 from algal oil daily. Also, olive and canola oil, chia and flax seed, avocado, and walnuts are loaded with good fats. Dr. Hazen especially likes extra virgin olive oil.

Get your carbs from veggies, fruits, whole grains, and low-fat dairy. Look for fast-cooking whole grains like barley, whole-wheat couscous and quinoa. And reserve half of your plate for veggies at lunch and dinner. Your brain and your heart will love you for it.

Get another “odd omega” every day. You’ve already heard plenty about DHA, the great-for-you omega-3 fatty acid in fatty fish and fish or algal oil capsules. And you know of olive oil, the odd omega-9. Now research from Harvard Medical School, the Cleveland Clinic, the University of Hawaii and Japan suggest that purified omega-7s (purified Palmitoleic Acid-a C16 monounsaturated fat) have amazing powers, too.

Limit red meat to less than 4 ounces a week. Maybe Dr. Hazen and colleagues will give you another approach in six months, but for now, red meat ages you. Enjoy olive oil, salmon and ocean trout, even skinless chicken and veggies, lots and lots of veggies.