A new link between red meat and heart disease

A simple illustration of a cheeseburger on a blue background.

Jan. 7, 2019—Too much red meat isn't good for our health. That's old news to most of us. But a new study shows yet another reason to limit how many burgers and steaks you enjoy—and it all comes back to your heart.

Researchers found that people who eat red meat regularly have higher levels of trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO), a chemical produced in the gut. In fact, they had triple the amount of TMAO compared with those who ate a diet with more white meat or plant-based proteins.

And TMAO is linked to heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States.

Too much is not a good thing

The study looked at 113 healthy men and women in a clinical trial and examined the effect of eating protein on TMAO production. The three test diets included red meat, white meat or non-meat protein. Each of the participants ate each diet for a month in a random order.

On the red meat diet, participants ate the equivalent of 8 ounces of steak each day (or about two quarter-pound beef patties). After a month, their levels of TMAO had tripled compared to months when they ate the white meat or non-meat diets. These results were independent of the participants' fat intake. They were also reversible—TMAO levels dropped significantly once again when participants moved to the white meat or no-meat diets.

An author of the study, published in European Heart Journal, estimated that up to a quarter of middle-aged Americans may have naturally elevated TMAO levels. And this is only made worse by eating red meat regularly.

What can you do?

The good news is you can bring your TMAO levels down by limiting red meat. Researchers suggest that doctors should proactively measure patients' TMAO with a simple blood test, to help them better understand your heart disease risk. Because everyone's TMAO "profile" is different, tracking the chemical could help doctors better prescribe medicine and diet recommendations for each person.

Eating a heart-healthy diet that limits red meat can go a long way toward preventing heart disease, no matter your risk level. This means adding more of the following to your diet:

  • Vegetables.
  • Fruits.
  • Whole grains.
  • Low-fat dairy.
  • Plant-based proteins like beans and peas.

It's never too late to work toward better hearth health. Want to take steps to lower your risk of heart disease? Learn more in this infographic on heart risks you can change.

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