It isn’t news that eating red meat can cause heart disease, but this part is new: if a vegetarian or vegan were to eat red meat, the meal would not trigger the process that causes disease because their bodies are different than meat-eaters’ bodies, according to a 2013 study. It turns out that it isn’t the fat or salt in red meat that kill; it’s the way meat changes the human body’s composition, resulting in hardened arteries. Let’s call it Revenge of the Cow.
The Revenge begins with L-carnitine, a chemical found in red meat. When a meat-eater’s gut microbes get hold of it, they work together to produce trimethylamine N-oxide, which, mercifully, is known by its initials: TMAO. It is TMAO that hardens arteries. High levels of it are “a solid warning sign of a potential heart attack or stroke,” says Advocate Health Care.
Long-established vegetarians and vegans’ microbes didn’t produce much TMAO at all when they ate red meat. The researchers concluded that non-meat eaters have a different mix of intestinal bacteria than meat-eaters do, and they are short on the one that makes TMAO. That is because L-carnitine changes the human gut’s demographics by increasing the number of bacteria that like it and partner with it to make TMAO. Without L-carnitine, those troublesome microbes don’t thrive.
It’s ironic. Meat-eaters warn me that my vegan diet will change my body in dangerous ways: They claim that my bones will get weaker, I’ll have less energy, I won’t be able to build muscle mass, and on and on. It turns out that all the while meat is changing their bodies for the worse — for one thing, besides the heart disease, processed and fatty meats are aging their bodies prematurely. In the meantime studies show that my diet is only boosting my health. Besides the oft-touted ease of weight loss on a healthy vegan diet and the resistance to many terminal illnesses, it makes me happier because it contains less arachidonic acid than animal products do, and arachidonic acid brings people down.
The study that revealed the Revenge of the Cows yielded a tool that will help doctors. They can measure patients’ TMAO levels to determine their risk of heart disease and make recommendations accordingly. That benefit got the study a spot on the American Heart Association’s 2013 list of top 10 advances in heart disease and stroke science.
And yet the AHA still won’t recommend not eating meat. It recommends cutting back on foods that are high in cholesterol, but that doesn’t mean cutting all animal products out of the diet. To the contrary, the AHA’s advice is to keep cholesterol to 300 mg a day — not zero. Only animal products contain cholesterol — there is none in vegan food — so this is a recommendation to continue eating meat, dairy and eggs.
The AHA specifically recommends eating lean meat, but, as LiveStrong contends, that doesn’t exclude red meat. It just means choosing to eat bisons’, ostriches’, or deers’ bodies over those of cows.
Are ostrich burgers really worth risking a heart attack for?