We know that red meat and hearts don't get along, but we're only just beginning to understand what happens in the body that leads to conditions like heart disease and stroke. New research from the Cleveland Clinic has added to our body of knowledge by showing that it all starts in the gut.
According to the study, which was published in Cell Metabolism, red meat can harm the heart because of the way gut bacteria breaks down one of its nutrients, L-carnitine. Once L-carnitine is ingested, the gut bacteria converts it into a dangerous metabolite, gamma-butyrobetaine, which in turn produces TMAO, a driver of plaque formation that had previously been shown to be harmful in meat-eaters. In other words, through a chain of events, gut bacteria produces a compound that can clog our arteries.
So what does this mean in terms of prevention? If we know the process starts in the gut, can we stop it there? Lead researcher Dr. Stanley Hazen thinks we're on our way with this new discovery — potentially "by inhibiting various bacterial enzymes or shifting gut bacterial composition with probiotics and other treatments," he said in a press release.
"The findings identify the pathways and participants involved more clearly, and help identify targets for therapies for interventions to block or prevent heart disease development.
"While this is into the future, the present studies may help us to develop an intervention that allows one to 'have their steak and eat it too' with less concern for developing heart disease."
Dr. Hazen also cautions people against taking supplements with gamma-butyrobetaine, which is a common compound found in fat-burning and body-building products — yet another reason to stay far away from dietary supplements.
If you have frequent, insatiable cravings for a fat, juicy steak, we're sorry to say that you should still keep your red meat-eating in check — at least until scientists find a way to inhibit one specific enzyme in bacteria without side effects. And, as always, be sure to eat lots of leafy greens to promote beneficial bacteria in the gut.