Red meat has had a place in the lineup of suspect foods for a long time, right next to other culprits like soda pop, refined white flours and hydrogenated oils.
Nearly a decade ago, its potential health impact on Americans was
well publicized. Health experts linked red meat to cancer and heart disease. Red meat was already linked to colon cancer when it took another hit in 1996 with a study linking it to a certain type of lymph cancer in some women. Some studies have suggested that high consumption of well-done, fried, or barbecued meats is associated with increased risks of colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancer.
There’s ample evidence, however, that Americans are not getting the message. Or if they are, many of us are choosing to reach for a grilling utensil and not a handful of fruits and vegetables.
U.S. production of red meat will continue to rise through this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. Theories vary about this increase in production (and thus consumption), from abundant supplies to a healthy economy. There was a time when it took special occasions to allow for the splurge of eating red meat in American households.
Last December, however, seemed to offer an opportunity for healthy eating advocates to raise a hand to say, “halt.”
Once again, researchers were saying that red meat consumption could lead to heart disease. But perhaps more than ever before, data presented strong evidence of the connection.
A study conducted by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) showed that people who eat red meat produce more of a chemical called TMAO — trimethylamine N-oxide — which has been linked to heart disease. TMAO is a chemical byproduct derived in part from nutrients found in red meat.
People who eat a diet rich in red meat have three times the TMAO levels compared to vegetarians or people who eat only white meat such as chicken, the study said. While high saturated fat levels in red meat have long been known to contribute to heart disease — the leading cause of death in the United States — a growing number of studies have identified TMAO as another culprit.
But the research also offered a path to redemption for red meat eaters: It found that halting the consumption of dietary red meat reduced plasma TMAO within four weeks, which suggests in general that changing your diet for the better can have a significant effect on TMAO levels.
Another researcher who participated in the study also suggested an eating plan that offered a modest modification in eating habits — not cutting out red meat entirely but limiting its consumption. “These findings reinforce current dietary recommendations that encourage all ages to follow a heart-healthy eating plan that limits red meat,” said Charlotte Pratt, Ph.D., the study's NHLBI project officer and a nutrition researcher. “This means eating a variety of foods, including more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy foods, and plant-based protein sources such as beans and peas.”
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.
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