Carnitine, Red Meat, TMAO & CVD
This is red meat week!
If you haven’t heard about it by now, a new paper was released this week looking at the link between carnitine, gut bacteria, a molecule called TMAO, and atherosclerosis. The multi-part study was performed by researchers at the Cleveland Clinic, among other places, and was reported in the New York Times, Culprit in Heart Disease Goes Beyond Meat’s Fat, and today’s episode of Science Friday, Red Meat’s Heart Risk Goes Beyond the Fat (1).
The Science Friday episode is 13 minutes long and is a good overview of the research, though I will go over it here briefly.
Carnitine is an amino acid (but not a protein amino acid) that is used by the body to transport fatty acids into the cell’s mitochondria to be burned as energy. For this reason, there have been many trials of carnitine supplementation with hopes that it could increase fat loss and related conditions. The trails have been mixed (1). In food, carnitine is found in the highest amounts in beef (56-162 mg per 4 oz serving according to the NIH), while other foods have much lower amounts (a chicken breast has only 3-5 mg per 4 oz).
While humans can produce carnitine, and most people can produce all they need, only bacteria can break it down (1). Some bacteria convert carnitine into a molecule called trimethylamine (TMA) and when this happens, the liver converts TMA to trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO).
In 2011, in the VeganHealth.org article, Choline, I reported on a study by this same group of researchers that indicated that the metabolism of choline, by gut bacteria and then the liver, results in TMAO. The researchers found that high blood levels of TMAO were associated with cardiovascular disease.
This time, they studied carnitine rather than choline, and they came to a similar conclusions. They also found that vegetarians do not have the bacteria in their guts needed to produce TMAO out of carnitine; not that this really matters given that we eat little to no carnitine.
Based on their studies using mice , the researchers believe that TMAO prevents the metabolism of cholesterol by the liver and diverts it to the blood vessels where it becomes plaque.
In my series Of Meat and Mortality, I did not mention that the Harvard study found that saturated fat and cholesterol in red meat only moderately accounted for the increase in cardiovascular disease associated with red meat. This theory about TMAO causing heart disease might explain the finding by Harvard and also help explain why poultry has not had an association with mortality from cardiovascular disease while red meat has.
This is not the final word on carnitine and heart disease and it will be interesting to see what future research shows.
1. Koeth RA, Wang Z, Levison BS, Buffa JA, Org E, Sheehy BT, Britt EB, Fu X, Wu Y, Li L, Smith JD, Didonato JA, Chen J, Li H, Wu GD, Lewis JD, Warrier M, Brown JM, Krauss RM, Tang WH, Bushman FD, Lusis AJ, Hazen SL. Intestinal microbiota metabolism of l-carnitine, a nutrient in red meat, promotes atherosclerosis. Nat Med. 2013 Apr 7. doi: 10.1038/nm.3145. [Epub ahead of print] | link