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The case against red meat continues to build: A new study reports that a nutrient found in steaks, egg yolks, and other animal products can activate certain microbes in the gut, spurring physiological changes that increase the danger of blood clots and heart attacks.

The nitty-gritty:

The research, published Thursday in Cell, drew on clinical studies of more than 4,000 patients as well as animal studies. It found that microbes in the gut use a nutrient called choline, which is found in high-cholesterol foods, to produce a compound known as trimethylamine N-oxide, or TMAO. The compound hyperactivates blood platelets and alters arterial walls, increasing the risk of the blood clots and blockages that cause strokes and heart attacks.


Why it matters:

The study follows up on previous work that found an association between increased TMAO in blood plasma and the incidence of cardiovascular events. This new information strengthens evidence of a link between consumption of red meat and other cholesterol-rich foods and the risk of heart attack or stroke.

But keep in mind:

The microbes involved may sound like “bad” bacteria, but you can’t oust them from your gut by gobbling down supplements filled with “good” bacteria. “I don’t think people need to go to the store and just take anything that says ‘probiotics,’” said Dr. Stanley Hazen, a molecular biologist at the Cleveland Clinic who led the study. “Even if you are the most ardent vegan eating a cucumber, you’ll still have these bacteria. They’re just suppressed until you feed them choline.”

Also, it’s not as though choline is a villain. “We need it for brain and liver function,” said Carolyn Slupsky, a professor of nutrition and food science at the University of California-Davis who was not involved in the research.


Her takeaway from this study? “We still don’t understand food very well.”

Next steps:

This research opens up the possibility for new heart disease treatments. “If we can develop a drug that blocks the bacteria’s ability to use choline to make TMAO,” said Hazen, “we might be able to use a drug like this for heart disease.”