Carnitine in red meat: a new health concern?

When I have asked clients what makes up a heart-healthy diet, I have often heard statements about eating less red meat and replacing it with fish or chicken and lots of vegetables.

When I ask why they single out red meat, the reason often is that red meat is high in cholesterol and/or saturated fat, or that red meat is simply not healthy to eat. Is this true or just another diet myth?

Recent studies suggest that indeed red meat may be bad for one’s heart, but not because of the fat or cholesterol. The new bad boy on the block is carnitine.

Wait. Carnitine?

L-carnitine is a substance found in red meat that is eventually metabolized or broken down by bacteria in the intestinal tract. During the digestion of L-carnitine, other compounds are formed that are thought to increase the risk of cholesterol build-up in the arteries.

The research into carnitine comes from a group led by Dr. Stanley Hazen and Robert Koeth of the Lerner Research Institute and the Miller Family Heart and Vascular Institute at Cleveland Clinic. Their work was published first in Nature Medicine  and most recently in Cell Metabolism

Although the research may seem to cast a disparaging light on carnitine, this compound has important roles in the body. For one, carnitine takes certain fats to the part of the cell called the mitochondria, the little power plates in our cells that process nutrients for energy.

Another job of carnitine is to transport toxic substances out of the mitochondria. Mother Nature was good to us in that we make plenty of carnitine in our kidneys and liver without needing it from food.

The research on red meat and carnitine that suggests an association with heart problems is interesting. According to Dr. Mozaffarian at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, though, the association between red unprocessed meat and heart disease is weak.  However, salty processed meats, such as cold cuts, sausage, and bacon, show a greater degree of harm than the unprocessed red meats. And this is not a new finding.

So what is a meat-lover to do when even the experts are not sure of these new findings?

If you are concerned about heart disease, limit portion size to 3 ounces of meat per person and include more fowl and fish in your weekly meal plans. Increase the number of servings of vegetables to decrease overall fat and increase fiber, two other ways to protect your heart and overall health. Low-fat and fat-free diary along with legumes and other vegetarian options can help provide protein as your meat consumption decreases.

What color is your fat?

Did you know that the fat that we eat is an actual nutrient, being a concentrated source of energy (meaning calories) and helping our bodies absorb the fat-soluble vitamins including D, E, and K?  Fat can also be considered an organ serving to insulate our body, release hormones, and protect bones, nerves, and organs.

There are different types of fat, or adipose tissue, in our bodies.  Fat can be defined by where it is in the body such as visceral or abdominal fat, the type that also surrounds our organs.  The body also has subcutaneous fat, the type of fat that is beneath the skin.  Fat is also classified by color: white, brown, and beige.

White fat it the stuff that just sits there, making our jeans feel tight.  Its role is to store energy and produce hormones.

Brown fat has enjoyed an increasingly positive reputation.  Thin individuals tend to have more of this fat than those who are overweight as do those who live in northern climates. Brown fat is desirable because it burns calories stored in white fat.

Babies have the most brown fat of all ages and this fat helps to keep them warm.  We lose brown fat as we get older.  Shivering increases the activity of this fat as will sleeping in a cool bedroom.

Research is ongoing to determine how to activate the brown fat to burn more white fat or increase the amount in the body.

The newest member of the fat family is beige fat. This fat also burns energy or calories stored in white fat.  But just like brown fat, beige fat is not found in large amounts in adults.  Could there be a way to turn white fat into the calorie-burning darker fats?

Researchers are working on that idea in animal models. By increasing the amount of beige and brown fats we might be able to reduce belly fat and the deep fat that accumulates between and around our organs.  This in turn could lead to decreased obesity and chronic conditions such as diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, and inflammation.

The research is in its infancy, and results are limited to animal studies.  But what an intriguing idea and one filled with hope for improved health.

Starting the New Year with a healthy breakfast

What, another post on breakfast?  Yes.  My opinion is that breakfast is a great way to start your day, and it doesn’t have to be time-consuming or detailed in prep.

As a registered dietitian, I have heard many reasons for not partaking in the traditional first meal of the day. Non-breakfast eaters claim that they are not hungry, too rushed, on a diet, out of the habit, sticking to coffee or colas, opting for a doughnut at work, or eating an early lunch.

These reasons do not necessarily mean that people think breakfast is not important. Busy lifestyles and numerous responsibilities just get in the way of a sit-down morning meal.

So what is so great about starting the day breakfast anyway?

  • First of all, for most people, it has been several hours since the previous day’s dinner or evening snack. Because of this fast, blood sugars will be low in the morning, especially in children whose smaller bodies store less blood sugar. Without a morning meal to replenish the body, one may feel sluggish or have trouble concentrating. Breakfast helps to prime to body and mind to meet the challenges of the day.
  • In addition to low blood sugars, skipping breakfast reduces the amount of other important nutrients in the diet such as calcium from dairy products, vitamin C from fruit or juice, and fiber from whole grains.
  • The wake-up jolt from caffeinated and/or sugared coffee and colas is soon gone. When hunger strikes, you may be tempted to eat the first thing you can find, which could be the donuts in the office cafeteria or the candy bar in the vending machine. Clearly, not the best use of calories.
  • Then when lunch time does roll around some may overeat due to extreme hunger or from overestimating the calories supposedly saved by not eating breakfast. Eating a healthy breakfast, though, can help reduce hunger and the tendency to overeat.

To make breakfast a healthy habit, have a plan. Set the morning alarms so that you and the family have enough time to eat without rushing. Organize breakfast when cleaning up after dinner so things go smoothly in the morning. Put out glasses for juice, and bowls and spoons for cereal.

If a hot cereal is a family favorite, try making oatmeal overnight in the Crockpot. This is an inexpensive, low-maintenance, and heart-healthy start to the morning.

Have easy-to-grab foods including individual yogurt containers, bananas, Clementines, and whole wheat bagels available for busy mornings. For variety, try non-traditional foods such as cold pizza, mac and cheese, or apple slices with peanut butter.

Depending on the age, children can help with meal suggestions, preparation, and evening set-up. Make breakfast a fun, family affair, and a way to develop health eating habits.

Breakfast is an important meal in your day. Eating a healthy breakfast can increase energy, provide needed nutrients, and help keep those extra pounds off.

For more suggestions, click on the links provided or visit the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.