Heart disease is as old as civilization itself. Analysis of the mummies of ancient Egypt found that they too suffered hardening of the arteries, or atherosclerosis. It is a part of aging. However, there are things you can do to reduce high cholesterol and slow down heart disease. Recent research has unveiled the role of red meats and sugar, particularly fructose, in the development of heart disease and high cholesterol.
Cardiac arrest is most commonly caused the formation of plaques within the heart’s arteries. Plaque comprises a mix of calcium, cholesterol, fat, and other substances naturally found in the blood. As plaque accumulates, it may rupture, which results in clot formation and the narrowing of arteries. This blocks blood flow and actually causes part of the heart muscle to die, resulting in a heart attack.1
Plaque formation can come from a variety of different factors, but it is most often caused by consuming too many animal products and consuming too much fructose-containing sugars.
Animal Products and TMAO
Animal products, most prominently red meat, contributes to atherosclerosis through the production of trimethylane N-oxide (TMAO). TMAO is a byproduct formed by gut bacteria when digesting choline, carnitine, and lecithin, nutrients that are commonly found in animal products. Chronic red meat consumption was found to enhance the production of TMAO by gut bacteria while reducing the kidney’s ability to efficiently expel or eliminate it. High TMAO levels in the blood have been linked to the development of cardiovascular diseases, including stroke and heart disease.2
However, with that said, TMAO-rich seafood is an important source of protein and nutrients, particularly in the Mediterranean diet, a diet plan that is generally considered beneficial to the circulatory system. This suggests that TMAO may only be part of the picture.3
What the Research Reveals
In one study, 113 participants were sequentially provided with three different meal plans: red meat, white meat, and non-meat. Researcher employed a wash out period between each meal plan. After one month on the red meat diet, a majority of the participants had elevated TMAO levels in their blood and urine. On average, the participants saw a 3x increase in TMAO, but some saw a ten-fold increase in their TMAO levels. Subjects that ceased the red meat diet reduced their TMAO levels over the next month.2
The Role of Sugar in Heart Disease
Fructose is one of the most common types of sugar in the modern world, easily found in table sugar and high fructose corn syrup. However, fructose consumption has been associated with heart disease in addition to diabetes and obesity. One study found that a diet high in fructose and cholesterol increased chemical markers for atherosclerosis in rabbits.4
Fructose’s effect on cardiovascular health is multifaceted. Studies show that excessive fructose intake may induce metabolic syndrome. In a randomized, controlled trial of 74 men, researchers gave subjects 200 grams of fructose every day for a period of two weeks. Results of the study found that ingestion of fructose resulted in increased blood pressure and induced features of metabolic syndrome, including increased triglyceride levels, reduced HDL (good) cholesterol levels, and increased insulin resistance, all of which can contribute to atherosclerosis.5
High fructose intake has also been found to increase advanced glycation end products (AGEs). AGEs can also cause dysfunction in macrophages, a type of white blood cell. These dysfunctional macrophages can contribute to plaque formation and thrombosis upon entering the arterial wall.6
Sugars contribute to the formation of AGEs and the two most common sugars are glucose and fructose. Fructose is less stable than glucose and therefore more reactive. Despite fructose having a plasma concentration just one percent that of glucose, it forms AGEs at 10 times the rate of glucose.7
Tips for Preventing Atherosclerosis
Given the above information, reducing your pork and red meat intake may help to prevent high TMAO levels, thereby reducing your risk of atherosclerosis. You should also reduce your fructose intake. Fructose is commonly found in table sugar and honey, but often the larger danger is the accumulation of sugar that gets added to highly processed foods, sugary sodas, and junk food, usually in the form of high fructose corn syrup.
Along with changes to your diet, make sure you get some exercise. At least 40 minutes of moderate aerobic activity three to four days per week can go a long way to keeping your heart healthy.8 Regular exercise can help to:
- Burn fat
- Lower blood pressure
- Reduce cholesterol
- Manage stress
If you are a smoker, consider quitting. Cigarettes are one of the most common contributors to heart attacks at early ages. That’s because the toxins in tobacco smoke cause direct damage to the lining of the arteries.8
Maintaining your cardiovascular health isn’t a secret. The recommended course of action for a healthy heart still involves maintaining regular physical activity and a diet that is high in fruit and vegetables and low in animal products, sugar, and processed foods.
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